It’s just a photograph, I tell myself, as I recover from the unexpected shock of seeing my long-dead father stare back at me from my computer screen.  The misleading subject line of the email from Bob, my dad’s once-young protégé, read:  “Attached is your father’s portrait.”

My dad painted and after my parents separated in 1968 my mom offloaded his two dozen or so paintings to a couple of his close friends (I managed to rescue a few, arguing that the ones my dad painted of my brother and me belonged to us and weren’t hers to give away).  So I thought that Bob, who had recently called to ask if I wanted one of the paintings Mom had given him—a portrait of a yogi—was sending a photo of the painting so I could decide if I wanted it.  Instead, what he sent was a black and white portrait of my father that he shot not long before Dad overdosed and died in December 1970.  My father was forty-four.  I was twelve.

Most of how I remember my dad is from photographs when he was in his twenties and thirties, when he and Mom were newlyweds and then later the parents of young children.  There are very few photos of my dad from later in his troubled life, and nothing like the intense—and intensely sad—image on my computer.  If you didn’t know that my dad suffered from depression and killed himself, you might think that he simply looked thoughtful and contemplative, which he was.  But knowing what I know about his death—knowing what I can never forget as much as I would like to forget—I see sadness and heartbreak.  His sadness.  My heartbreak.

I’ve ticked off the passing years since my dad’s death with something approaching ritual every December 16, although since I marked my own forty-fourth birthday, I no longer worry that I’ll wind up killing myself too—which I’ve learned is something that children of a parent who takes his or her life often fear.  And the pain of Dad’s suicide has long since faded from crushing and persistent to a simple (simple!) occasional ache.  It does indeed get better with time, a long time.

But that photograph makes me more than ache.  I see myself in that face, a face that I can see in my own, and Dad looks as sad as I feel when I think of him and what I lost.  He’s a man I hardly knew, who died eight years shy of the age I am now, yet his absence still has the power to take my breath away and bring tears to my eyes when I look into his eyes.

[Photo Credit:  Robert  H. Lieberman]


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15 Responses to Only A Photograph—Remembering Dad on Father’s Day

  1. Virginia Blanke says:

    I am so proud of you. What a wonderful article about your dad . I will pass on to the S.O.S. in my area. Stay in touch. ♥ Virginia

  2. The photo of your dad is beautiful and haunting – more so knowing that he died by suicide. You write so simply and beautifully. When I read how you teared up looking into his eyes I found myself tearing up. I’m not sure why. Perhaps the tragedy of it all. Thanks for sharing such an intimate experience. I look forward to checking out your book.

  3. David St. Michael says:

    Thank you. xo

  4. Jessica says:

    I really appreciated your post. It rang very true for my situation as well. My mom also shot herself, four years ago this May. My husband’s biggest fear is also that I will die at my own hand too. It scares me but I just have to keep telling myself I have so much to live for, a son, and husband. I really don’t want to hurt them like I was by my mom’s decision. I was 21, but I had a very complicated relationship with her. My mom suffered from bipolar disease and I developed it as well into my young adulthood. I also experience similar emotions when I see photos of her. I see her fake smiles and her sadness. I wish I could have known what she was feeling but the distance (physical and emotionally) that she put between us made that nearly impossible.
    Thanks for your time.

  5. Dawn Hood says:

    Mr. Marcus,
    When you reading this story it gave me me goosebumps. I lost my dad a little over 6 years ago to suicide in which he shot himself. It has pointed me in the direction of suicide and I have a sort of “obsession” as to why. I just finished my master’s degree in Public Health and I have researched a lot of papers concerning suicide and mental health. Your book “Why suicide” will be my next purchase because now I have time to read books on my free time. Thank you for sharing your story, it has touched me.
    Dawn Hood

  6. Kristina W. says:

    If you didn’t know that my dad suffered from depression and killed himself, you might think that he simply looked thoughtful and contemplative, which he was. But knowing what I know about his death—knowing what I can never forget as much as I would like to forget—I see sadness and heartbreak. His sadness. My heartbreak.

    YES, I completely relate when I look at photos of my brother from his last years. Contemplative gazes take on a whole new meaning.

    Thank you for starting this blog.

  7. ranj says:

    …..”yet his absence still has the power to take my breath away and bring tears to my eyes when I look into his eyes.”

    Exactly, how I feel about my daughter, who died by suicide 6 1/2 years ago. It never ends. Thank you, Eric, for helping others (try to) understand about the aftermath of suicide on a person/family.

  8. Kate Hilly says:

    What a touching and very real comment about the kind of grief a loved one suiciding brings. I so relate to the crushing and persistant pain that has ebbed to an ache…..yet the pain can pierce through at many unexpected times. My brother suicided almost 10 years ago now – I marvel at the joy he brought our family in all the best parts of himself….and also the great pain. I think of him now when I play with my son and talk to my husband both of whom he’ll never know. We loved him and so his loss hurts…but my prayer is for all the young kids who experience bullying (like my brother) and that they receive the help and find a way through their pain and confusion to make a better life for themselves…..I pray for the services for those suffering depression and other mental health issues to be properly funded and given so families don’t fight alone against that darkness. I pray for hope for everyone in a dark place….cos there is a new day and it is worth waiting for…

  9. Kim G. says:

    My son’s name was Eric too. He committed suicide in 1996. As a parent of a child who comitted suicide, you worried about your suriving children dying this way. Suicide does run in families. My son was 16 at the time of his death. My daughter was 12. On her 16th, I threw her a party.My way of facing that horrible age.The age I lost my son.

    Suicide is a wound that never quite heals the family. There is always a raw place deep in your heart of a life that never was, but should have been.

    I graduated this year with my Master’s in Soical Work. I work in Mental Health. I know this is a path, I would have never had gone down, had my son not died the way he did.

    So Sorry for your loss. I try to think about his life before he died. He was more than the act of suicide. He was loved by his family and friends.I’m sure your father was too.

    God Bless,
    Mother of Eric Whitt

    • ericmarcus says:

      Hello Kim,
      Congratulations on graduating! Amazing how this kind of traumatic loss can change the trajectory of our lives–and in some positive ways, too. I sometimes feel a bit guilty for getting any kind of pleasure or satisfaction from the work I do around suicide–work that I never would have done if not for my dad’s suicide. All so complicated. Thanks for your comment. Again, congratulations! Best, Eric

  10. Lori says:

    Thank you Eric for sharing so personally and honestly about your father’s suicide. I am inspired to locate a photo of my godmother who I lost to suicide when I was 18 (23 years ago). I want my young daughter to know about this beautiful woman who was such a part of my childhood that she’ll never have the opportunity to meet.

  11. Jenny W. says:

    Hello, I lost my son to suicide coming up on 4 years, July 31. He was 18, lovely, sensitive, contemplative, charismatic, funny, sad, depressed, anxious, diagnosed with depression and SAD, went on meds and took himself off, he drank with the rest of the 18 year-olds on campus, he was a perfectionist, he worried a lot about his appearance and his clothes. He died July 31, 2007. He ran his 2002 Mustang into a tree at 85-100 mph and died on impact. Our family and friends are left with the remains of what his life was while rebuiling ours. I, particularly take great effort to help myself and to help others on their journey through the unnatural, unthinkable act (to those of us that are “rational”) of taking one’s own life, helping them heal to the point where they can go on while keeping their loved-one in their head and heart and can talk about them. Thank God this is out there and thank Eric also for making this possible. Peace.

  12. Linda Kessler says:

    I’m up late as usual since my son died one year ago I don’t sleep well..sometimes too much..sometimes not at all. My son Eric was(Ireally hate was)a very good looking , bright young man with a pretty girlfiend,job ,family thumbs and fingers, a cell phone,feet. mouth and voice, celebrated a birthday, and upon turning 26. who in a dark moment 1 day upon upon turing 26 hung himselfLeft six notes. I’m crushed. My twin brother had a stroke one week after Eric’s death. Never married, Eric meant the world to him. He has suffered two more..My surviving son is now bonding with his Dad who I divorced 17 years ago. The headstone of Erics grave “afamily plot” depicts them as “married on”.and their wedding day…my son Eric says Eric -son. He looks like their son. Along story about that.long week, planning a funeral you never wanted nor expected. But this year has passed and I am still standing, it hurts, people are cruel, insensitive and ignorant. Please make mood disorders as socially acceptable as diabetes, cancer or aides. We have no class. But damn it’s your brain that is very important. Would someone walk up to yu and say..heard your heart is dying..hahahah, can’t eat sugar, you’re fat…etc. Mood disorders kill. Treat them , prevent them..stop defending secrecy in shame. No shame, we all got a brain.

  13. Thanks for this window into your journey that will speak to so many people. I think it is so important to remember those who have past despite how painful it is to make the choice to do so or the nature of their passing. Warm wishes

  14. Juliana says:

    Beautiful. And sad :(

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