The following is a story I helped write for a friend. In it, he shares of the most difficult thing he’s faced in his lifetime. Two years ago, his son committed suicide. Dana wanted to write this story in hopes that it will reach someone who is hurting and needs help. I’ve been honored to know Dana and to have seen his strength these past two years. If this story resonates with you, or you want to talk more with Dana, his contact information is listed at the bottom of this story. Please reach out.
Most people watch Game of Thrones for entertainment. A few years ago, I found myself watching it with my wife as a way to connect with our sons. Both of them had graduated college, so I didn’t get to see them as much as I used to and I was trying to show interest in the things they found interesting. The show, though? Not really my thing.
Unexpectedly, the door bell rang. My first thought was about the roofing contractors. There had been a hailstorm earlier in the month, so an endless stream of roofing contractors were going through the neighborhood trying to make a living. I figured it was just someone else with a sales pitch. But it was after 9PM on a Thursday, so something wasn’t adding up.
Instead, there were two men in suits from the Raleigh Police Department asking if they could come in. They needed to speak with us about our son, Gibson. I tried to stay calm, but there’s no other feeling quite like the dread of having the police at your house and not knowing why.
My initial thought was about drugs. Gibson had some history with drug use, and as much as we tried to help him, I wondered if maybe he’d gotten mixed up in it again. My next thought was about the fact that I can only withdraw $500 from the ATM per day, so Gibson was going to have to spend a night in jail. I wouldn’t have enough cash for bail.
But the officers insisted on coming in and sitting down with us, and that’s when I started to feel like this was about something more than drugs. Before my imagination could go too wild, one of the detectives just blurted it out. “Your son is dead.”
It was June 9, 2016.
We sat on our couch, stunned, as the detectives started to explain what happened.
Kelley went into shock immediately. She couldn’t talk, couldn’t move. I, on the other hand, started rattling off questions like, what are you talking about, where was he, what happened. That night, we learned Gibson had committed suicide.
The police left a little later, and I called John Mark first thing. He’s the pastor at our church and he was at our house within five minutes. We prayed hard and cried harder, trying to both deny and wrap our heads around what happened to our son. When John Mark left, Kelley came to life. We needed to call the family, she’d decided, and that’s when I went into shock. But God gave her the strength so she just started reaching out to everyone.
The next day, Friday, was a blur. Our other son, Zach, came in from the beach, and my parents and brother came into town. And that afternoon, John Mark, my brother, Kelley and I were at the funeral home planning a celebration of life for Gibson.
Not 24 hours earlier, Kelly and I were trying to watch a show we knew Gibson was into, and the next thing I know, the funeral director is asking us if we want to bury or cremate our 23-year-old son. I can’t begin to describe to you how heart-breaking that is. Who ever thinks about that sort of thing? Parents aren’t supposed to have to do this for their kids. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do in my entire life.
Gibson’s funeral was a couple days later, on Sunday.
I don’t think I could ever fully describe the pain and sorrow we felt. Our son, whom we loved with everything we had, whom we would have done anything for, he was gone. Everything moved too fast. My son, my boy, whom I loved dearly, he was gone. You always worry about your kids, I think. It’s natural. But you never think this sort of thing will happen.
The following Tuesday we went to Gibson’s apartment to start going through his stuff. More importantly, I needed to get my hands on some of the mementos from our time together. A few months before, I had taken Gibson on a ski trip and a trip to the Masters Tournament. I bought Gibson a watch and I wanted it back. I needed to wear it. We could only stand to pack a few things because it was just too emotional and we couldn’t bare it.
A few days later we got a text from Gibson’s roommate saying he needed to talk to us about some things. To be honest, I was excited because I felt like I was going to get some answers, and I can tell you, I needed some answers. The roommate told us they’d thrown out some drugs before the police could go through Gibson’s things.
It was a familiar feeling. I mentioned at the beginning of this story that Gibson had some history with drug use. Gibson got caught doing marijuana in high school with some of his friends from his tennis team. When we found out, Kelley and I confronted Gibson about it and he broke down. He confessed to everything and was genuinely remorseful. We had some long talks about it all with him, and thankfully, since it was the off-season he didn’t get kicked off the team. We hoped that might be the end of it. It wasn’t, unfortunately, and the only lesson he learned was how to be better at hiding it from us.
In college, things got worse. We found out Gibson was selling drugs. We had hoped he’d learned his lesson in high school – were we just being naïve, or was his facade just that convincing? Either way, we felt like we needed to do something drastic. So the next day, while he was in his summer class, we went to his fraternity and loaded his entire room into the back of a truck and brought it home. He got back to the fraternity, saw his stuff was gone and called me to ask what was going on. “We’ll meet you at home,” I told him.
We set up an appointment with a drug counselor. There was obviously something deeper going on and Gibson needed to address it. Over time, the counselor advised us to let Gibson go back to school. Gibson had displayed enough of a commitment to change to convince the counselor that he was ready for another chance. So, we gave him another shot. And much like before, things seemed to be going smoothly.
So when Gibson’s roommate called and said he wanted to talk to us, I felt like we finally might find out what was really happening. None of it made sense, and I needed something to grasp onto. We found out Gibson had prescriptions of Xanax and Lexapro, which suggested he was struggling with depression or anxiety. It was surprising because we never got the sense Gibson was struggling like that. He was able to hide from Kelley and I what was going on, but in his heart he was hurting and he needed help.
The roommate also told us that Gibson had been using Opana, which is the brand name for a heavy narcotic called Oxymorphone used to treat chronic pain. It’s highly addictive and what’s worse, it can have strong negative interactions when mixed with alcohol or drugs used to treat depression and anxiety. Drugs like Xanax and Lexapro.
Gibson was in and out of bad relationships, he wasn’t sleeping, and he was using heavy drugs. But most importantly, Gibson was battling depression and anxiety and no one knew it. Poor mental health, when unaddressed, is an incredibly dangerous issue in the world today. Gibson had access to support. Kelley and I would have done anything for him. Gibson’s friends could have supported him. Or he could have turned to a counselor to help work on the deep-seated issues he was facing.
But Gibson had gotten so good at internalizing his struggles, and even he may have not recognized it. He used drugs and alcohol to mask the hurt and pain he was feeling. But those things only numbed the pain temporarily and as pain and hurt persisted, the vicious cycle of self-medicating the symptoms only deepened, pushing Gibson deeper into depression. When someone gets into that deep and dark of a place mentally, it’s a sickness. A person can do drastic things that seem to make sense in the moment without being able to process the logical or rational side of that decision.
It all got to be too difficult to handle. Gibson became overwhelmed and didn’t have the support he needed. Be it due to shame, guilt, fear, or a lack of self-awareness, he didn’t open up to anyone. He didn’t have the relationships he needed, which led to further isolation. Those closest to him had no idea he was dealing with depression. I wish more than anything in the world that Gibson would have reached out to someone. Anyone.
So if you find yourself in a place like this, please understand something. You need to ask for help. There are people who love you and want to help, but if you are hiding your pain and dealing with it alone, you’ll never be able to handle it. I left my contact information at the bottom of this story – if something tells you to dial the number and call, do not hesitate. I certainly don’t have all the answers (no one does!), but I can at least help get you connected with someone who is able to help you find health.
There aren’t enough words to adequately convey the level of sorrow we felt. Devastated doesn’t even come close. The profound heartache sometimes felt too much to bare. And I haven’t even mentioned the horrific feelings of guilt. It would have been too much had we not gotten the help and support we desperately needed. Walking through this sort of tragedy was new for Kelley and I. Looking back, there are three things that have held us together. Family, faith, and community.
Family has been so important to both of us. Kelley and I needed each other, but we also understood there were times when we couldn’t support each other. My brother, Dixon, was there with me the day we picked out Gibson’s urn and had to make the rest of the arrangements for the celebration of life. And he’s been there for me any time I’ve needed him since that day. I’m telling you, without the support from our family, I would have fallen apart over and over the last couple years.
Even more important than family has been our faith. That was the first thing we did when we heard Gibson had died. We called John Mark and he prayed with us. I can’t imagine where we’d be without God’s help. There are days, really difficult days, when I wonder if God cares. I wonder why He let all this happen. But each day, God shows his love to us in meaningful and tangible ways. Sometimes we just don’t see it. There isn’t a more helpless feeling than hearing that your son died and not being able to do anything about it. God stepped into that helplessness and has given us the strength and peace we’ve needed each and every day.
Finally, community. For me, that was F3, which is s a men’s peer-led workout group that centers around three Fs – Fitness, Fellowship, and Faith. The men in that community are amazing. Through it, I met another guy who lost his daughter to suicide a few years before Gibson died. Instantly I had support from someone else who’d been through what I was going through and knew the pain I felt. We would meet at a coffee shop and just talk and cry together for hours. I got into F3 because Dixon was doing it and kept raving about it. I started going to the group in Cary about two months before Gibson died, and on the day of his funeral, 18 men I barely knew stood in the back of the church. Like a small army of accountability partners, these men cared about me and made a commitment that day to never let me go through a hard day alone. I’ve never seen anything like it.
I mentioned there were three things that have gotten me through my worst days. But I also want to mention how important counseling has been in this season of life. Family, faith, and community are necessary, but professional counseling is just as essential. Going to a grief counselor has helped me process the negative thoughts and emotions in constructive ways.
By recommendation, I started doing EMDR treatments to help reprocess the trauma of Gibson’s death. This is the kind of treatment used for people with PTSD and it isn’t for everyone, but it helped me deal with the feelings of guilt I had that I should have done more. That Gibson’s death was my fault and I should have been able to stop it. The hardest part for me has been picturing him in my mind putting the gun into a bag, walking out of his apartment to the park down the street, sitting on the bench, and deciding to end his own life.
EMDR is a strange process, and it’s been incredibly difficult to go through, but it’s been instrumental in helping me work through that trauma. There are different therapies, different methods of counseling, and it’s so important to find what works for you. It’s impossible to do it alone, not to mention unhealthy. Please don’t try to go through this alone.
There are resources out there if you’re struggling. Whether it be with drug addiction, depression and anxiety, a bad relationship, trauma, whatever. Please reach out to someone. As a father, I’m begging you to reach out. Call me. Email me. My contact information is at the bottom of this page, along with a list of other resources.
Like I said before, it’s hard to talk about depression or anxiety with the people you’re closest with. I’m encouraged to see more attention being given to mental health in our society, and I hope the social stigma against depression and anxiety is finally starting to lose it’s power over people. Gibson loved us, and he knew we loved him, but he didn’t talk to us about what he was going through. It breaks my heart, because I know at some point, he made up his mind that life wasn’t worth living anymore. But I’m telling you, there are people who care deeply and want to help.
I loved Gibson, but I will never get to celebrate another birthday with him, take him skiing, or simply have a conversation with him. I think about him everyday, and I wear his initials on my wrist with both pride and sadness. I will never be able to get him back, but my life’s mission is to do whatever I can to help prevent another parent from having to go through this. Life is valuable. YOUR life is valuable. Fear can make you believe some powerful lies. But the power of love is greater and bigger, and everyone is worthy of love.
Every. Single. Person. ♦
- If you are unsure if you are suffering from anxiety or depression, consider taking the assessments below:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 or click here to chat online
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
- Resources for Teens and College Students
- Resources from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America
- EMDR Therapy
Phone – 919-218-7275
email – firstname.lastname@example.org