He’s young. He shook my hand like a kid twice his age. A sixth-grader with dark hair, long legs, and hunting boots. And even though he didn’t say it, I’ll bet he likes fishing.

It was going to be quite a year. Mama bought me new shoes and new jeans. After one week of school, I was a beloved comedian.

I’d sit in the corner of the lunchroom, telling well-prepared jokes with devastating punchlines. I got invited to a pool party. The girl who invited me called me adorable. Adorable.

It was a decidedly good year.

Until he died.

When they broke the news of Daddy’s death, I wanted to run so hard my legs might fracture. I tried. But they wouldn’t let me out the door.

The funeral home called a few days later. I answered the phone and eavesdropped while Mama talked to the man.

“Courtesy call,” the voice said. “He’s been cremated. Come and get him when you’re ready.”

Come and get him.

The strongest human I’d ever known; the man who taught me to walk upright, to throw baseballs, to tackle low, was ready for curbside pickup.

I didn’t eat supper for weeks. I laid in bed and looked at the ceiling. I held one of Daddy’s dirty shirts against my face.

For the first few nights, I cried myself to sleep until my eyes went numb. After that, all I did was sleep. In fact, once I slept sixteen hours.

What a year.

I’m an adult now. I have mediocre insurance, and a dog who eats better than I do. I don’t sleep nearly as well as I used to. But I’m happy—more or less.

Then, I met him.

He’s young. He shook my hand like a kid twice his age. A sixth-grader with dark hair, long legs, and hunting boots. And even though he didn’t say it, I’ll bet he likes fishing.

His father died last year. There was something about the way the kid said it. Something behind his look that I recognized.

I pressed the issue.

“He swallowed a bottle of pills,” said the kid. “My aunt found him in his car.”

The kid went on to say he’s read some of my stuff—about my father’s own self-inflicted death. Then, he looked at me with serious eyes.

He asked, “Do things ever get better?”

It was a simple question. But my mouth didn’t work. I couldn’t find a single answer because the truth is, I have none.

Still, I wanted to tell him about marathon sleeping, about how the world looks gray even when it’s sunny. I wanted him to know about the four years it takes to regain your appetite. About fear.

I wanted to say that it’s okay to be your own Daddy on holidays, graduations, and weddings. And that it’s alright to talk to ghosts.

Instead, I only stuttered.

We shook hands again. He walked away with his mother. That was several hours ago. I haven’t stopped thinking about him since.

Yes. Things get better, friend. Much better. I promise.

And on that day, you’ll stay up half the night writing something like what you just read.

13 comments

  1. Kathy Lane - May 8, 2017 12:12 pm

    I am so happy to have found you (not that you were lost) but you writing touches me. My precious brother is dying of cancer- he is 54 (April 24th) and he doesn’t have long .He has 2 children and they are dealing with this as best they can. Bless them, I just can’t imagine- My folks are still living and I have another brother and we each have a different grief we are all dealing with but it is the children I pray for the most. It is never easy to lose a parent but when you are young I think it strikes the deepest- all the what ifs and the constant missing him at events and such. Thank you for your gift of writing.

    Reply
  2. GeeGee Chandler - May 8, 2017 12:19 pm

    Thanks for your stories everyday. I hope you will keep in touch with this boy. He may not be as blessed with a family as you have been when you married. He needs you and he needs you now. And, maybe you need him.

    Reply
  3. Judy Miller - May 8, 2017 12:39 pm

    Yes, things do get better, but it takes a long time and just when you have almost forgotten it, something like this post brings it all back as if it happened yesterday.

    Reply
  4. Kimberly Redmond - May 8, 2017 1:12 pm

    I just found your blog about a week ago when someone shared it on fb. I truly feel like you’re a long lost friend already & each post moves more than the next. You would fit in well in the one red light town I live in the Florida panhandle. ❤

    Reply
  5. Sam Hunneman - May 8, 2017 1:33 pm

    So many families are touched by suicide these days, mine among them. I’m thankful that we now have The Center for Grieving Children here in Maine. And just recently, a friend who used to live down the road wrote a book called “I Know It In My Heart: Walking Through Grief With A Child” [Dr. Mary Plouffe]. Breast cancer took her sister while Mary was tending her 3-year old daughter. That said, I know that suicide adds a whole ‘nuther level… what didn’t I see, what could I have done differently, if only I had ____, would they still be here? Keep talking, Sean. Keep writing. Blessings.

    Reply
  6. Lori Klein - May 8, 2017 2:08 pm

    It was my Granddaddy. He waited until my Grandmother got home from church. He laid in a coma at the VA in Birmingham for a week before he died. They made me go in and see things I can never un see. I’m so sorry Mr. Dietrich. No boy should ever have to deal with that. It does indeed get better. But it never really goes away.
    You’ve done a beautiful job of redeeming an awful thing. Your writing, it helps us know we are not alone.

    Reply
  7. gayle r tucker - May 8, 2017 2:17 pm

    Suicide is a terrible thing. I was an adult when my mother did the deed. It has been ten years. I am still so angry with her for that selfish act. That she left a ridiculous suicide note in which said she had two daughters who had not shamed her. Not that she had two daughters she loved and was proud of. Two daughters who were there for her each and every day. It was all about her and her self victimization. Your Dad did the same selfish thing. In an instant he destroyed your childhood. Thoughtless act of a person who really thought more of what he was involved in. Not what a little seven or eight year old boy would think and grieve and lose sleep and develop no appetite. You can pity your father but do not ride that horse to your grave. You survived.
    Yes, you get over it. It is a scar you are left with. Spend more hours thinking of the woman who took over and worked herself to exhaustion to help you survive.

    Reply
  8. Laura Young - May 8, 2017 2:25 pm

    Thank you, Sean, for sharing. The pain of a death gets better with time, but even though I lost 2 brothers as teens 43 years ago, sometimes when I think about them, I cry until I am sobbing. I cannot imagine the pain a child feels when a parent commits suicide. As a nurse I was taught about the feelings family members experience when facing the death of a loved one from suicide- guilt (could I have done something, is it my fault?), anger and abandonment (how could they leave us like that?), denial (there must be a mistake- they would not do that) as well as sorrow. But, you know, knowing those things on an intellectual level never gave me the best way to help someone grieving like that. I found that sometimes the best way was to cry with them, hold them, love them and try to fill the void very briefly by being with them- even for a few minutes. You did that for that boy- you had been there and understood. You not answering him was an answer about how hard it is to get over such a devastating experience.

    Reply
  9. Josie - May 8, 2017 2:49 pm

    WOW! Just wow!

    Reply
  10. R.S. Williams - May 8, 2017 4:21 pm

    Thank you so much for this eloquent meditation on love and loss and the pain that never really goes away.

    Reply
  11. Donna McDowell - May 8, 2017 5:49 pm

    I still want to die many days. My only child died 3.9.13 Gary was 44. He was kind, gentle, responsible, God fearing hard working, parent loving and a best friend to so many. Im a grief counselor and in time 5_7 yrs I hope to develop coping skills and can go through all the personal belongings we have here. If not when I’m gone someone can donate them. But that sinking, longing, empty pit we call a heart dies a little every day. Prayer helps, my husband and friends help. But grief requires self talk, loud tears, talking it out over and over. Why him, why cancer when he was so healthy and young. Why? His mission here was complete. I think no….but only God makes those decisions. I don’t see through the same eyes, everything it’s tinged a little gray. Laughter isn’t gutteral….??? Holidays are endless and painful. The next time you see the little boy tell him…
    We survive but it’s not easy and most of all the suicide was not his fault. It’s the hardest of all deaths…tell him it’s important to talk about this….
    You are remembered in prayer for the loss of your Dad. Donna in Niceville FL

    Reply
  12. Jeannie - May 9, 2017 12:28 am

    My heart breaks for all who have lost a loved one to suicide. A very hard way to lose someone, especially a parent whom you see as your safe place, your rock. My deepest sympathies to all who have suffered such loss.

    Reply
  13. Michael Bishop - May 15, 2017 2:23 pm

    Another belated comment, apparently your thirteenth for this piece.
    Just one word: Amen.
    No, add a couple more: Bless you.

    Reply

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