‘Daddy, what did you do?’ Our charcoal grill was sitting in the middle of the room, towels blocking the windows. I started screaming.’: Woman shares grief of losing father to suicide

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Trigger Warning: This story contains mention of suicide that may be triggering to some.

“I never expected one of my Tik Toks to go viral but I’m thankful the one that did was focused on mental illness and spreading awareness. I received overwhelming support and kind words from hundreds of strangers. There were many comments about how my dad looked sweet, how they were sure he was a good person and father. The truth is, he wasn’t really any of those things.

My dad struggled with mental health for his whole life and it visibly got worse every year. He endured a rough childhood after his dad left and his mom struggled with addiction and mental issues. Being one of five siblings, it’s easy to see how his needs and feelings were lost in the mix, especially when his role models weren’t actually role models.

When he was 32, he met my mom while she was visiting a friend in Florida. He was told he couldn’t have kids so I turned out to be his miracle child when I was born in October of 1996. It seemed like things were alright for a while. We moved into my childhood home when I was 6 in 2001. It was a quiet neighborhood with friendly people. I was surrounded by only boys who were close to my age, so that’s how I grew up: playing in each other’s back yards and not coming home until the bottoms of our feet were black and the sun was setting.

As time went on, my parents fought a lot. And bad. My dad was an alcoholic who drank every day and would try to scrounge up the money to do so. He was also addicted to painkillers and would even ‘borrow’ some from my mom, who needed them because she was suffering from long-term effects after a bad car accident. As a kid, you think this is all normal, but as I’ve grown older all of the signs were there.

Father and daughter
Courtesy of Shelby Stremus

There were three times where my parents would sign the divorce papers and then something bad would happen and they decided to wait. They were in the process of signing the papers for the second time when my dad’s best friend, his brother Michael, passed away from cancer in 2005. This was when things shifted gears and his mental health deteriorated even more. He was heartbroken and bitter. He was negative, miserable, and just flat-out selfish.

There were many times where we couldn’t afford groceries and he’d come home with steak and shrimp and cook it for himself when I hadn’t even had dinner. He made rude comments to me that affected my self-esteem tremendously and there wasn’t an ounce of respect towards my mom. He skipped every single event that would happen, whether it was with family or one of my school things. Every day when he’d get home, he’d isolate himself down in the basement, talking to his family on the phone and doing other things we didn’t know of. It all made sense the day he died when we found the letters he left for us. We realized that was what he had been doing all along.

suicide note
Courtesy of Shelby Stremus

The summer of 2009 was the worst summer of my life. We were right on the line of poverty so we had to cancel everything extra—internet, cable, etc. My only way of watching anything was through renting library DVD’s and I had Sims downloaded on our computer so that was 98% of my summer. The only times my parents drove was to work and back because gas was expensive. I believe I only hung out with friends twice the entire summer. I was 12 at the time so this was hard. I didn’t realize what I was feeling then but I was definitely depressed.

One day after my dad got home from work, he handed me half of a rock. He then pulled out the other half and said if I ever feel bad or miss him to put the two halves together and then it’d be okay and we’d be together. He then said, ‘If I ever seem sad, just hug me, pat my back, and tell me it’ll be okay.’ I didn’t really understand what he was saying or why he was saying it to me, but I took the rock and placed it on my desk in my room, and shrugged it off.

3 weeks later my parents were fighting worse than I had ever heard as I was sitting in my room writing a letter to one of my best friends. It was loud and I heard my dad scream, ‘They will have to pry my dead, cold fingers off of this house if they try to take it.’ I could hear the spit in the back of his throat. He started throwing stuff around the house—noodles from the kitchen down the stairs, plants sitting on the tables. He even tried to rip the TV off of the entertainment center. He walked past my room crying and I immediately knew this time was different from the other fights.

After I had tried to clean up some of the mess, my mom said to pack some of my things because we were going to my aunt and uncles for the next couple of days. The next 2 days are kind of a blur for me. School was starting in 3 days and my dad had made the impulse decision the day after the fight to move to Florida. This should’ve been a huge giveaway for his upcoming plans, but at the time, you don’t really think anything of it. My plan was to go to spend his last day with him before he took off.

father and daughter
Courtesy of Shelby Stremus

The night before, my cell phone started ringing as I was packing my clothes. I looked at the words displayed on the screen and it read, ‘Dad.’ For the 4 seconds I stood there, I fought hard with myself in my head as to whether or not I should answer it. I quickly answered the phone and said, ‘Yeah?’ He sounded tired and quiet as he said, ‘When are you coming home?’ I told him I didn’t know and I was really short with everything I said. He told me he loved me and we hung up. That was the last time I ever talked to him.

I can remember the next day down to every detail possible. It was September 5, 2009. The worst day of my life. My mom was dropping me off at our house and she decided to come in to grab something before she took off for her friend’s dad’s funeral—the same friend that had introduced my parents in Florida. A strong smoke smell hit us right when we walked in and we could hear loud music coming from my parent’s bedroom and a beeping sound from the living room. The house was a mess, but it didn’t set off any alarms in my head. I walked down to my parent’s bedroom and knocked loudly on the door since it was locked, ‘Dad! Turn it down.’ Nothing.

I tried again and then my mom came over and tried, but failed. Her demeanor quickly changed and she told me to run downstairs to grab a wire hanger. This was when the adrenaline kicked in and I began to shake. After running around frantically I realized we brought all of the hangers with us a couple of days before. I ran back upstairs and my mom and I began throwing our bodies against the wooden door. After a couple of hard hits, we busted through.

The first sight was our black charcoal grill sitting in the middle of the room. The next thing I saw was the towels blocking all of the windows and the cracks in the doors. I turned right and saw my dad laying on the floor. My mom yelled his name and ran over to him. I started screaming, “What did you do? Daddy, what did you do?!”

The rest of the day was filled with calling people, questioning from police, and removing his body. The following days were filled with planning the funeral, getting his accounts in order, and figuring out when I should go back to school. The following years were filled with many emotions and struggles that I couldn’t regulate or recognize. I went to multiple therapists and had even attended a grief group during my freshman year of high school. I quit going to the grief group after the therapist told me I was too difficult to help. For all 4 years of high school, I had been on almost every antidepressant possible and they just didn’t work for me.

8 months ago, I found out I have a gene mutation that can’t convert folate to its active form, which makes it difficult for antidepressants to work, so that explains it. I didn’t have health insurance during most of these years, so trying to find a way to get help without going into major debt was close to impossible. I went through many breakdowns, hospital visits, medications, you name it. Nothing worked and I was close to giving up. There were multiple times when I was ready to actually give up.

The night my dad died, my mom and I laid in the bed we were sharing as we both quietly cried. She said in the darkness, ‘Promise me you’ll never do that.’ I was confused, but I promised. No one knows this but many times that promise was the only thing that kept me here.

mother and daughter
Courtesy of Shelby Stremus

After years of fighting for myself and being misdiagnosed multiple times, I was recently diagnosed with PTSD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and possibly Bipolar 2, and everything has been falling in place since. I’ve found an incredible therapist that has helped me in ways no one has helped me before. I have a psychiatrist that’s found the best medications for me. I’ve been on mood stabilizers for over half a year now and things have never felt so good. I’ve been able to focus on healing and working through the trauma.

After beginning to process everything, I’ve been able to remember good memories about my dad and have seen parts of the person he should’ve been. I remember for years during my countless breakdowns I’d think, ‘This will never end. Things will always be like this. It’ll never get better.’ Where I’m at now is the prime example things do get better. I’m living the life I’ve always wanted.

I’ve excelled in multiple areas of my life while suffering from mental illness. I’ve been promoted and climbed the ladder at work and have made a career for myself. I recently became a Professional Disc Golfer after winning my first professional tournament. I’ve accomplished things I didn’t even know were possible. I have my first dog, a stable living environment, and a wonderful boyfriend who supports me. I’ve started to become an advocate for mental health, which has always been a goal of mine.

daughter Frisbee golf
Courtesy of Shelby Stremus

My dad wrote in his goodbye letter, ‘Make something of yourself so you don’t need to depend on anyone and no one needs to depend on you.’ I strongly believe I am on the road to fulfilling that.

I think there are a couple of important things that came out of my Tik Tok. I had multiple people comment things like, ‘This is why I don’t want to have kids,’ ‘This made me realize why I should stay,’ ‘I never thought about how my kids would feel if I left.’ So many people talked about how they didn’t realize they weren’t alone. That one hit home. For so many years up until now, I felt like I was crazy and alone with my feelings and struggles. I didn’t know what to do with my grief, trauma, and feelings. I let it build up inside of me until I exploded. Now I get to talk about it freely and I wish the same for everyone struggling. The stigma around mental health is still strong and it needs to end. It needs to be talked about and I’m so thankful I get to share my story. Even if it helps one person I will have accomplished what I wanted.

Some of the last words my dad wrote in his goodbye letter were, ‘Always know you’re never alone.’ He was right. Please fight for yourself. We’re in this together.”

Woman, boyfriend, and dog
Courtesy of Shelby Stremus

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Shelby Stremus from Grand Rapids, MI. You can follow their journey on Instagram here and here, and on TikTok. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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