Meet Josh's Dad
That would be me. Plus, a little about the rest of Josh’s family.
This entire column, not just this entry, contains a content warning. I will be writing about suicide, depression, post-traumatic stress, and other serious topics. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please reach out to someone you trust, establish care with a therapist, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255), or go to your nearest emergency room. Please stick around. We need you.
Dear readers, if you’re going to trust me on this soul-baring journey of suicide survival, I figure you should know more about me than a short biographical paragraph allows.
Before Josh’s suicide, I would’ve said I’m a pretty ordinary guy. My laser focus was on being an excellent dad to my three kids and a loving husband to my wife Jessica. After that, I prided myself on my efforts as a psychiatrist, invested in my patients’ healing, deploying the latest insights gained from peer-reviewed research. I’m a restless neophile, loving new tastes in beer and tea, new cities to explore (I’ve been to four continents), new books to fall into, new music, new movies. I’ve even been a film critic, but in the aftermath of Josh’s suicide, I’ve let my professional memberships lapse: I just can’t summon the concentration or enthusiasm to watch a film every other day and write a couple of reviews weekly.
But if I had to name the defining events in my life, besides parenthood, they would be the death of my mother, my divorce and remarriage, and my embrace of secular humanism.
In May 1985, my mom was diagnosed with metastatic cancer of the pancreas. By August, she was dead. The shock of her sudden death when I was 17 imprinted on me the precarious uncertainty of existence. It left me adrift within my own family, as I was closest to my mom, while my dad and older brother were tightest.
This tragedy also taught me how not to grieve. At my mom’s funeral, I was the sole family member who cried (sobbed, actually), and there was no one to comfort me, no hand on my shoulder. I felt mortified and ashamed of my emotion and learned to repress and deny my grief.
My mother was seldom mentioned in my home again.
The day after my mother’s funeral, I was dropped off at an out-of-state college and buried myself in pre-med studies and fundamentalist Christian activity after a born-again experience the preceding year. But guess what? Grief will find a way out, and six years later, it blossomed into my first major bout of clinical depression, severe enough that I took a year of leave from medical school.
In 2007, my marriage to the mother of my kids collapsed for good. We had tied the knot 16 years previously as clueless Christian kids with eyes toward missionary service. When I stopped attending church, there were no pillars beyond our shared religiosity to keep our marriage standing.
Despite the mutually evident lack of love–replaced by disgust and dislike–I blamed myself for wrecking our marriage. I suffered near-psychotic levels of guilt until my therapist pointed out that I didn’t unilaterally kill our marriage, I merely pronounced it dead. The stress of our divorce precipitated my second (and hopefully, last) bout of severe depression. Both episodes contained suicidal ideation and even flashes of a plan. Unlike my son, these thoughts were weaker than my will to live and prompted me to seek professional help.
By the early 2000s, my conservative Christianity became untenable. Fellow exvangelical Bart Campolo describes his loss of faith as a death by a thousand cuts, which captures my belief erosion perfectly. In Dubya’s ramp-up to war in Iraq, I was sickened by the seamless merge of evangelical devotion and knee-jerk patriotism. Friendship with a lesbian couple at my workplace spurred me to reject Bible-based homophobia. A love of Japanese cinema (Kurosawa and Ozu forever!) led me to study Buddhism in depth, which took a roundabout turn to immersion in the writings of Ehrman, Dawkins, Hitchens, and company.
A couple of years as the stereotypical pissed-off atheist gave way to a mellower progressive secular humanism. And glory Hallelujah, I was free! If I felt sad or remorseful, it was because of legitimately bad circumstances or because I’d screwed up, not from imagined sins or my irreparably fallen human nature. Instead of the useless acrobatics to reconcile contemporary morality with a primitive, immoral tome, I gained a clearer view of my biases as a privileged American white guy. Life simply, splendidly became more fun, with Sundays that are actually days of rest, without guilt-tripping preachers and fake churchy friendships.
At the time of my deconversion, I resided in the Bible Belt. Luckily, I discovered like-minded heathens at a freethinking meet-up. Still luckier, I met my wife of eight years there. At the risk of sounding Hallmark-y, Jessica has made me into a better human. We share a similar intellectual rigor, but she surpasses me with her integrity and empathy. She’s my best-ever friend.
Jessica also became a more-present maternal figure for Josh than his biological mother. This kicked into overdrive when his mom married her current husband. Together they decided Josh’s inability to stay in school or hold down a job were moral failures, more laziness than mental illness. They informed Josh he was no longer permitted to live with them. (Previously, Josh and his siblings split their time between parents 50-50.) I had known for years that Josh was happier during his weeks with me, so while I didn’t concur with his mom’s reasoning, Jessica and I agreed that his full-time residence with us was better for him.
Josh ultimately severed all contact with his mother after the 2020 election, saying he couldn’t respect someone who voted for Trump twice. I think this was merely the final straw, perhaps even a pretext. As the lone non-Christian among his siblings, I have no doubt he already felt like an outcast. And the shame implicit in her “you’ve got so much potential” messaging surely ground him down.
Offsetting his problematic relationship with his mother, Josh was a winner in the sibling lottery. Though they were around less and less—big brother Paul serves in the military, his older sister Liz is engaged and in grad school—Josh’s mood lifted by an order of magnitude when they visited. I delighted in the shrieks echoing through our house as they got caught up in Mario Kart Racing, the belly laughs during Cards Against Humanity matches, or overhearing them compare notes on favorite manga and anime.
Given their close bonds, Paul and Liz were just as stunned as Jessica and me when Josh took his life. We’d been excitedly planning a Christmas reunion in our new Washington home. Instead, we were left to grieve together the traumatic absence of their dear brother.
Next up: With introductions behind us, it’s time to talk coping strategies in the immediate aftermath of suicide.