When Father’s Day is both bitter and sweet

Sally Yates David Axelrod
Sally Yates opens up about dad's suicide
02:57 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Melissa Blake is a freelance writer and blogger from Illinois. She covers disability rights and women’s issues and has written for The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Glamour and Racked, among others. Read her blog, So About What I Said, and follow her on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.

CNN  — 

I always seem to get extra nostalgic around this time of year. A favorite song or a favorite dessert can quickly bring back a flood of memories. And sometimes, those moments still catch me off guard.

That’s just how Father’s Day is after you’ve lost your own father.

All holidays can be hard following the death of a loved one. The same goes for birthdays and anniversaries and even weddings. What are otherwise joyous occasions are made bittersweet when you see that empty spot at the table.

Melissa Blake

Big life milestones keep happening, even when those loved ones are gone. How do you include those lost loved ones and celebrate those memories without feeling like they’re ripping your heart out at the same time? It’s a delicate tightrope to walk, indeed.

I’m not sure I’ll ever find the perfect answer, but I’ve certainly had plenty of time to reflect on the question.

This Sunday marks my 15th bittersweet Father’s Day since my father died from suicide in 2003. Some years have been heavy on the bitter and other years leaned more toward the sweet side, but every year, I see Father’s Day cards in the store or see young kids holding their father’s hand as they cross the street and it hits me all over again. Something is missing. My father is missing.

It’s especially palpable for me this year. With the recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, the topic of suicide has taken center stage in the national conversation, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that suicide rates in the United States have climbed dramatically since 1999; suicide rates have increased more than 30% in half the states.

The increased attention on suicide has also shown a spotlight on a once-forgotten group: Suicide loss survivors face a host of complicated new realities – one of the most emotionally charged being holidays like Father’s Day, which always felt to me like someone was flashing a neon sign over my head as some cruel cosmic joke to remind me, “Hey, your father is gone, remember?”

For years, I worried that I’d forget my father. After all, the gap between the years he was alive and the years he’s been dead was widening every day. I desperately wanted to feel like a part of him was still here, that he didn’t just vanish into the ether. As the weeks turned into months and the months turned into years, I noticed an interesting dichotomy: I was holding on to the past tighter while the memory of him seemed to be drifting further away. I’d reach for him, but he was always just out of my grasp. I was so afraid that he would simply be forgotten as time went on and our lives began to fill up with things other than grief.

And it wasn’t just the big memories I wanted to hold onto, either; it was those little memories, those tiny moments that marked our lives that called to me, too. Those tiny details about him – how he loved listening to The Beach Boys while cleaning the bathroom, how he couldn’t pass up a bowl of Cheetos after a long day at work or how he’d always try to memorize my school schedule because he never failed to take an interest in my education. These moments were the little dots that connected us.

So after he died, I wrote about him. A lot. I made a point of writing about the bad times as well as the good times because it was something tangible that I could do to keep his memory alive. And sometimes I even felt like he was right there, looking over my shoulder and encouraging me to keep going.

Maybe that’s why I was so moved by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding, which didn’t shy away from including the late Princess Diana. Although she died 20 years ago, she’s remained a powerful force in Harry’s life. She was honored in everything from Meghan’s wedding dress to her favorite flowers included in the bridal bouquet; at the lunch reception, singer Elton John also performed his version of “Candle In The Wind” that he wrote after her 1997 death.

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    In the same way that Diana wasn’t just the People’s Princess who died a tragic death, my father wasn’t just his suicide. I refuse to let his suicide be the one moment that defines his entire life. He was first and foremost my dad, just like Diana was first and foremost William and Harry’s mom. After all, he was my dad for two decades before he died and that means something. It means a life full of memories and good times.

    As Harry waited for Meghan to arrive, lip readers have said that his brother, Prince William, asked him, “Do you remember when Mum used to say …?”

    A simple question that conveys so much.

    Yes, my father may be physically gone, but his spirit is still here. He’s with me in everything I do and all those memories I carry with me.