Remembering the Good: A Daughter Reflects on her Father’s Life

By Ruby Falk

In Order to Remember, We Must Forgive

My dad, George, was funny, loved to play his guitar(s), had great style, was brilliant in the kitchen and was so deeply invested in my life. There was nothing he loved more than his family — my mom, my sister and me.

I have memories of coming home from school with friends and feeling humiliated as we walked up the driveway, because you could hear him blasting music and playing his guitar as loudly as he could. “He’s so cool!” they would say, as I rolled my eyes like a proper teenager. But, for better or worse, I knew all the lyrics to Eric Clapton’s “Layla” before I could sing my ABCs.

Professionally, he was a recruiter, which was perfectly fitting for him, because he just had a way with people. He could find something to talk about with pretty much anyone. I’m not just talking small talk; he found a way to genuinely connect with you and make you feel like you were in good company, even if you had absolutely nothing in common with him.

He was love personified. A ball of mush while watching Father of the Bride or any Subaru commercial involving dogs and/or kids learning how to drive. He wasn’t afraid to be a sensitive, affectionate guy. When I was going through a particularly heinous break-up, he rode his motorcycle to my college dorm to take me out for pizza and give me a hug. When I told him I wanted to DIY some things for my wedding, he went straight to the craft store with me and got right down to business.

But it took me a really long time to remember any of that after he died. All of the good (and there was a lot of good) associated with my dad instantly disappeared. Because the way in which he died is what I’ve deemed as “unsavory.”

On August 11, 2015, my dad died by suicide. I was almost 27 years old and had gotten married exactly two months earlier.

Anyone who has lost a loved one in an “unsavory” way — generally, suicide and/or an overdose — knows all too well the physical reaction you have when someone asks how your person died. It’s information we’re not so ready to give away until we know we can truly trust the person to hold this for us. This same level of recoiling doesn’t exist when we’ve lost someone to cancer or another illness. We’re much quicker to share the positive, happy, warm memories of that person. We remember the rich life they lived leading up to their passing, even if it was an untimely death.

How is it still this hard for us (myself included) to accept that mental illness is as critical and life-threatening as any physical condition?

How I Got Here

In college, I studied political science. I had dreams of moving to Washington, D.C., to work in politics, either on Capitol Hill or at some political nonprofit, nongovernmental organization (NGO), lobbying group, etc. And, because of my dad, I did just that when I graduated college. He was acutely aware of how badly I wanted to be out there, and he couldn’t have been more excited for me when the day came to leave, no matter how sad he was that we were about to be two time zones apart. 

Once I lost my dad, my career aspirations completely changed. I could give you the whole timeline and trajectory of which nonprofits I worked for and why, and of how and when I left. But the most important part of this for me can actually be traced back to conversations I had with my husband in therapy. He started coming with me after my dad died, because I couldn’t find the words to explain to him what this experience was like for me, and I knew my therapist could help me do this. During one session when I was getting particularly agitated with everything my husband didn’t know, she explained to me what it was like for my husband to watch me be brutally beaten while someone else was holding him back.

There was nothing he could do to stop me from experiencing the worst pain I’ve ever known. 

That was a turning point for me, for him and for our relationship. And these turning points led to a dramatic career change. When I was six months pregnant with our first daughter, I told my husband I wanted to go to graduate school and pursue a career in marriage and family therapy. I wanted to facilitate conversations like we had that encourage couples to turn toward each other during grief, not to isolate and push away.

Forgiveness through Compassion

If I can be perfectly frank with you, I struggle with the idea of forgiveness here. As a therapist, a Jew and a mother, it’s something I believe in deeply. How could we let one incident dictate the relationship we have with someone we love? Isn’t this what the High Holy Days are about, after all?

I’m no rabbi, but I know the answer to that is “yes.” And this was a concept that used to resonate with me. I thought observing the days of awe was such a beautiful, profound practice within Judaism —  like a great responsibility I had. 

But then my dad left me. “He chose to do this to you. You don’t owe him your forgiveness!” I would tell myself, knowing full well that simply wasn’t true. Grief can ruin your ability to think logically, though. Prior to losing my dad, I never believed suicide was something someone did to someone else. It was the result of a disease. After losing my dad, I still believe this.

Now I just have to learn to put that into practice.

Ruby Falk is a compassionate couples therapist, dedicated to helping couples navigate the challenges of grief together. After experiencing the shocking loss of her dad, she pursued a master’s degree in counseling with a focus on marriage and family therapy from the University of Colorado – Denver. Ruby brings a robust understanding of family systems to her therapy practice as well as a deep sense of empathy for the human experience. 

Beyond her private practice, Ruby is the co-host of the podcast I Love My Baby, and…, where she offers a good balance between therapeutic insight and “a whole lot of validation” for the parenting experience.

A partner of and contributor to the Blue Dove Foundation, Ruby resides just outside Denver with her husband, two wonderful daughters and dog Luna.

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