08/21/2014 10:08 am ET Updated Oct 21, 2014

Suicide and Son -- Forgiveness

Forgiving my dad was relatively easy. (Relatively.) I just felt so much for him, and the unbearable pain he must have been in. Myself? I didn't give a sh*t about my own pain. I was sure I deserved it.

Loved ones of suicides often, I've found, feel the same. Forgiveness comes last (if at all) to ourselves.

"You are your dad's spitting image," everyone used to tell me. "Exactly alike." I loved hearing this. I was just like my mentor, buddy, singing partner, pitcher, hero, father. "Spitting image."

On a gray January morning in D.C., weeks after my 16th birthday, I opened our front door. He was there resting. Resting? At the base of a tree on the side of the house? Nothing else was in the realm of the possible. There were no airplanes in ancient Rome. Day isn't darker than night. And dads don't die. Certainly not from self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the head.

What do you do when your spitting image, the man you want to be, takes his own life? The trauma that lives in the cells, the unabsorbable loss, in some ways these, too, would prove comparatively easy next to the questions landing like upper cuts, out of the blue, all the time:

How could I have let it happen? What could I have done differently? Why didn't I save him?

These were rooted in fact, as far as I was concerned. I let it happen. I could have done differently. I didn't save him. But could I get a fair hearing on my own behalf? Can anyone? I was, after all, investigator, witness, accomplice, even judge. It's just that my own life and eventual happiness would hinge on the outcome.

"Life can only be understood backwards," my dad's friend quoted in the eulogy. He painted the man I knew -- brilliant, funny, deep, thoughtful, creative, present. "Life can only be understood backwards," he returned to. "The problem is, It must be lived forwards. We may not understand this day for a long time, or ever, but maybe in the warmer light of retrospect, some of this might make more sense."

I knew I could never make any sense of this depthless horror. But now I can say, 25 years on, that I'm able to understand a bit better what it was that killed my dad, the path his death propelled me down, and the healing that would happen in the most unlikely of ways.

After years spent seeking the darkened hues of war-torn places like Bosnia and Rwanda -- and more recently on journeys by Greyhound over the past decade, writing stories and songs about the struggles of fellow riders (including many recent vets of America's two longest wars) -- I realized that patterns emerged about how people try to heal and renew.

One common obstacle, it turns out: the self. The self repels its own compassion and forgiveness. So the only way to hear how unjust we may be with ourselves is to hear it in others.

"Why did I take my daughter to the market [in Sarajevo] that morning?" "Why did I kill my brother on the battlefield, by not reacting quickly?" "Why wasn't I there for my sister?" "Why did I fail my family financially?" On and on. It is the devil with a thousand faces.

But on the bus, between the smallest of hours and the smallest of towns, you hear people bearing witness for one another. Our stories are where we meet, they are the crossroads of human experience. But more importantly -- in my case, I'm certain -- we share our stories to know we're not alone.

And ultimately, we learn from each other how to forgive ourselves.


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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.