In November 2013, I knew little about mental health aside from the fact that my dad was battling depression. I avoided the topic of suicide on that autumn night when my dad mentioned it because I did not know how to respond. Sensing that it made me uncomfortable, my dad made that the first and last time he ever brought it up.
He died by suicide less than a week later.
I was nearly done with my first semester of college at the time of my dad’s death. That fall, I had gone home every so often to visit my dad, whose second bout of depression had grown increasingly worse over the semester. The man I had known all of my life to be a silly, ambitious, and energetic businessman was suddenly a taciturn, lethargic, and sad stranger.
The last time I saw him was the second weekend of November 2013, during which I had two of the most poignant encounters I ever had with my dad.
That weekend, we went out for dinner at a local restaurant. Despite his decreased appetite, my dad ordered key lime pie after dinner, which I found odd given that he typically did not order desserts and neither of us really cared for key lime pie. In retrospect, I realize he was trying to prolong our dinner conversation to ask me for help. In time, the question surfaced:
“Is there anything that you’re learning at school that could help me feel better?”
The desperation in his voice was agonizing. The unfortunate truth was that I was learning nothing in school that could have ameliorated his situation. I felt absolutely helpless, but promised him I would continue to help him to the best of my knowledge. His shoulders slumped in defeat, but he thanked me anyway and told me he loved me. We didn’t finish the key lime pie.
We went grocery shopping the next evening. My dad lived alone, so he didn’t need much. What was supposed to be a quick trip turned into another prolonged conversation. As we sat and talked while parked in the grocery store parking lot, the topic turned to his struggle with depression. He told me he was mentally, physically, and emotionally drained. He felt like he had exhausted all of his options. After a few moments of silence, he said something I never expected to hear:
“I feel so hopeless that I have thought about killing myself.”
I was stunned and speechless. He immediately retracted the statement upon seeing the horror on my face, said he would never actually attempt suicide, and drove us home shortly after.
I did not know to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for advice. I did not know to alert the rest of my family. I did not know to ask more questions and persuade my dad to get treatment. I did not know to stay with my dad to ensure his safety. I did not know he would die by suicide a few days later. Instead, I said nothing and tried to forget what had just happened, reassuring myself that someone else would say something and know what to do.
I will never forget that November night and the conversation about suicide I did not have with my dad.
However, I choose to remember my dad for everything he was.
He had immigrated to the US from Cuba alone at 15 years old and was the epitome the American Dream–having gone from living in poverty to being named one of the top-ranked life insurance salesmen in his company several years in a row.
He had the thickest Cuban accent and the loudest voice ever (talking to him on the phone meant holding the phone six inches away from my ear), and was thus incapable of whispering.
He loved to play marbles.
He loved pineapple-upside down cake and made us breakfast tacos every morning.
He loved sitting on the couch, intently watching action movies with a bowl of popcorn on his lap.
He dreamt about finally returning to Cuba to see his family.
Though he was a strict parent, he also had the silliest sense of humor, often breaking out into a random dance just to get a laugh out of my family and me.
He was strong. He was brave. The fact that he asked for my help, even if I did not know how to give it, made him even stronger and braver.
In September 2016, I know so much more about mental health and suicide than I ever thought I would. I have made it my life’s work to educate others on signs of distress and how to help someone in need, so that they do not find themselves feeling as helpless and clueless as I did on that autumn night when my dad mentioned suicide.
Although I did not help him in the way that I should have, I have finally learned something that will help others like him. I am an advocate for suicide prevention and mental health awareness.
I know my dad would be proud.