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What I Learned from My Dad About Hopelessness and the Five Keys to Hope

Today is the anniversary of my dad’s passing. He did by suicide when I was 18 years old, 31 years ago today. It is a day that is forever etched in my memory, and the pain, while dulls, never really goes away. Those that have lost someone to suicide get it. No matter what, there […]

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Today is the anniversary of my dad’s passing. He did by suicide when I was 18 years old, 31 years ago today. It is a day that is forever etched in my memory, and the pain, while dulls, never really goes away.

Those that have lost someone to suicide get it. No matter what, there is always an immense pain, shock, disbelief, guilt, remorse, and sadness that surrounds suicide. No matter how logical it is to know that we can’t save another human, the echo of ‘what is’ forever reverberates.

Yet i don’t stay there anymore, as one thing I know for sure about hope, it is that the more we try to control the uncontrollable, the more hopeless we become. It is one of the greatest challenges to hope. So I’ve taken a lot of time to heal, and do so regularly, so I can get back to my upstairs brain and figure out how best to serve humanity with my knowledge.

2020 took my work on hope to a new level. I grieved in deeper places than I have ever grieved, and recovered and moved to action more powerfully than ever before. I made my commitment to take the time, update our program Hopeful Minds based on years of research, write The Biggest Little Book About Hope, and started The Hope Matrix, a podcast about hope in action. I then got a project in Reno, and worked to launch Hopeful Cities, and now the Global Hope Challenge which is free for anyone around the world. Instead of running from my feelings, I embraced them, and let them inform me.

One thing I wanted to do was build out about some Keys to Hope (we like our lists). So I came up with Five to start, and while reflecting today on all I have been through, wanted to share what I learned from my dad about these keys, and how I think they played into his ultimate suicide. As I believe we learn a lot by example, so here goes:

  1. Identify and Manage the Stress Response: Anytime we are triggered and feel deep negative emotion, this is our stress response. So when we are sad, angry, frustrated, etc., our body has a physiological response that floods through the body, dropping our HRV, limiting our ability to access our critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Unfortunately, we didn’t really know this back then, and my dad failed miserably at managing his response, recognizing it, and tying it to his biology. He was unable to manage his triggers. He didn’t even know what triggered him. And if we can’t manage this response, we act out either against ourselves or others- think violence, addictions, risky behavior, etc. My dad created a lot of chaos in his life because of his inability to identify and manage his stress response. That is why this key is so critical, and the first key. It impacts everything. We must all learn how to identify and manage this response and help others do the same. And the number one thing you can do? Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Just don’t act. Until 90 seconds after the last trigger.
  2. Practice Happiness Habits: These are things that keep us in the ‘upstairs brain’. Thankfully, my dad was awesome at this. He exercised, got in nature, connected with friends, fished, snowmobiled, loved music, ate well, was passionate about work, supported his kids, volunteered, and so much more. I mean, he was AMAZING at Happiness, which is why it made his inability to manage his stress response so hard. He was either really happy or uber triggered. Yet he really just wanted to be happy and didn’t understand that sometimes, to be happy, you have to do the hard work to understand your triggers and pains and release them. By the time he addressed some of his deep pains in life, he had done a lot of damage acting out in his stress response. We are taught, in society, that you just want to ‘be happy’, yet what many don’t understand, is sometimes you have to process your pain and be really sad, to get there. And let’s be real, we all have pain.
  3. Take inspired actions using SMART goals. My dad was an MBA, banker, and all about SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound). He reached so many of the goals he set. Where he ran into problems, was when he got so fixated on a goal he could not change it (attainable). Anytime we set goals, especially when it involves other people, they have to be in on the goals. And if they aren’t, sometimes we need to find new people to create goals (goals need buy-in to be attainable). When he was faced with being an empty nester, he ruminated on us gone as opposed to setting a new goal about us being around in a new way, or even having more kids, adopting some, or helping other families. What he wanted was the feelings of the family being around (comfort, security, fun, laughter, etc.) and he could have found many ways to achieve those feelings, he was too attached to his way of doing it. We must be flexible and adaptable with goals. And make them SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound)
  4. Creating a Network for Hope. My dad was also great about networks, and he fostered great relationships and did the things necessary to build them. He was loved in the community, at work, in his clubs, and more. Yet at a very fragile time in his life, he was alone, and he should not have been. If you are in crisis, stay with friends, stay at a hospital, or make sure someone is around. Know the crisis text line. And if all else fails, connect yourself to nature, awe, wonder, God if you believe in God, and things greater than yourself. Identify your hope network, then strengthen it. And know that sometimes, nobody will be available and we will feel all alone. Yet ultimately, we don’t need someone else to fix us, we need the despair and helplessness to end. Sometimes, the only thing in our network that is available, is time. If you find yourself alone and in crisis, make sure you also have your stress skills clear so you can help deescalate your emotions until someone is available.
  5. Overcoming Challenges to Hopelessness. We’ve identified a few, like rumination, worry, internalizing failure, and trying to control the uncontrollable. My dad definitely struggled with all of these, before it was a thing or I knew anything about them. He internalized failures deeply, was unable to step away from them and look at them objectively. He wanted to control other people, yet couldn’t. He ruminated about his mistakes and didn’t believe in his ability to create something amazing for his future. With these beliefs, he dug his pit of hopelessness deeper, and deeper, and deeper. It was tragic to watch, as I wanted so much for everything to just be ‘fixed’, yet had no idea where to start. Yet the first step to overcoming challenges is to identify them. And then to practice skills to overcome them. Day, by day, by day. I’m not saying it is easy, yet it is possible.

When I then attempted in my 20s, it came as a shock, as I didn’t imagine I ever could do that to someone. Yet suicide is never about someone else, it is always about the self. And I had been triggered one night while highly intoxicated and did not understand how to regulate that response with deep breathing. I now do, and aim to ensure everyone does, as that skill alone saves lives.

While my dad is not present physically, he is now around me all the time. I feel his support, guidance, and love. And one thing he has made crystal clear, he does not want to be remembered for hopelessness, he wants to be remembered for what he can teach everyone about hope. And I have created all our work in a way that makes it free so that anyone can access these skills and start practicing.

Hope is also a process, and we don’t just learn about hope for ourselves, but for others. You aren’t truly hopeful, until you can give others the roadmap for how to get there. And are living by example, day in and day out.

Also know that if you are getting triggered these days, you are not alone. Yet don’t wait until you have panic disorders, anxiety, or a full-blown depressive episode. It’s not fun, believe me.

Get support. Be proactive. Understand how the stress response impacts biology. Start monitoring your HRV. Practice your habits. Set SMART goals. Create a strong network. Be in others’ networks. Overcome challenges. Talk to your kids about hope, share how important it is. Join our free 30 day Global Hope Challenge, to start learning about it and practicing the skills.

I can share what I know, yet I can’t do the work. Yet these are what I have found are Keys to Hope. Yet to activate it in your life, or the lives of others, you’ve got to do the work.

Thanks, dad. For helping me find The Keys to Hope, and for teaching me the importance of creating things that last. So to all, feel free to download, print out, put on your walls at your office, on your fridge at home, or in your calendar. Hope is a journey, not a destination, so be sure to practice these keys every day.

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