‘How Do You Tell Your Kids Their Dad Is Committing Suicide at That Very Moment?’


Friday, April 3, 2009 started out as a normal day. I worked as a volunteer coordinator at a Southern hospice chain and my team had a large bingo event at a local retirement center during lunch. We spent the morning prepping door prizes. I bought lots of party food. Most of my day was spent trying to make an afternoon enjoyable for people who didn’t have much longer on this earth.

There were multiple sleepovers at my house, planned by my three oldest kids, on that particular Friday night. The boys were going to video game themselves into a coma and the girls’ friends were going to try and stir my girls up, displaying as much teen angst as they thought they could get away with. As I was leaving work for home, I started getting phone calls asking for food things we didn’t already have. I rushed to make a grocery run.

I was unloading groceries when “Stu,” a colleague from another local church, stopped by our house. I tried to invite him inside but he refused. Stu asked me to deliver my husband, who was working in our home office, to him outside. It was very odd for someone from the South, living in the South, not to come inside when invited. Southerners aren’t typically rude when they show up at your front door. My husband went outside and because something clearly was wrong, I ran to the garage to eavesdrop. I listened while Stu demeaned, emasculated, and fired my husband from his job (which is a long story for another time). When my husband walked back inside the door, his eyes looked hollow and his face was white. He went back in the office and shut the door. My gut told me to send my youngest daughter across the street to play with her friend. The teenagers upstairs were laughing furiously. I checked in on the boys who were oblivious to anything except the screen in front of their faces. I was relieved none of them were aware how unsettling the day had turned. About a half an hour later, my husband walked out of our bedroom heading for the front door, stopping to say, “I’m going for a drive to clear my head.” Our eyes locked for a split second. The words, “Are you coming back?” flooded out of my mouth before I knew what I was saying. He nodded his head and the door closed behind Him. Instinct told me to follow. Keys in hand, I yelled to my girls they needed to watch the boys while I ran an errand. I called my neighbor to make sure my youngest daughter was in fact at her house. I couldn’t have been more than 30 seconds behind him leaving our subdivision.

I drove around for 20 minutes trying to locate him.

He vanished.

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I gave up.

I drove home.

Walking up to my front door, I noticed he had emptied the back end of his truck on our front porch and it was a jumble of plastic tubs and electrical cords neatly tied and stacked. Odd. Not normal. When did He do that? I went straight to the kitchen to check on the BBQ in my crock pot and to finish dinner. There was such an overwhelming feeling of apprehension, I didn’t trust myself to stay composed. I went to my bedroom to wait for him to come back.

A few years earlier, we were driving from state to state after having been around his family for a few days. One of his teenage nephews had been tragically killed outside the United States a few years earlier and his sister was so broken. That boy’s death was one of the worst things I had ever heard of happening and none of us thought she would ever recover. On the way home, with our three babies in the back of our conversion van, he turned the radio up and turned to me saying, “If you ever think I’m not okay, you need to tell me so I can go to the doctor. “I glanced up, confused. He clarified, “If you think I’m starting to lose it mentally, you need to make sure I get medical help.” We were both silent for a moment. He said, ”I mean with (his sister) struggling so much, and my dad’s family history, you need to tell me if I ever need to see a doctor. I don’t want to be like that.” I nodded. I turned my head toward the window watching the trees turn into swampy bayous and contemplated how I would ever be able to make that work.

Exactly an hour and forty minutes later, I got the text. I’d never received a suicide text before. I had to read it multiple times before I understood all the words. In the message, he apologized for being a bad leader and then told me how to help the church survive. There wasn’t anything about how much he loved me, how to tell the kids he wasn’t going to be around any longer or how I was going to survive it all. There was no apology to me for bailing on life. Even with the very last communication he intended to have while still on this earth, the church seemed to be the only thing that mattered to him.

I felt disconnected. Confused. Lead legged. I have no idea how long I stood in my bedroom looking at that screen on my phone. Forever? Maybe a few seconds? I was overwhelmed with so many thoughts but mostly they revolved around the kids. How do you tell your kids their dad is committing suicide this very moment? Maybe I’d tell them he died in a car accident? Maybe I’d just tell them He ran off and wasn’t coming back? Anything would be better than knowing your dad couldn’t think enough of you to stick around. Right?

I knew he had been on the edge of something for awhile.

I had warned people.

I had asked for help.

I wasn’t strong enough to fix him alone.

Three weeks earlier, I came home from work mid-afternoon and found his truck in the driveway. It was too early for him to be home and I assumed he was with one of the other men who worked with him and didn’t think much about it. I fixed dinner and ate with the kids, started laundry, cleaned up from dinner, folded laundry. Just a normal at home evening. The kids and I watched a Disney channel movie but still no contact from him and his cell was going unanswered. No text messages were returned. Around 9 pm that night, I was trying to start the process for helping all four kids wind down their day. They started taking individual showers and I walked in my room to put clothes away. I opened the door to my closet intending to hang clothes on the rod when I noticed the floor was all disheveled. Shoes were piled up in weird ways. Blankets were wadded up and piled high underneath. I was actually quite angry when I saw a pair of my leather flats tossed under some dirty boots. Grabbing those red shoes, the pile moved and I could see his hand. He was underneath it all. Sleeping. Or catatonic. Or maybe he was delirious. I wasn’t sure. I started throwing things off him. He had created a nest for himself. It was scary. It was disturbing. I tried to coax him out. He resisted. I tried to pull him out by his legs but he kept snatching them back. His speech was mostly agitated babbling. I asked questions that went unanswered. He started covering himself back up, hiding away in the safety of his self-created cocoon. I knew he needed help. I knew I needed help. I knew I needed privacy to call his parents so I walked outside. I wanted them to come down and help me. They both got on the phone, I explained the situation, and instead of jumping in the car to try and help their son, the only answer I received was, “Well, we will pray for you both to figure it out.”

Wait. What?

They want to pray for us?! I told them a second time that he had covered himself up with shoes and was incoherently talking. Again, they chose not to come help. I was blown away. What parents hear their adult child is sleeping under footwear and they don’t break their necks to eyeball him asap? I called my parents. I called them because I needed sanity. I called them because I needed someone to know how crazy my home life was, who would still want to be around us. I called them because I needed emotional support and I knew they would give it to me. They lived locally and immediately offered to come over. I wouldn’t let them. He didn’t like them on a good day and I had no idea what kind of condition he would be in when he finally crawled out of the closet. I got the kids in bed and waited. I looked at the clock for the last time at 3:30 am and eventually fell asleep. When I woke up, he was passed out in bed. I pushed hard the next day to try and get him to see a doctor. He refused to consider it. His parents never checked back in with me to see how he was and I was alone trying to figure it out.

I calmly walked out of my house and tried to call his phone. He obviously had it turned off because the call went straight to voice mail. I sent a text pleading with him to call me. I felt like every fiber of my body was screaming like a mad woman. I climbed in my SUV for privacy and called “Abner”. Abner, second in the chain of command at the church he pastored, had a huge impact on why he was fired in the first place (… long tale for another day). I remember screaming loudly in the phone, “I TOLD YOU!!! I TOLD YOU HE COULDN’T HANDLE LIFE! I. FREAKING. TOLD. YOU.” Abner quietly informed me he got the same text too. (Of course Abner got the same message. A group suicide text. Classic him.) Abner informed me he called the police and was driving to my house right now. Abner also took it upon himself to call Stu and Stu was also on his way back to to my house. I said, “Why would I want either of you at my house?!” I ended the call. I hung up on Abner because I couldn’t stomach hearing his apologies. I hung up on him for not listening to me months ago when I begged him to help me figure it all out.

I tried to call and text his cell phone again. Nothing.

The police showed up. It was big news in our state for a pastor to go missing. Four police cars showed up on my quiet cul de sac. Lights on. Sirens blaring. I left my yard to keep the cars away from my house. I begged God to keep all my kids inside, occupied and safe. The police met me in a neighbor’s yard. I showed them the text.

They asked me where he was. “I have no clue. Why are there so many police cars here??”

They asked me if he had a gun. “He has a shotgun but it’s in the house. Can you please move some of these cars? I have kids!”

They asked me if I had any further contact with him. “He won’t answer his phone. It’s turned off. Will you please turn off all the flashing lights?”

They asked me if he had any motivation. “You are asking me if I know why he wants to end his life? I don’t understand why anyone would do that?! Please, please move these cars.”

Abner showed up. They asked him questions. He answered. They decided to file a missing person’s report. All the police cars drove off together.

I realized I needed to find a couple of parents who would switch the sleepovers to their houses. One girl mom agreed to come get all the girls. One boy mom agreed to come get her sons and mine. I called my momma and told her everything happening. She and my dad planned on taking my youngest home with them. I called his parents and told them what was happening. They agreed it was finally appropriate to drive down and would be at my house sometime that night. Abner was still hanging around and I remember spewing bitter words to him about Stu, who had just arrived. “You tell him to leave. He’s not welcome here. You called him…you deal with him. I will call the police back and cause a huge scene if you don’t make him go…” I watched Abner walk over to Stu’s car and they both stood in the street in front of my house until Stu left.

Abner asked me if I wanted him to stay. “No. No, I don’t. Leave.”

The girl mom showed up, hugged me and told me not to worry about the girls. They could stay as long as I needed. My girls walked out of the house refusing to break eye contact with me. They were confused. One of them said, “Why do we have to leave?” I replied, “So you can have fun.” I couldn’t tell them our new reality but hugged each one tight. They knew something big had happened. I’m sure I looked crazy but they willingly climbed in the car and left. The boys’ mom showed up and hugged me hard. The boys were oblivious and just anticipated a night of fun. My son was so excited. Big smiles as they drove away. (To this day, I am not sure I have ever thanked those two women. I was only able to handle that particular night because of their friendship. They know who they are and if they happen to be reading this, from the bottom of my heart, I love you. I would do absolutely anything in the world for either of you.)

As all the kids were leaving, my parents showed up and my youngest walked back home. The four of us walked slowly inside. Mom immediately started cleaning out of a lack of knowing what else to do and dad tried to distract my little girl. People who worked with him started showing up in couples. It was awkward. What do you say to someone whose husband probably already killed himself? One of the women, a dear soul and also one of his staff pastors, walked in with sheer panic on her face. She was desperately trying to figure out the location of his phone, hoping that she would be the one to find him. I kept saying, “He’s gone, (her name). It’s been too long. We are just waiting on him to be found. He’s gone.” One of my dearest friends, a man that he and I had been calling our younger brother for over 10 years, showed up and stayed with me until after midnight. His parents showed up around 10 pm. They talked about how much they were caught unaware of his instability. (Eye roll.) His dad kept saying, “I just can’t believe this is happening.” All those people, like me, kept sending text message after text message and also left multiple voice mails to a phone that was turned off.

No response was ever received from Him and people eventually went home. I’m sure they were relieved to get back in their cars and away from my nightmare. Around 2 am, I gave up my vigil of waiting for a phone call and went to bed. My sweet 8-year-old daughter, who refused to go to her grandparents’ house, was in my room, sleeping so innocently but sticking to me like glue. I remember laying there watching her. I remember when the weeping started. I remember when it hit me there was a body somewhere waiting to be found. It hit me that I was a widow at 41. It hit me that I was a single mom of four. I got out of bed and ran to my shower. Standing there, with the water turned as hot as it would get, I sobbed and wailed straight to God. I did not understand the why of so many many things about my marriage, about feeling lost in my life, about how I was going to be able to support my babies and about how long the uncertainty would continue. I was bombarded by thoughts of people in our hospice care I saw earlier that day. People who had every reason to want to die, trying to live as long as possible and the irony of someone who wanted to take his gift of life and crush it too soon. I cried until the water ran cold and my tears ran dry.

He ended up being found in a field in an adjoining state the next afternoon, confused and upset. He was taken by ambulance to the closest emergency room and as unstable as he was when I arrived, they turned him over to me. As hard as that night was, the subsequent years were worse. There were so many horrific moments, post suicide attempt, I contemplated how much easier it might have been if his life had ended. Therapy, counselors, diagnoses and medications became the center of our lives for awhile. He periodically decided to stop taking medicine and the instability eventually ended our marriage.

Every single one of us lives around others who are wading through completely broken lives. If you haven’t experienced it yourself, feel fortunate. Someone you know is hanging by a thread. It’s horrible. It’s painful. It is sucking the life out of them.

I realize it’s not “To Write Love on Her Arms” day. It’s not Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. There is nothing that links this specific day to suicide and that’s why I wrote this article. People don’t lose themselves a few times a year. It happens in the everyday life of people you wouldn’t anticipate. Maybe a huge life altering thing happens and someone’s decision to end their life can be traced back to a moment that made their brain melt. Sometimes, however, it’s a quiet contemplative buildup. We need to be thinking about those around us who might be struggling every day. Look at your friends in the eyes and take stock. You might be the only one who sees something is off. You might be the only reason they take a step back to evaluate.

If someone comes to you and says, “Help me/us something is wrong.” You help them. Don’t you dare try and pacify them with the Christian cop-out, “I’m praying”. Definitely pray for them but get off your God-given bootie and stop hiding behind your self-satisfying spirituality and act. You physically get in front of their face and you pick them up and stay with them until they can manage life. If someone reaches out to you they trust you. They see you as a strong capable warrior who might slay the dragon they are facing. Get a little dirty. You don’t want to know someone was crying out to you and you couldn’t be bothered. The night his parents told me they were praying for us, I shouldn’t have taken their decision so easily. I should have pushed harder. I should have been more persuasive. I should have kept calling them back until they agreed to come. I needed other people standing outside that closet door that night telling him to come out and get help. I wonder if His mom ever thought about my call after the attempt. Did she have any regret? Did she ever think she could have been His voice of reason? If only we could have pulled together and stopped the clock for Him when it was just shoes in a closet…

If someone close to you is diagnosed with a mental issue and they are given medicine to help combat their symptoms, don’t allow them to say “I feel better. I don’t need those pills anymore.” Encourage them take them anyway as prescribed. If they are insistent they don’t need them, go with them to get a professional opinion. In a story for another time, my ex-husband took himself off his meds a few months later because he thought he didn’t need them any longer. Even though he never attempted suicide again to my knowledge, He crashed a second time. Completely unnecessary. I should have been a better watchdog for him.

If you find yourself thinking harmful thoughts, thoughts of destroying your life on earth, (or you think someone else is having odd thoughts), get to a licensed therapist or a counselor. Ask your pastor or trusted friends for recommendations and then use those to start your search. Not everyone is going to be equipped to manage your issue and so if the fit feels off, keep looking. Find a professional you feel comfortable with who will strive to help you walk down whatever path you find yourself. Keep your appointments. Keep going to therapy until you have confirmation you are well. If you need someone to go with you or to keep you accountable, bring a friend. Therapy waiting rooms are easier with a little moral support.

Finally, listen to your gut. If you notice something seems off with a friend or loved one, be available. Try to get them to talk to you. Sit with them even if they don’t have anything to say. No one’s life is exempt from hard moments. Support each other. Don’t assume people are living perfect lives because they aren’t. Everyone struggles. Some folks just can’t handle all life hands them.

Be their friend when it’s not easy.

Be their reason to want to stay.

Be their salvation in the darkness.

LeighAnn Billsten
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LeighAnn is a mid-South mom of four grown children, praying for her survival and theirs. She transplanted to sunny Southern California a few years ago and home is her favorite place to be. An ambivert, she's obsessed with crushed ice, Santa Claus and funny people. To read more stories about parenting, marriage, and real life- follow LeighAnn on Medium.