John Lewis, a single father, lost his only son to suicide. He shares his journey as a single parent raising a son, his shock when he received that fateful call, and how he came to terms with such an unimaginable loss.
In this raw and revealing conversation, John shares all of his feelings and emotions with honesty and empathy.
Welcome to the unforgettable conversations podcast, where every week I introduce you to people from all walks of life, from experts in the fields to ordinary people who have had extraordinary lives. I'm your host, Sandy McKenna. In part one of this conversation I'm talking with John Lewis, he's the co-author of it's all about food. And for many years, he was the resident chef on the nationally syndicated daytime show. But while we both share a passion for all things culinary, that's not what we're talking about today, John and I also have something else in common. We both lost our only child mine to an accident and his to suicide. In this episode, John takes us through his unimaginable journey from life as a single dad during his son's early years, to the relationship as adults and the fateful middle of the night call that changed everything. Now let's get this conversation. I had lost a daughter and I think there's nothing more difficult or say it, or I can be more empathetic to is somebody who's lost their child. And once you get that call, John, what happens? Where do you go from there? I mean, it's nothing but despair at that moment.John:
I don't usually answer phone calls at one 30 in the morning, but I answered it On February 4th in the early morning hours from an unknown number in Miami, where my son was living and it was a detective on the line and he identified himself and he said, I'm sorry to tell you, but your son is deceased. Of course the shock of that, I mean, I, I didn't believe it at first. I said, who is this? I mean, how do I know, was foul play involved. No, it appears that it was a suicide and he did leave a note. So at that point began a whole series of emotions, grief, anger, and questioning.Sandi:
Take me back to the beginning. John, I'd love to learn more about Mike. What was it like? What was life like for you when he was growing upJohn:
mike was born in December of 1969. My wife and I had already separated. I was not living in the same town anymore. I would go back to visit him monthly every other month and so on from baby on. And then in February of 1992. Yeah. He was two years old and a couple of months his mother brought him to visit me. I was living in Connecticut at that time and, said that she had decided that I would be a better single parent than her.
And that was really groundbreaking, really unusual back then because there weren't at the time, a lot of single dads.John:
When he first came to live with me. You remember that movie Kramer vs. Kramer.Sandi:
I remember it. Well, Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman and me sobbing in the movie theater.
A really emotional movie, taking a deep dive and looking at divorce and parenting at the time.John:
I went to see that movie. I thought, oh my God, that's me, you know? I was fortunate enough that, that I had my son. And it was his mother's decision. I mean, the divorce in those days always ended up with the mother getting custody and you didn't really question it. I mean, that's just the way it was. It was her decision that she felt I would be a better single parent. I think her words were, and of course that had to do with what was going on in her life. I mean, raising an infant was not an easy thing. Certainly without a second parent being there. Yeah, it was interesting times. So, Mike came to live with me and, I raised him. It's just an incredible child. Just, extremely bright, very outgoing, very, energetic. Through school coaching, little league through, you know, soccer. I had no idea what, anything about soccer, but anyway, I learned enough, I guess, to be a passable, a coach. And we stayed in, Connecticut until, the early eighties. And we moved them to California. He entered high school and proceeded to change his name. He was born Joshua Michael Lewis he wanted to drop the Joshua and just become Mike Lewis because that was a more common name for whatever reason. Anyway, he became Mike Lewis. Then until his senior year in high school, we were living in Southern California, San Diego I got a job that took me to Europe and, I left and hired a full-time live in to take care of him. I was in Europe then for two years, he came over to visit. Once or twice, and, towards the end of my time in Europe, I was then living in Paris. He got in trouble, some serious trouble with the law, having to do with marijuana, fairly large quantity. We hired a lawyer for him. I came back from over there. Yeah. It had several very difficult periods in his early twenties, both with drugs and the law, and then ultimately with with alcohol and, worked his way through all that. And that old expression pull themselves up by his mental bootstraps. He wound up graduating with honors from university of Cincinnati and was on sort of the right. He was bilingual at that point Spanish speaker and then moved to Mexico became the assistant country manager for the YMCA, based in Tijuana and actually, counseled, immigrant children who had been turned back at the border. After that, he went back to Cincinnati and began a corporate career. We remained in touch and would see each other frequently, but I didn't really see him continuously until he moved to Miami the end of 2018. And I'm in Dunedin and he's in Miami. We're a lot closer. And he would come very frequently, in the last six months of his life, he was up here probably every weekend we'd always been close, but this was the first time since he was very young that we actually, saw each other that frequently.. So the phone call, and his suicide, came as a tremendous shock. I mean, it's one thing I think maybe to lose a child to, uh, in any loss of any child, as horrible as you've said, and I agree, but in some ways suicide raises other issues that have to do with I should've seen the signs, uh, regret, uh, blaming myself for not seeing the signs. And that was, that was a very difficult time for me.Sandi:
As they say hindsight is 2020, but were there signs John, I don't know that I would even know what to have looked for.John:
I've really, tried to be disciplined about blaming myself versus you know, trying to look at signs. The signs had to do with, he was working, uh, very intense. He was he was working remotely. He had become quite an expert in the IT area. He was employed by a company out of Chicago and, they said that he could move any place he wanted and he'd always wanted to live in Miami, primarily because of the Spanish connection and all that. So he chose a Coconut Grove. He was very, very busy and could hardly talk sometimes on the phone. And when he came up to visit earlier in late 2018, he was always on the computer. And then all of a sudden around Thanksgiving of that year, he came up and he spent, at least a week or so, and didn't seem to be on the computer very much. He always had his laptop. And I questioned him. You know, what's, what's going on? Well, I'm on vacation. He left a suicide note, two notes, one on Facebook to the World. And in that he was, he was very affected by Anthony Bourdain's, uh, suicide. And he referenced Bordain in that posting. And he then said, I'm going to paraphrase because I don't have that note or at least access to it. Those of us who suffer from suicide sickness, hide it from everybody else, including themselves. So he was very adept at sidestepping questions from me about he was drinking more and I noticed that, and he was like not working asmuch and he had more free time. And he side stepped it that he gave me, uh, I guess I took it as well. Okay. He got me off his back. but that was definitely a sign, you know?
It was a sign, but it was so subtle, easy to miss.John:
Well, it was because my kid, has all, had always been, a heavy drinker, but not to the point of, losing his job or anything. He gone through that period years. So yeah, he put a very willing, dad to sleep on the concerns that I was having about what was going on in his life. Mike had left my name and phone number and his mother's name and phone number and other information on the, on the note that he left, by his body. and the detective said, would you like to call his mother? Do you want us to. Now his mother and I have beenestranged from even having much of a conversation for years. But at that point I said, no, I have to call her. Uh, so I did. And, she broke down, as I did on the phone. And, we then decided that we would talk again the next day about, well, what next, you know, how do we, how do we deal with it? The sort of final details. I mean, this is new ground for me. I've had people that I was close to die before and make arrangements for the funeral home and so on. And, if you have a wake or whatever, but you know, none of that was going to happen. He had many Facebook friends and they reached out to me. One of them had said, he left this message on Facebook, which I referenced before about suicide sickness and then the network set up a Memorial Memorial page on Facebook, to Mike Lewis his mother and I decided that we had to go to Miami for the final arrangements, so to speak. He had a friend, that offered to help navigate all the gory details, including the medical examiner and getting a death certificate and all this, all this sort of awful stuff. So I spent that week and kind of a fog. She wanted to actually see him. I did not. So she did, I think, must've been awful. I decided I didn't need to do that. I didn't need to have my last visual memory of him he actually used a pistol and shot himself in the head. So, it's kind of funny. Sandy had told me like months before they actually got a pistol and this is another sign. And I said, well, why would you do. He's living in a very secure high rise, a very expensive condo building and coconut Grove. He was very upset about Trump and the whole thing that was going on nationwide. And you never know, we may be headed the civil war and I wanted to be able to defend myself and it just didn't ring. Right. But I didn't pursue it. So there's another sign. Another missed a sign. So, we got through that week and then after that, I came back here. His mother, took care of, making the arrangements that she did. She did include me in the decisions that needed to be made. She got the certified copy of the death certificate which is, uh, you know, you're reading about your son's death right? She convinced the authorities down there not to put the cause of death as suicide. She wanted to protect his, and in her words, she wanted to protect his memory. I had no problem in dealing with, close friends of mine, all new. And I had no problem in saying that that's what it was. I don't have trouble saying suicide. I don't say death it was a suicide. It's a particular way to die. I'm not trying to shock anybody, but it's, it's something that I've found enables me to deal with it a little better because he died by suicide. So then it then began a series of weeks and months as, the grief takes old. The guilt takes hold. I was counseled by friends too, you know, don't blame yourself. Easier said than done.Sandi:
John, how did you deal with the aftermath of your son's suicide? Did you go to therapy? Did you talk to somebody who had experienced the loss of loved one to suicide? I can't even imagine where you begin. My heart goes out to you. How do you heal from such a traumatic event in your lifeJohn:
Well, of course you never get over it. I mean, I, I have, healed somewhat. I've come to terms with, not blaming myself so much, I did not seek therapy, although, a minister that I knew fairly well, offered to talk anytime I wanted, I thought about that. I didn't feel I wanted to do that. I have a very dear friend and she's my business partner and probably the closest person to me, you know, in the world. My parents are both gone. My brother's gone. I'm pretty much the last one in my family. I've got some cousins around the country, but it's me and my wonderful dogs, I have to say. And actually one of them was a dog that Mike had talked himself into getting a pet about six months before this suicide, because he was kind of lonely. And I said to him about, why don't you think about getting a dog. And he, he went to an animal rescue place, and he got this dog andhe called me and he was very excited. He said, I got a dog. Keep in mind, he's in a high rise condo that did allow dogs under 25 pounds. I said, what did you get? He said a Dalmatian, I waslike a Dalmatian puppy. Oh, high energy, right? So in weeks after that, I think he got the dog in June or something of 2018. During the ensuing weeks it was becoming increasingly impossible. So I said to him, well, I have two dogs here. Why don't you bring her up? And I'll take care of her for a while, because he was complaining about, you know, work and so on. So anyway, that turned out to be a well she's yours. Um, and she, her name is Heidi. She's very sweet she's very affectionate. And she, was kind of a palliative. I mean, she was a great comfort to me because it was a connection to Mike. In the first couple of weeks after I came back from Miami, he reached out to me one time in a dream where he told me that he was OK that I was not to worry. And I felt this presence and then a couple of other times I would leave and I have a automatic garage door. Like a lot of people do, and I put the garage short down, I'd come back to garage,doors up.. That happened on a couple of occasions in the immediate weeks after I got back fromMiami and I did feel it was a sign in a way. Skeptics could probably say, well, you forgot it. You know, it didn't go down or whatever, but no, I, have very strong feelings about the subconscious and the spiritual world. I'm not necessarily religious, but I'm a fairly spiritual person. And I felt a great connection. I felt signs coming from him. And I told some friends that casual social friends in my circle and they were all of course, comforting, and that had a certain amount of cathartic appeal I think the healing that finally happened was in the beginning of 20, 20, I got a poem from somebody and I have it here in front of me. If you wanted me to read it to you, I'd be happy to, but it's, it really helped me move on.
Yes by all means, John, please.John:
It's probably well known. I don't know the source and I don't remember who gave it to me, but it says, miss me, but let me go, which was kind of what I was trying to do at that point. I needed to let it go. So it goes as follows ,when I come to the end of the road and the sun has set for me. I want no rights in a gloom filled room. Why cry for a soul set free? Miss me a little but, not for long and not with your head bowed low. Remember the love we once share miss me, but let me go for this as a journey, we all Must take and each must go alone. It's all part of the master's plan and a step on the road home. When you are lonely and sick at heart, go to the beaches. We know. Bury your sorrow and then the palms miss me, but let me go. And I did but I did let him go.Sandi:
Well, that's beautiful and very therapeutic.John:
I think whoever gave this to me and as I, I have a block about how I got in there, read it online, or maybe somebody sent it to me. I'm not really sure. But I feel like sometimes Sandy in life, people come into your life for a brief period of time and they're there to give you a message and there are people that are in your life that stay for long periods of time and then there are other people that become part of your life and whoever this was the messenger, appeared at the right time and gave me the right message.Sandi:
So many people have had terrible losses in one way or another. And when that happens, somehow you have to find some kind of perspective. Is there anything John, that you would tell anyone that came to you and said, oh, this just happened or I've had this loss and I don't know what to do. What kind of advice would you give them?John:
First time, I'd say, let yourself. It's normal, it's cathartic. Share it as you see fit. Cause sometimes close people, can help, their empathy and their comfort is, invaluable. His friends who reached out to me over the immediate months after the suicide where a great, a great source of, I knew Mike, and this is what I knew about Mike. And they were a great source of, they're things you don't ever see about your kids, that his friend to see or your friends see. So that was very helpful. So I would say to people, I don't mean this to sound. That sounds kind of macabre, but get into the grief, let it wash over you. Let the emotions, come forward, don't bury it. I was told don't blame yourself. You will blame yourself. There's just no way around that. There are signs and signals that you should have seen. And that's probably true. but I remember what he said in his suicide note, and that is those of us who suffer from suicide sickness. Are very adept at hiding it from all those around them and from themselves. And I think that's true of people in general, Sandy. You don't really know what's going on inside. I think it, empowers you to be empathetic, to be kind less judgmental. If there was something I would wish for myself that in terms of my own character, and that would be to just stop being judgmental. You don't know what somebody else is going through feel the emotions and let them come out. And then, and then as you get beyond it, I mean the old story time heals, it's definitely true. Certainly the pain of the memory lessons. It's not as immediate as you then proceed, then you've got to find a way to, make it okay. In your, in your head, after you get through the grief and the guilt, you have to put that someplace. You have to put a perspective on it. Maybe some people would choose to, to get counseling and, you know, I totally respect that. And if that's what you feel the need to do, and you have somebody who's really a good listener and a good counselor, that's great. I didn't choose to go that path. I tended to work my way through it myself. And it turned out okay. And then once I got to the miss me, but let me go, uh, that was kind of an epiphany in a way, Sandy. I mean, it was like, yeah, you know what? I'm always going to miss him, but I've got to let him go. I mean, he is gone to a different plane perhaps. I do believe that you know, that we, we have an eternal life. I do believe that we, will see each other again, spiritually. And I take comfort in. It's not necessarily a religious thing. It's just, I just think that's, you know, my view, it's the only thing that makes sense about this whole insanity called the human life, you know? So, I moved into that phase. it's kind of interesting when I reached out to you, I could not have had this conversation with you a year ago. But I was at the point that well maybe. And I left it up to your judgment. Obviously, maybe what I experienced and how I dealt with it. Maybe it would help, someone else,Sandi:
I think hearing other people's stories is so cathartic knowing that we're not alone or feeling despair by ourselves, that somebody else has experienced something similar to what we've gone through is so healing. And so powerful I know, I always found that to be a real comfort.John:
It's been very, comforting to me to have this conversation. I couldn't have had this conversation a year. but I'm at a place now where I can have this conversation and hope that, other people might take some comfort in it.
It's an absolute journey to get through grief. And John, you have walked through it with such grace and under such unimaginable conditions. This is really truly been an unforgettable conversation. And I thank you so much for being so open and so generous in this conversation. In the next episode. Part two of my conversation about suicide. I talked to Marcy wise, a licensed mental health counselor and author. We talk about signs to look for. If you see them, what should you do? And if you don't see them, or if you have a loved one that committed suicide, how do you cope? If you're struggling with thoughts of suicide. There is hope. And there is help The national suicide prevention. Lifeline is a suicide prevention network that provides help to anyone. In suicidal crisis or emotional distress. 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Calls are free and confidential. The number is 1 802 7 3. Talk. Again, that's 1 802 7 3. 8 2, 5, 5.