Late one January morning in 2008, I fell asleep on the sofa, something I rarely did and haven’t done since.   I was awakened to my house phone ringing, then my cell phone ringing, again the house, again the cell. I wasn’t ready to wake up completely so I didn’t answer the phone, hoping they would just leave a message.

The phones kept ringing and eventually my husband’s cell phone started to ring too.  My husband came over to me on the sofa and said, “It’s your Dad calling my cell.…”  I knew something was wrong at that point.  I got up and looked at the caller ID’s and listened to voice mail after voice mail from my sisters telling me to call them because there was an emergency.

I called my youngest sister back and she was hysterical, saying what sounded like to me, “I’m so mad at Dad I want to shoot him!”  My sister and her nearly one-year-old son lived with my dad and they often had their little disputes and she would call and vent to me – not this time.  What she was actually saying was, “Dad shot himself, he’s dead!”  I started screaming, “No, no, no, is he dead, no, no, Ray, Ray, RAY, is he dead, no, Ray, RAY, No!”  I fell to my knees in the kitchen.

My sisters wanted me to get to his house, so I called my neighbor to take my kids. When I opened the door to let her in, she knew something bad had happened. That was the first time I uttered the words, “My dad killed himself.” I immediately got nauseous and ran into the bathroom and got sick.

The drive to my dad’s house felt like we weren’t even moving, like I was on a moving set and only the back screen was moving.  We pulled up and my sisters with their husbands, my cousins, my aunt, my mom, my dad’s therapist, and some neighbors were all outside, and a state trooper guarded his front door. Only the detective and coroner were allowed in and out of his house at this point.  It seemed like everything around me was moving in slow motion.

Before my Dad shut the door in his bedroom to take his life, he left his will, funeral paperwork and a note saying, “Don’t come in, call 911,” which is what my sister did.  As we looked over the paperwork. we cried. We knew he had a will and we knew he had preplanned and prepaid for his funeral, so that wasn’t a shock.

What was a shock were the receipts that were next to his wallet for over $300 in prescription refills he just had filled three day before, pork chops in the refrigerator that he had taken out of the freezer that same morning for dinner that night, a case of 24 bars soap and razor blade refills, enough to last him a lifetime that he had just bought that week before at a wholesale store.  Nothing added up.  Did he plan this,? Did the depression take him over this January morning? What happened?

We were so confused, in shock, unclear at what just happened.  I knew I had to tell my two other children (ages four and six) that their Pop Pop is dead, their Pop Pop whom they loved dearly. How will they take it, will they understand death? Anger started to come over me, anger I had never felt before and I wasn’t sure what to do with it.  I couldn’t cry anymore, it hurt too much and I was dehydrated.  This isn’t real, what did he do, how could he do this to us!

The funeral was the following Thursday, a January day.  We pulled up in the limo and as soon as I got out, I locked eyes on my dad’s older brother who looked awful.  I ran over to him and he didn’t let me go the entire graveside service.  I remember during the funeral, looking up at my uncle and I felt as if I was in my dad’s arms, they looked alike, felt the same way and smelled the same.

They say for everyone suicide, at least 6 people are affected; in my dad’s case, it was over 100.  Some old friends, old and new neighbors, co-workers, golf buddies, relatives, his cognitive therapist, who was very upset – told us that he has some patients that he thinks might take their lives and others he doesn’t think will. He didn’t think that my dad would take his life.  He told us that he loved his four daughters, our husbands and his six grandchildren more than anything in the world and he is utterly shocked.

Some of you may be wondering where my mom was in all this. We asked her not to come.  My parents divorced in 1996, and in that year I believe my dad had one foot in the grave.  My mom was his life, she came first in everything.  She asked for the divorce.

In 2004 my dad retired after 44 years.  He had everything, money, health, his daughters, son-in-laws, friends, a nice home, nice cars, golf and so much more – just not my mom.  About three years before his death he became depressed, so depressed that he lived with us for three weeks while we got him help and on medications.  About 6 months later, he was fantastic, full of life, energy and just fun to be around!

He found a cognitive therapist that he really clicked with and was taking the right cocktail of medications.  He was the dad all us daughters always wanted and our children were wreaking the benefits, it was too good to be true, I should have known.

Less than a year later, we lost him, not to death, to depression and never got him back.  It got worse and worse and worse.  He looked 10 years older each time I saw him, frail, small and tired.  I would tell my husband that I have a gut feeling I’m going to lose my dad to depression – never thinking to suicide.

I thought he was going to give himself a heart attack or stroke from the stress of being depressed and fighting it so long and so hard.  My dad would tell me he didn’t know why he felt depressed, he just was, he couldn’t understand it either and I certainly can’t having never been in depression, I just understand that it is a real disease after watching my dad fight it.

And, he did just that, he fought it, fought it gallantly, he went down fighting I have to say!  He gave up beer cold turkey after years of drinking because his doctors told him he can’t drink on the medications.  He went to every appointment, took his medications as directed, got out every once in a while.

Then little by little he started losing interest in things, staying home more, giving up things, selling his Buick that he loved so much, gave up his golf club membership he had for 40 years, thus giving up golf – his hobby.  Stopped going to family events, stopped meeting up with golf buddies and more.  I wish I could say that had I known the signs and symptoms of suicide, I would have had my dad living with us, but I didn’t because we all trusted him, we all asked him once or twice, if he would ever hurt himself and he always said, “No, I wouldn’t do that to my girls the their kids.”

But he did, so I feel betrayed in a sense.

I want to say he didn’t plan it because of the pork chops being left out for dinner that night and the newly refilled anti-depressants, but I’m not sure and I will never know.  The not knowing and the whys are the hardest things to deal with when you lose a loved one to suicide.  The what if’s and the should have’s can haunt you on a daily basis and consume you if you aren’t careful.  For the last 15 months, I have been walking around with a ton of bricks on my chest; that’s what a suicide survivor is left to walk around with after a loved one has taken their own life.

“Taken their own life…” this isn’t the normal process of life, you aren’t supposed to die at your own hand, this isn’t the normal circle of life…but then again, neither is getting cancer.  What the normal circle of life is you are born, your grow up, you get old, you die.  So, if my dad had died of a heart attack or cancer, would his death be any easier to deal with, perhaps, because it wasn’t at his own hands and power.  But, I DO believe that the person that took my dad’s life wasn’t my dad.  The dad that I know would not have left his daughters and grandchildren this way!

It took me 11 days to tell our other two children that Pop Pop was dead.  I tried on several occasions before that and lost it and couldn’t do it.  I was so upset at my dad for making me do this to them.  It wasn’t till that 11th day did I even know how to tell them.  I had gotten frames for each one of them, even the baby, and printed out them each a picture of them with Pop Pop.  The morning of that 11th day, I remembered my six year old son telling my dad not too long ago, “Pop Pop you’re old!” to which my dad replied, “Thank you very much…” with a grin on his face.

That’s what I told the kids…Pop Pop was old and he died, that is what happens in life.  This was children’s first dose of life and death.  Our six-year-old son squirmed around, not sure what to make of it, our four-year-old daughter, going on 14, cried like a teenager.  It was awful, she cried all night, then she finally fell asleep and then I cried all night.

The next day, I let their teachers know and that next night our daughter came down and said her big brother was crying in bed.  I went up to him to find him laying up in bed clutching the picture of him and Pop Pop in front of the #24 Jeff Gordon car a couple years before.

My dad and I loved NASCAR, the only thing in common I had with my dad.  I held my son and told him it was ok to cry and to please never cry alone, that it’s ok to miss Pop Pop and be sad, that Mommy is too.  Another night I stayed up and cried.  This was more painful than the death of my dad itself, seeing the pain and lack of understanding for their ages in my children.

Even to this day, I get mad at him for making me have to tell them Pop Pop was gone, and even to this day I catch one of them crying from time to time over him or one of them has a dream about him.  I think to think they dream about him because he is still around us, looking out for us, helping us through this.

For those left behind, like children, we wonder what our dad (or mom) must have been thinking at the time and the seconds leading up to their demise.  Would a picture of us girls on his bureau have stopped him? Why couldn’t I have called him at the minute and maybe the sound of the phone ringing would have snapped out of it? Or would it have stopped him for just for that day?

All these questions that remain unanswered are part of the mystery of suicide.  Then of course there is the stigma that surrounds suicide that doesn’t make it any easier.  I have had people say the most beautiful things to me once they learned how I lost my dad and one that went as far as to tell me where my dad was…hell.

I have certainly learned who my true friends are over the last 15 months, but for every friend I lost (yes, I actually lost friends over this) I have met and made two, most of them survivors themselves.  Each one of them more fantastic and meaningful to my life then the ones lost.  It actually felt good to “get rid” of the weeds in my life.  I believe after a tragedy like a suicide, those left behind need to have a sense of calmness to their life.  I have learned that life goes on.

I am alive, I still have three young children, a loving husband, a home and the life I dreamed of having as a little girl, there is so much life out there still left to be lived…so live on.  I will miss my dad everyday for the rest of my life and it will hurt and sadden me the rest of my life, but again, I have to live my life!

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Kelli Karlton

Kelli Karlton is a wife and mother of three. On January 6, 2008, her life changed forever when her father committed suicide. After the months of shock wore off, she began research on suicide and depression. It has become her passion.

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