Thunderbolt Images: A father’s moving homage to his late daughter

Thunderbolt Images: A father’s moving homage to his late daughter

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I will lend you, for a little time, a child of mine, He said. For you to love the while he lives, and mourn for when he's dead.

Edgar Albert Guest’s heart-wrenching poem, A Child Of Mine truly captures the pain and agony of a bereaved parent. Death, eventually, visits us all, leaving our loved ones heartbroken. But, it is the unnatural death, caused not by accident but by purpose, that shocks us all with its inherent violence.

How does a parent whose child suffered such a harsh death go back to living a normal life? How do they reconcile with such an unnatural and violent death? How do they pick up the pieces of their life, stick them together and pray away the cracks? Photographer and telecommunications professional Matt Brant from Maryland, USA was forced to seek answers to similar questions after his 25-year-old daughter Amanda died by suicide. 

Amanda had a history of Depression, and on July 27, 2014, the condition got the better of her. Her death pushed Matt, who suffered from severe Anxiety, into guilt-fuelled Depression. In a fervent attempt to overcome the gnawing guilt and a sense of helplessness, the 52-year-old took to alcohol. For three years following Amanda’s death, Matt continued to blame himself. “I should have seen the signs, been a better parent, and helped her out. Instead, I chose to be oblivious, and - though I am doing better now -  some days I can't get rid of the nagging doubt that I am partly responsible for Amanda’s death,” says Matt.

After a particularly terrible day, when he too pursued the thought of suicide, Matt decided to turn his life around for good. He invested time in exercising, eating healthy food and quit alcohol. He also enrolled in a local college to learn the basics of photography and started his popular Instagram profile and Facebook page Thunderbolt Images. Through his social media, Matt tries to keep the memory of his daughter alive and encourages those with Depression and Anxiety not to give up and seek help.

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In a moving personal account written for TAL, Matt describes his daughter’s tumultuous teenage years, the impact her angst and sadness had on him, the shock and guilt he felt after her suicide, and the importance of holding on to every sliver of hope life throws our way. 

My daughter Amanda: 

I have two daughters, Amanda and Sarah from my first marriage and three kids, Ashleigh and Amber and Stevie from my second marriage. I could tell Amanda was special since the day she was born. Her mom and I were in our early 20s when we had Amanda in 1989, and though we lacked parenting acumen, I instinctively knew something was different about her. 

She rarely slept and was never really content. No matter what we did, nothing would ever satisfy her, which frustrated us a lot. I think some kids are born with a strain of depressive disorders, and deal with its terrible repercussions for the rest of their lives. 

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Amanda’s sleeping patterns deteriorated as she grew older and continued to have behavioural issues. As a teenager, she also battled eating disorders. Troubles that wrecked her mind and soul were never ending; as if she was in a boxing ring and the hits just kept coming. I always felt she wanted a little more than us or life, and she kept reaching out for the unreachable.

I wish I could go back in time knowing what I know now and use that learning to help my daughter get better. I should have known that all children are not the same and no set parenting rule can be followed. A cactus doesn't grow in a swamp, and a cypress tree will not grow in a desert; they thrive in their particular environments. It is the same with children; you have to understand their specific skill sets and use a tailored parenting tactic to help them grow into fulfilled, happy adults. 

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During her growing years, I would often compare Amanda to other kids and ask myself why couldn’t she be ‘normal’? I now realise how stupid I was. She was unique and needed to be embraced the way she was. I do beat myself up a lot thinking how I let her down, and to some extent feel guilty and responsible for what happened. I am sure many parents of suicide victims blame themselves; I am no different. 

There were many warning signs leading up to the day of the incident that I ignored. I was never strict with her, giving into her many demands. However, one day, I just had to put my foot down. She wanted some cash after quitting yet another job, and I decided to be tough with her. I was planning on giving her an early birthday cheque and asking her to get her act together. I should have noticed that she wasn’t in the best frame of mind.  

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On my refusal to give her any money, she stormed out. That was the last time I saw her alive. Till that day, though I was always worried about her, she and I shared a great relationship. She’d made a few bad decisions – like we all do-  and was reaping the consequences. She was living in a motel room and was down on her luck both personally and financially. She badly needed my help, and I failed to read her situation. Soon after her outburst, she left a voice mail on my mobile threatening to kill herself. Though she had said the same thing many times earlier, that particular message made me quite uneasy. I immediately called the police who found her driving around aimlessly and admitted her in a hospital.  

Amanda called me from the hospital, asking me to pick her up. By now I was both worried and livid at her for her tantrums and waywardness and refused to listen to her. She was furious and left an angry voice mail on my mobile calling me names, and cut all ties with me. It was heartbreaking and exhausting. 

After the incident, I did try my best to make amends with her, but she refused any contact.  

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On July 27, 2014, at 9:30 pm two state troopers knocked on my door to relay the news that I hope no parent ever has to hear. My Amanda had hung herself from a tree behind a church in rural Pennsylvania, a couple of weeks after her 25th birthday.  

Shock and numb

I stood there speechless. I didn't know what to do or believe. I just wanted the world to stop spinning and stand still for a while. 

Next day we went to the Police Station to be interviewed by one of the detectives. I drove there with my wife Kim, and my dad. Amanda’s mother and my other daughter, Sarah were also there. It was an awful reunion. We didn’t know what to say to each other.

I remember driving to the church to collect Amanda’s car, and seeing the vehicle filled to the brim with all her stuff broke my heart. I kept wondering how long did my daughter sit in her car contemplating taking her life?

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Amanda’s weeks were a rollercoaster of emotions; some days were good; some were terrible. On her bad days, I would often counsel her, but since she stopped talking to me, I could no longer be by her side. She probably was having a tough day when she took her life, and unfortunately, neither I nor anyone else was there for her. My daughter died with no one by her side.

Coping the hard way

As a parent, you think this is not supposed to happen; that your children are not supposed to go before you. It is harder still when your child takes their own life. It leaves you feeling guilty.

I am not proud of it, but I buried my sorrows in alcohol. I have always been a beer drinker, but after Amanda’s death, I took to the bottle hard. It was absolutely the wrong thing to do!

It has been 20 months since I turned sober and life is moving smoother than before. It took me three years of feeling guilty and binge drinking to accept the reality and make amends with the past. It hasn’t been an easy ride, but I am glad I sailed through the storm and emerged wiser. 

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There are days though when I still blame myself; the ‘what if’ keeps coming to haunt me, and I don’t think I will ever be free of those questions. I console myself by thinking that I wasn't angry at Amanda but at her Depression. To an extent I still am.

I know it is difficult to separate a depressed person from their condition, but I remember Amanda without her Depression. I wish I could have done that when she was around. My poor child never had a peaceful night of sleep and had a hard time coping with anything life threw at her. How could I ever be mad at her? Sometimes I feel amazed that she made it till 25 with all that pain and chaos in her head.    

Depression in the family 

I feel Amanda’s depression stemmed from the genes she got from us. Anxiety and Depression run rampant in our families. My sister and father have been diagnosed with Depression, Sarah suffers from Anxiety, and on Amanda’s mother’s side, there’s been a family history of suicide. I have suffered for a long time with Anxiety too. It seems everyone around me has dealt or is dealing with some sort of mental condition.  

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I have had some rough times myself, and in the 1980s, I tried to kill myself by consuming a bottle of pills. Fortunately, I only ended up being sick.  

About a year ago, those mental demons were back, poisoning my mind with lies and pulling me down. They kept reminding me of my past shortcomings, forcing me to think that the world was better off without me in it. So, I decided to follow in Amanda’s footsteps and drove to the same church where she hung herself. It was painful. 

However, I could hear a small voice amidst the cacophony of noises in my head urging me not to give up. I could sense a little light growing within me, and I told myself, “Just wait, not today.” And, I waited.   

After that incident, I mustered all the courage, strength and motivation I had and tried turning over a new leaf. I started exercising and eating healthy, quit alcohol and started thinking more positive thoughts. It was a long process; I didn’t become better overnight. However, the results were worth the effort. That’s the message I try to convey through my Thunderbolt Instagram and Facebook pages as well. 

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Favourite memory of Amanda

Amanda has gone, but her memories will linger with me forever. She was an animal lover and enjoyed being outdoors and the beach. She was a bookworm and - even though had sleeping troubles - enjoyed watching scary movies and thrillers. 

She was close to all her siblings, but she adored Stevie, who was on the Autism Spectrum and had a seizure disorder, the most. Every time he had a meltdown, she would rush to be by his side. When Stevie succumbed to brain cancer, Amanda – who was scared of public speaking – took to the podium to say a few kind words at his funeral. That was quite brave of her.   

She had a complicated relationship with food; but loved sweets, especially Red Velvet cakes, and would get the same flavour for every birthday. She was a sensitive and compassionate soul with a heart of gold. 

My favourite memory of her is our phone calls, and some days I feel like I can still hear her. But, I am scared that one day I won’t remember how she sounded anymore.     

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I have kept all the cards she gifted me, and every time I miss her a little more than usual, I read them. I love the beautiful things she wrote in those cards. They make me happy, and - for a short while -  completely guilt free. 

Another memory sticks out. Some years ago, on Father’s Day, she visited us and was having a conversation with Sarah when she suddenly broke into a little goofy dance. Her laughter, and the way her eyes sparkled brought immense joy to me. I remember thinking if only she could hold on to that fleeting moment of happiness. 

It is a strange thing to say, but Amanda’s death freed me from my anxiety. Much of my concern was centred around the fear of dying. In some weird way, since Amanda died, I no longer fear death. If you can get past that, what else is there to be scared of?   

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Support from family and friends:

After Amanda’s death, I found comfort in my family, especially my brother. 

The night I got the news of Amanda's death, he was by my side in a matter of minutes. He walked with me to identify her body and gave me space to grieve. When my employer refused to pay life insurance money for Amanda’s funeral, my brother wrote me a cheque, with no strings attached. I, of course, paid him back, but his selfless gesture meant the world to me. Over the last few years, he and I have become closer, and I am grateful for his calming presence in my life.

My wife was also incredibly supportive. She knew what I was going through better than anyone else for we lost Stevie a year ago to brain cancer. We have been through some hard times together; as a couple, we don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. We understand life’s fragility and unpredictability acutely, and try to enjoy and live in the moment. 

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After Amanda’s death, I became quite introverted. My circle of friends is small, and I like to keep it that way. One of my best friends, John calls me every week to check up on me or to chat. Some days when I am feeling low, I don’t answer his calls, but that doesn’t stop him from calling again. I don’t think he knows how grateful I am to him for those calls.

There’s some distance between my second daughter Sarah and me. She is married now and has a beautiful daughter, and I love them both dearly. I think the fact that both of us don’t talk much might have contributed to the growing distance between us. After Amanda passed, Sarah confessed feeling hurt by all the attention we gave the former during the girls’ growing years. I understand how she felt. I would have felt the same. I am not perfect and have made my share of parenting mistakes. But, if she ever reads this, I hope she realises how much I love her. 

Turning to photography:

It was easy to turn to photography to escape the demons parading in my mind. Moreover, I love being outdoors in the lap of nature. It fills me with peace and gives me the courage to go on. I enjoy hiking and would find beautiful photo-worthy subjects on my hiking trails, so I decide to bring my camera along. Also, being an introvert, I find it easy to express my feeling through photographs.

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I am mostly self-taught, though I did take a beginner’s class at a local college to learn the basics of photography. When I bought my first camera, I barely knew how to operate it. Slowly, after a lot of trial and error, I managed to get it right. 

I am not a professional; photography is a hobby that I enjoy. I don't think I have a thought process while taking pictures. It is mostly instinctive. If I see something that I feel depicts hope and peace, I photograph it. Through my photographs and motivating captions, I want people to believe that they are important and not alone in their struggles.    

I get several messages on my Instagram by those who say my page has given them the strength and courage to carry on. If I have managed to touch even one life, I will consider myself extremely lucky. 

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I am honoured that through my work I can keep Amanda’s memory alive. She is a part of me, and when she died, she took that part with her. That is why I will never quit photography. It is a gift that brought me peace and is my ticket out of sadness and hopelessness. 

Those who are overcome with sadness and desperation and are thinking of ending it all; to them I say hold on, wait until tomorrow. Then wait until the next day, and then the next. Always listen to that small rationale voice in your head stopping you from giving up. Listen to it and wait.

Believe me, you will overcome the sadness, and shine bright again. 

Follow Matt on Instagram and Facebook.

Global suicide prevention helpline numbers.

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