Making sense of my father’s life after he ended it was like trying to piece together the fragments of the beautiful bowl he had given me.

My father was a wonderful man who always wanted to be there for his children, to show his love for us—but it was as though he never quite knew how. He was a good father in so many ways, but there were sometimes gaps in his personality that we couldn’t make sense of, deficits that left us wanting more from him.

I loved him dearly. I attributed those deficits to some of the classic excuses—he was too devoted to a career, he allowed too little time to be involved with the family, he didn’t fully understand my mother. But I was young, and he was so much more complex than a girl growing up could perceive. Others who knew his past thought it best not to tell us, his children, about tragedies in his early years or his bouts with depression.

He was a funny man with a brilliant mind, an avid outdoorsman, and an architect who had built a very successful business. He had served for many years in the bishopric and on the high council and was respected by ward members and business associates alike.

My father was also an artist. In the later years of his life, he decided to try his hand at making ceramics. He bought a kiln, greenware, and various glazes, and soon came forth with dozens of flowered vases and duck mugs, rose-covered soup tureens, and multicolored planters.

When I was a new bride, he let me choose my favorite from among his ceramics. I chose a beautiful bowl and pitcher set modeled after the ones that sat on washstands a hundred years ago; the bowl was large and white, decorated with roses and a soft pink border. I looked at the bowl and pitcher with love and pride for a father whose weathered appearance and large, strong hands did not suggest the ability to create something so delicate and lovely. I carefully wrapped the bowl and pitcher in newspaper and sealed them away in a cardboard box; they were saved for a spot on top of a piano in a living room I only dreamed of then.

My father’s problems intensified in the years that followed. With the recession of the early 1980s, jobs weren’t coming in as often for his architectural firm, and to him everything seemed to be going downhill. He was getting older, more tired, and he worried that maybe he wasn’t as good as he used to be. Should he retire? What would the family do without his income? Would he let them down?

The answers didn’t come for him, but the stress and pressure of present demands, combined with ghosts of the past, began to make him ill and disoriented. A routine surgery plunged him further into the confusion and despair of an aging body and a dissolving mind. Chemical depression that had dogged him through the years took a strong hold. No one knew what to do. I remember my mother saying, “I want to help him, but it seems like his life is shattered. There are so many pieces—from the past, from the last few years—I don’t know how to fit them all together.” She thought she was doing her best, trying everything she knew, but she worried that it wasn’t enough.

It was a Sunday morning when I got the phone call. My father had shot and killed himself. His life had ended in a moment of confusion and despair that no one had been able to foresee.

Agony, guilt, and grief flowed through the next months of our lives like black ink that stained every part of our existence. My mother felt wounded and abandoned, barely surviving from day to day. She struggled to give strength to others but never could find enough even for herself. Each of my father’s children tried to make sense of what had happened, groping for answers in the pain and helplessness of a tragedy we couldn’t resolve. I asked myself all kinds of questions. I doubted and wondered, and even with the generous help offered by ward members, friends, and other loved ones, I failed to find immediate answers to my questions.

Months passed, and the sharpness of our pain seemed to subside. My husband, children, and I had finally settled into a home after three moves in four years. As I unpacked the boxes of possessions we had dragged from house to house, I came across the one that held my beautiful bowl and pitcher. That empty space on my piano waited now as planned, and it was the perfect spot for a prized possession that would help us remember my father. Slicing open the box and separating the layers of newspaper, I lifted the pitcher and unwrapped it to reveal the same filigreed handle and fluted edge I had remembered from years before. Then I reached in and uncovered the bowl.

My heart sank as I brought out only a piece. In the box, several other pieces lay together in the shattered resemblance of something that had once been round. I slumped beside the box in shock and confusion, staring in disbelief at the pitiful remains of my treasure. How could this have happened? Hadn’t I packed it well enough? What nameless person who helped us move had thrown the box onto the truck a bit too roughly? If I cherished it so much, how could I have let it end up this way?

My first impulse was to try to fix it, to somehow glue all the pieces back together and make it whole and beautiful again. But there were so many little fragments—chunks and slivers that had fallen into the bottom of the box, lost in white ceramic powder. Even if I could join the large pieces, glaring gaps and fissures would remain. I finally realized that the bowl was beyond repair. Sadly, I gathered the pieces and walked outside, took one last look at the fragments, and placed them in the bottom of the garbage can.

Later that night I went into my twelve-year-old daughter’s bedroom to say good night and found her crying. When I asked what was wrong, she wiped her eyes and told me that she had found the remains of the bowl. “It’s just like what happened to him,” she said. “I looked down and saw his life lying there in the bottom of the garbage, like something thrown out because no one knew what to do with it. Tomorrow they’ll come and take it all away, and I can’t bear for that to happen. I want you to save the pieces. Even if they’re broken, they are still beautiful.” Her sensitive feelings took me by surprise, and I sat stunned on the edge of the bed.

Each case of suicide is different, and each family dealing with suicide faces this tragedy in a different way. In our family, when my father committed suicide, my family’s struggles included not only questioning the reasons for his death, but also weighing his whole life before that point—everything that made him what he was. In hours, even years, of painful analysis, it sometimes seemed impossible to find answers, to unravel the mystery of what happened, to find peace of mind. I asked myself, how can we live with the knowledge that a loved one has ended life in such a tragic way and not judge him, or ourselves, for years to come?

Sometimes we could only go on, clinging to life from one day to the next, sustaining each other, moving forward with courage as we waited for the pain to dim and our love of life to return. Our greatest strength came from hanging onto the pieces.

As I sat on my daughter’s bed that night, I realized that the pieces are still beautiful. They are pieces of a lifetime I spent with a man, a father, a teacher, a leader, a friend. They are memories of a long, lazy salmon-fishing trip at the beach when I was a tow-headed six-year-old, of hearing him struggle on Christmas Eve with wrenches and bikes in the living room, of the way he spun my mother around the dance floor at the Gold and Green Ball, and of breakfast before school when just the two of us chatted about subjects important only to me, a teenager. There was the day he found me crying outside the high school on his way to work and we took a long, loving drive. Then there was the glorious morning when he sat in the temple and witnessed my wedding, and later the look on his face when I placed my first son in his arms and told him they shared middle names. All of the pieces are still there. Nothing, no matter how tragic, can take them from me.

Leaving my daughter’s room, I grabbed a flashlight from the cupboard, put on my coat, closed the door behind me, and walked outside to the garbage can. Reaching deep into it, I rescued the pieces of my precious bowl and gingerly avoided the rough, jagged edges. Tears ran down my face as I looked up at the cold, clear night sky. Yes, I will save all the pieces, even though I can’t put them together, even though I can’t make all the fragments fit. Only a loving, all-powerful Father in Heaven knows where each tiny sliver fits among the shattered remnants of a human soul.

In our Father’s healing hands, the pieces can come back together, for they are all known unto him. Meanwhile, we can hold fast to our memories, our love, and our faith in a God who knows when even a sparrow falls. He knows each person’s heart, each person’s strengths. In eternal justice and tender mercy, he gives each wounded soul every chance to be nourished by the healing power of his wisdom and his love.

I know that I will see my father again someday. Until that time, I feel he is in a wonderful place being counseled and nurtured by those who can care for him and teach him, helping him to conquer obstacles he could not overcome here. What a wonderful day I look forward to at the resurrection, when I can have the chance to be with him and know him for the person he truly is.

[illustration] Illustrated by Keith Larson

Karen Athay Packer serves in the Relief Society in the Windsor Fifth Ward, Orem Utah Windsor Stake