I went to your funeral yesterday. I cannot begin to describe what a shock it was to get the phone call this week telling me that you ended your life. You made a tremendous recovery from your recent heart attacks, started volunteering in the community, and had even taken up a new hobby—writing. Everything looked like you planned to be around for as long as possible.
We met in college. I was a traditional-aged student and you were in your late forties. We hit it off very quickly. You never had a child and I was struggling with my relationship with my father, so we “adopted” each other as honorary father and son. Without your support and encouragement I likely wouldn’t have graduated from college. I am now a college professor. A great deal of my success is thanks to your support and the example you showed by returning to school to finish the degree you had started decades earlier. You wouldn’t let go of the dream of completing your education.
You had a much worse relationship with your father than I did. Your father beat and abused your entire family before dying when he was in his thirties and you were a teenager. In all the years since his death you were haunted by the abuse you endured. You spoke about it regularly and had trouble letting go and living in the present. This seriously impacted many of your relationships for the rest of your life. Your divorce a few years ago was largely a result of your struggle to be fully present in the here-and-now. Your wife just couldn’t listen to the old stories from your childhood any more. You were both good people, but she couldn’t continue living in the shadow of the abuse you endured from a man who had been dead for more than 50 years.
The writing you took up recently focused primarily on telling stories of your troubled childhood. You wanted everyone to read them while you watched. This was awkward, because no one knew how to react while reading graphic details of unimaginable child abuse, as well as the details of your divorce. You wrote exhaustively, had a few public readings, and hoped to be published one day. You were proud of your new pastime. I was pleased that you found a new creative outlet, but was concerned about your fixation on the past. We had talked about that for years. We couldn’t agree about whether or not this fixation was purging, as you insisted, or ruminating, as I suggested. You shared your writing with your therapist, but I don’t know what she thought about it. Many of us who loved you tried to encourage you to enjoy your retirement and to focus on your life now.
Although you suffered with depression throughout your life, you had a great sense of humor, an infectious laugh, and the “gift of gab”. When you were around and living in the present, you were the life of the party. You were the party. You were also a kind and giving man. In your retirement you did volunteer work to help residents of the local nursing home, as well as hospice patients and their families. You even won the Volunteer of the Year award at the nursing home you loved to visit. But your father’s ghost always eventually caught up with you, and this week he got the better of you.
I have such conflicting emotions about what you did. I am relieved that you are no longer in pain, but am hurt that you did not let anyone know how bad the pain was toward the end so we could help, or at least have the opportunity to say goodbye. I am angry with your father for treating you the way he did, and I am angry with you for allowing his abuse to consume the rest of your life like a cancer.
I am grateful for my time with you and the lessons you taught me. You taught me how to be resilient. You taught me to work hard in school—we always competed for the top score on tests we took in the classes we had together. You taught me to believe in myself and to not let anyone stop me from achieving my dreams. Without your knowing it, you also taught me to choose carefully what I hold on to from the past. It is good to hold onto some things, but dangerous to hold onto others. You held onto your dream to graduate college and you did it, earning your degree with honors at the age of 50. But holding onto your difficult childhood led to suicide. Now I am learning from you to let go. I am learning to let go of grudges from the past so I can be happy today. But I am also learning that I have to let go of you. That too makes me angry. But I’ve learned that I will have to let go of the anger and hold onto the lessons and good memories if I want to be happy. Good bye, Tom. I love you.
Your Honorary Son, age 44
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