It was a Thursday morning when I heard.
I had been getting ready for work. I was looking forward to the weekend because my wife, Ellen, and I were going to a friend’s wedding in Minnesota. We planned to visit my parents while we were in the state. In preparation, I gathered a few things to bring with us, including some enlargements of our wedding photos for my mother and a book for my dad.
I also had a copy of our wedding video for my parents. Ellen and I had gotten married nine months prior. The video was unlabeled, so I played the first few seconds to make sure it was the right one. I caught a glimpse of my mother being ushered down the aisle and the back of my father’s head as he started to follow. I stopped the video and put it back in its case.
Then the phone rang. I couldn’t think who would be calling us so early in the morning. I told Ellen I would get it.
The voice on the line seemed unearthly, a combination of howls and sobs. Who was this? Was it a wrong number? Then I realized that it was my mother, in hysterics. Her voice was overwhelmed with emotion, terror, grief.
“Daddy killed himself!” she wailed.
“What?” I asked. “What happened? Mom, what happened!”
But she had left the phone, and I could hear her sobbing in the background. Daddy? Daddy who? My dad? Ellen looked at me with a puzzled expression on her face, and I gestured for her to listen in.
“Mom? Mom! Are you there?” I yelled into the phone. “Mom!”
For several agonizing seconds, we heard little on the other end of the line. Then she was back and told me that she had found Dad’s body that morning. I asked if she had called the police. They were there now, she said. She left the phone again, evidently to talk to somebody. Then a neighbor’s voice came on the line, and she told me what little she knew.
“Albert, your father strangled himself,” the neighbor said. “Your mom needs you to come home.” Then she had to hang up because the police needed the phone, but she said that someone would call us back soon.
“Albert, your father strangled himself.”
I hung up the phone in shock. Ellen held me and started to cry. An unfeeling numbness seeped through my body. I sat down on the couch, not quite able to grasp what had happened. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the concept. Suicide? My dad?
My father, Terry Tsai-Yuan Hsu, emigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan back in the 1960s. Three months prior to this phone call, at age 58, he had had a stroke, just before Thanksgiving. He lost some motor function in the left side of his body and had begun a rehabilitation and therapy program. He had become very depressed after the stroke, and he had been having a hard time coming to terms with the loss of autonomy and control over his own body. A month earlier, we had heard some encouraging news that things seemed to be going better. But now, suddenly, he was gone.
My mom called again a few minutes later. In a calmer voice, she told me that my dad had attempted suicide a week earlier. Following his stroke, my father had begun to show all the classic symptoms of clinical depression. In the last few weeks, he had lost his sense of perspective and constantly felt like a failure, guilty and hopeless. My mom had removed firearms and other weapons from the house, fearing that he would hurt himself. Then Dad tried to kill himself with a belt. Mom found out and got him to the hospital for several days of supervision.
In the last few weeks, he had lost his sense of perspective and constantly felt like a failure, guilty and hopeless.
She had wanted to tell me when it happened, but my dad didn’t want me to know. He hadn’t wanted me to worry about him, to be burdened by that knowledge. “I was going to tell you this weekend,” Mom said sadly.
Within an hour, we had gathered our things for the drive home. I packed the wedding video, which my father would now never see. Before we left our apartment, I saw the book I had planned to bring to my dad. I placed it back on the shelf. I had thought about giving it to him some months ago but hadn’t gotten around to it. Now he would never read it, or anything else. Now it was too late.
• • •
I had never really known what my dad did in his work. He had a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, and I figured he designed mainframes or other computer systems for corporations. I also knew that his division did some work for the government. But he never talked about what he did from day to day.
At the funeral, I learned that my dad never talked about his work because he couldn’t — he had a top-level security clearance that prevented him from talking about the projects he worked on, even with his wife and children. He could discuss them only with people who had the same level of clearance. Some of those people were at the funeral and reception, and they told me that my dad designed computer image processing for satellite technology. His work allowed orbiting satellites to identify objects from outer space.
At the funeral, I learned that my dad never talked about his work because he couldn’t — he had a top-level security clearance that prevented him from talking about the projects he worked on, even with his wife and children.
Immigrants like my father were not usually given clearance to work on government contracts, but the company had made an exception for my dad. In fact, he was the only foreign-born employee granted such high clearance levels. Evidently, he was not supposed to talk with anyone who could leak information back to a foreign country, so he limited his contacts with Taiwanese and Chinese friends.
I also learned more about my dad as a worker and a person. One of his subordinates told me that when people were discussing a problem in staff meetings, if my dad spoke up and made suggestions, everybody deferred to him. His coworkers told me that he had always been well respected, kind, and modest, the third-highest-ranking person in his division. He was seen as a mentor, an innovator, an expert in his field.
His colleagues also told me that he was proud of his sons. That meant a lot to me, to hear that he said so to others. I had had a rocky relationship with my father over the years, so I was deeply grateful for the stories they told and the things I learned about my father that week. Despite the grief and pain, each person’s remembrance was a gift I could take with me.
• • •
Many Asian Americans come from family systems or shame-based cultural contexts in which certain topics were taboo. Perhaps we never talked about our mother’s alcoholism or our father’s abusiveness. Maybe at family reunions, conversation steered clear of an aunt’s divorce or a wayward teen’s rebellion. We grew up learning unspoken rules about which topics were allowed and which were forbidden. We simply avoided certain areas because to bring them up would bring shame upon the family. These subtle “can’t talk” rules are usually intended to protect the family from hurt or ridicule, but they also prevent healthy reckoning with hard realities.
Many Asian Americans come from family systems or shame-based cultural contexts in which certain topics were taboo.
I am struck by how Asian shame was both a factor causing my father’s suicide and a further result of his suicide. Asian Americans, especially older generations, don’t talk about depression or mental illness because we find them shameful. So my father did not seek out the help he needed. And he mistakenly believed that his medical bills were bankrupting the family. That wasn’t the case; his health insurance covered the costs. But it’s possible that he killed himself partly because he thought it would benefit the family and remove that burden. He didn’t realize that the effect of his death would bring more pain and create more shame for the survivors.
Western culture usually understands suicide as an act of character weakness or moral failure. But in some cultures, suicide is considered a morally acceptable act of atonement for something that has gone wrong. The Japanese ritual suicide of seppuku or hara-kiri has been historically practiced as an act of removing shame from one’s family. While it is less so today, suicide once functioned in Japanese society as a route of honor and even redemptive purification. In some cases, an innocent superior would perform seppuku because of the transgressions of a subordinate. A father might even kill himself because of a son’s crimes.
This suggests an alternative interpretation of my father’s suicide that is less tragic and more honorable. My family is not Japanese; both of my parents are from Taiwan. But the Asian honor-shame cultural dynamics are similar. Perhaps my father saw his stroke and physical debilitation as bringing shame upon his family. Perhaps he saw suicide as a way to save the family from dishonor. Without excusing his act, I can have greater understanding for him.
Perhaps my father saw his stroke and physical debilitation as bringing shame upon his family. Perhaps he saw suicide as a way to save the family from dishonor.
After my father’s suicide, I began to probe some hidden areas of my family’s history. I learned that my family has some history of mental illness. My father’s mother became depressed and schizophrenic when he was 6 or 7 years old, after the death of his baby sister. This was in rural Taiwan during World War II, a place and an era in which no one really knew how to deal with mental disorders. My grandmother was institutionalized in an asylum for the mentally ill. She came home after the war and died when my father was 9 or 10. “Your dad never, ever talked about it,” my mom told me. “He kept it inside him all the time.”
My mom also told me about another relative whose college girlfriend had died by suicide. The family never talked about her either. I asked my mother if it was okay that I was asking about all this. “I’m glad you can talk about it,” she replied. “Your dad could never talk about things, how he was feeling. But you can talk about it, get it out. That’s healthier.”
• • •
God calls us to choose life, not death. While Peter and Judas both betrayed Jesus, they differed in their response. Judas, in shame and disgrace, chose suicide, which he perhaps saw as the only thing he could do to make things right after handing Jesus over to his death. On the other hand, Peter did not choose suicide, though he may have considered it. Despite his failure and despondency, Peter chose to live. Following the resurrection, Jesus forgave Peter for his denials and restored him to friendship and apostleship.
God calls us to choose life, not death.
“Judas betrayed Jesus. Peter denied him. Both were lost children,” writes Henri Nouwen. “Judas chose death. Peter chose life. I realize that this choice is always before me.”
I continue to grieve the loss of my father. I lament that he took the path of suicide. But I am grateful that the Christian story is one in which even the most shameful death can be redeemed. Jesus removes our shame and restores our honor. And I need not be ashamed to speak of my father’s death, because neither life nor death — not even death by suicide — can separate us from the love of God in Christ.