How my father’s suicide made me a better dad

After the suicide death of his father, JC Clapham felt abandoned and lost. Despite suffering bouts of severe depression himself, he vowed never to do the same for the sake of his kids.

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There’s a line in my dad’s suicide note that specifically refers to his first three sons, of which I’m the eldest.

At that stage, he and my mother had been divorced five years, and dad lived elsewhere. “I am sorry to be leaving my boys. Even though we live apart and have for a long time, I had hoped to be there for them when they needed me,” he wrote.

I’ve written that from my memory; it’s been a long time since I’ve dug it out to read. I don’t need to — there’s not much in it for me, and nothing specifically about me as an individual.

Dad was only 19 when I was born, and just 35 when he killed himself. I’d turned 16 a few months earlier and enjoyed three full weeks with him during that summer — it was the longest stretch of time since he moved away.

That holidays, my dad and I had connected as two people: it felt at the time like we were becoming friends and not just father and child.

Dad had promised to buy an old car as my birthday present for ages 16, 17 and 18, and that we’d do it up together during school holidays.

Being a car man (which I’m not), he said I could have any type of older car I wanted. The choice was mine … so long as it was a V8 Holden Premier! Thanks for the choice, old man, haha.

We had our first beer together, and our second cigarette (the first was when I was seven and asked for one out of curiosity, and being 1988, dad obliged).

We talked about my idea of moving in with him after I finished high school, to go to uni near him and be an extra help with raising my dad’s fourth son, my (half-)brother, who’d be school age by then.

I had always idolised my dad. He was big and strong (6 foot 3 inches and solid as an ox), a tough footy player, and used to tell me great stories at bedtime when I was a little kid.

So to be connecting with him as a friend, and planning a future with him and me living together again, was exciting and a delicately-held dream starting to come true.

But … none of that happened. Not one of those things actually came to pass.

Because eight weeks after that summer together, my dad wrote his note of goodbye to everyone, walked into his garage, and hanged himself.

My dad left me, again. But permanently. And by choice. And I hated him for so long. Why would a father leave his kids? And why forever?

I’ve wondered on so many occasions since why didn’t he just pack up and take off to the middle of nowhere and drop off the grid? At least in that scenario he could resurface one day, one year, preferably when me or my brothers really needed him.

But he didn’t. He opted out of our lives. For good.

“Eight weeks after that summer together, my dad wrote his note of goodbye to everyone, walked into his garage, and hanged himself.”

That was 20 years ago. Along the way I’ve faced some significant challenges myself. Linked by genetics, or stimulated because of my childhood — I don’t know — mental ill-health has beset me on a few occasions, too.

One of those dark periods came when I was 22, when I got the closest I would to emulating my father’s final choice. And it was at that point I could see how pained he must have been, and how helpless he must have felt.

But my dad didn’t ask for any help. He didn’t talk to anyone about how bleak things seemed, let alone see a professional for medical help. And that silence and inaction meant he died and left me fatherless, with a gaping hole in my heart that won’t ever be filled.

Ten years ago, I became a father. It was the most amazing feeling, to say the very least.

My son Leo, who now has a brother Gus and a sister Ada, became the reason that Father’s Day could be a happy day for me again. Ten years of crying on the first Sunday of September was long enough.

In the years following Leo’s arrival, and that of his brother and sister, I’ve again been visited by mental ill-health.

This last (please may it be my very last) dark period culminated in me having a total breakdown just as my marriage to my kids’ mother ended. I also stepped away from my career and so was faced with my entire life changing.

In the dark and often-torturous weeks and months after I fell apart, the option of suicide entered my thoughts countless times. I say ‘entered’ because that’s how it works for me — since my kids were born, I’ve never viewed it as an option of appeal. But it enters my thoughts sometimes and tries to tempt me.

But the upside of losing my father to suicide means I know what it’s like to be the child left behind. And frankly, it’s been really, really horrible, off and on.

So despite the frustration, numbness and despair I have felt at times, there is NO WAY I ever want to make my three kids feel what I’ve felt following dad’s choice: abandoned, unloved, rejected, worthless, insignificant, and not enough.

I want the opposite outcome for my kids, and for me as a father. And so, to achieve the opposite of what my dad did, I now do the opposite to what he did:

● I see my GP regularly.
● I take anti-depressant medication, and others if necessary.
● I have seen a number of counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists in my time, and always will, because therapy is helpful for me.
● I tell people when I’m either flat or low or worse.
● I try my hardest to manage my lifestyle and mind.

And most importantly, I can now see that the greatest lesson my father ever taught me was what NOT to do.

I wasn’t enough to keep my dad alive. But I am enough of a father to never voluntarily leave my kids without their dad.

If you think you or someone you know is suffering from depression and you would like to seek support, please contact Lifeline (13 11 14), Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636), or the Ngala Helpline (9368 9368/country access: 1800 111 546).

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