Things I Wish I Had Said to My Dad
by Maureen Leahy
Content Warning: This story references suicide, which may be distressing to some individuals.
My dad was about 60 when he experienced mild depression related to the death of his father, but other than that, he had no identified mental health problems – no inpatient psychiatric admissions and no crisis visits to the emergency room.
He was a passionate man who loved people. When anyone, myself included, arrived at his home, regardless of the time of day or night, they were welcomed with a warm hug and an offer of food – a sandwich, hamburger, hot dog, steak sandwich – it was always comfort food and it was always good food. If you declined, he would just offer you something else, an Italian cold cut sub, some meatballs, some Italian sausages with peppers and onions.
At some point you just had to say yes and have something. Anyone who knew my father knew his love language was food – really good food. If I needed help finding the right cut of beef for a recipe or how to build a charcuterie board, I called my dad.
A diagnosis of adult onset diabetes at age 40 hit him hard. Things took a turn for the worse when late in life – at age 73 – he was diagnosed with celiac disease after several years of cycling through multiple specialists for GI complaints. For a man who loved food and loved with food, these diagnoses broke him. He felt defeated. On March 26, 2019, after eight weeks of grappling with severe depression related to these chronic conditions, he died by suicide.
I now recognize that in the years and months leading up to his death, he became more isolated, preferring to not leave his home. Just as people don’t put on 30 pounds all at once, often people do not become severely depressed all at once. They slowly slide into it, which makes it harder for their loved ones to see the change day to day. He also developed multiple non-descript problems like itchy skin, skin breakdown, new allergies to animals, and would call each of his multiple doctors looking for a medical reason for his conditions. He would repeatedly tell my siblings, my mother and me about his ailments. He always seemed to have some new complaint.
Looking back, there are three things I wish I had said to my dad.
I see you.
I wish I had told him that he had earned every ache, pain, and medical issue that his aging body was experiencing and that his ever-growing problem list was part of a life well lived. I wish I validated his physical ailments as real. I wish I had taken the time to dig beneath the surface of those superficial medical complaints to better understand how they were impacting his mental health. I wish I had told him that he didn’t have to carry the burden of those ailments, both physical and psychological, by himself, and that I (and others) would be honored to carry it with him.
You are not alone.
I wish I had told him that he wasn’t the only one feeling what he was feeling and that other people have similar dark thoughts. I wish I had trusted my gut more and called him every day to check in, and then told him to call me any time of the day or night. I feel like the people in the inner circle of my life know that I am there for them, but when someone is feeling alone, is struggling or is feeling desperate, knowing it is not enough. It is necessary to hear it again and again, to repeatedly be given permission to reach out, to hear it so many times that it drowns out the negative thoughts in your head.
Are you thinking about hurting yourself?
A few months after his death, I had an appointment with my primary care physician. I was annoyed by the pre-visit questionnaire but, as a health care professional, dutifully filled it out. I didn’t expect the conversation that my answers would trigger.
The first thing my physician said was, “Let’s talk about what’s been going on for you over the last year.” I told her about my recent divorce and the suicide death of my father five months later. That’s when she asked me that big question, “Have you ever thought about hurting yourself?”
I thought about it for a minute. No, I have never thought about hurting myself. But I do think I understand what my father was feeling before he killed himself and that thought scares me.
This launched a discussion with my physician about depression and I left that office with a prescription for a mild antidepressant, a plan to return to my therapist and a plan to start doing things that feel good. I am very grateful for the courage my primary care physician had to dig deeper with me.
As I write this with a clear head and a strong mood, I am hopeful that others can learn something from my experience – to listen deeper, to check in with offers of support and to be brave enough to ask the hard questions.
And a message from my father: Always buy Prime grade beef, and never use steak sauce. When making a charcuterie board, include a hard cheese, a goat cheese, a soft cheese and always include prosciutto. And McKinnon’s Market and Super Butcher in Salem, New Hampshire, is the best bet for meats and prepared foods.
Maureen Leahy is administrative director of neurology and psychiatry for the UVM Health Network.