Michelle Wickum

After Michelle Wickum lost her father to suicide, she became an advocate for advance care planning and the full range of end-of-life options, including medical aid in dying. As a hospice volunteer and Death Over Drafts co-host, Michelle is trying to make end-of-life experiences better.
Michelle Wickum holding a photo of her father in his military uniform.

“Dad’s suicide opened my eyes to just how taboo conversations about death and the end of life are in our society. It brought home to me my own mortality.”

Michelle shared her story in May of 2024.

After my father’s suicide, I knew that even if I couldn’t emotionally understand what had happened, I needed to get my head around it somehow. It took years to process it, to work through guilt and shame and fear of other people’s judgment about how he died. What took far less time was realizing the finality of death. I’ve had to ask myself, “How do you take your sadness and turn it into something beneficial?” 

Dad was a lifelong entrepreneur and a very optimistic person. He would say, “Michelle, you need to have a PMA (positive mental attitude).” He was always looking for a new creative business venture, even opening a country-themed bar in upstate New York in the 1980s — a little early for that. But he was just on the cutting edge. He’d find these quirky restaurants to take us as kids, then he’d have us steal the menu so that he could bring it home and study it. He was an avid racquetball player and a big fan of slapstick comedies like Airplane and Spaceballs. He liked Mexican food so hot it made him sweat. 

For a long time, Dad had a weird little cough. But in 2007 it started to become more nagging. When he’d come down from New York to visit my family and my sister’s family in Virginia, we’d hear him coughing all night long, and he was also losing weight rapidly. But he brushed away our comments about going to the doctor. 

He came to visit us again in the summer of 2008. He was by then struggling to breathe, and his ability to exercise and eat his favorite foods was severely compromised. Although clearly anxious and agitated, he continued to make light of the situation — I think especially because his grandkids, who were little then, were around. During that trip he had what we thought at the time was a purely philosophical conversation with my sister about what most people knew as “death with dignity,” asking her stance on it. 

We didn’t realize that Dad had gotten his own terminal diagnosis of pulmonary fibrosis and was hiding it from all of his kids.

On August 3, 2008, Mom called to let me know about Dad’s diagnosis. As soon as I got off the phone with her, I called Dad, leaving messages to ask how he was doing, what was the plan, letting him know we were all in this together. But he never called me back. 

Dad died the next day. My mother discovered his body. 

In the midst of the shock waves that followed, we learned that my father felt he had no other option but suicide given the pain he was in. He might not have known the amount of time he had left, but he knew the trajectory of his illness. He did not want to suffocate to death. The day he died, he was scheduled to pick up an oxygen tank from his doctor — something I’m certain he did not want. 

If Dad had had the option of medical aid in dying, it might have changed things for him. He might have found the comfort to keep going knowing there was a way to help him die in peace, surrounded by loved ones. I know he would have loved to have had one last big dinner with our entire family, take a catamaran out on the lake and have a couple more adventures before he said goodbye to each of us. He might have felt he could be more honest with us about how he was doing. Instead, he had to die in secret. He was all by himself. I think about that, and I hate it. 

The suddenness of Dad’s death also meant we couldn’t say our piece. We were left sort of emotionally flapping in the breeze. And suicide brings another layer of complexity to a loss. You think that people are judging your loved one for what happened; it’s additional stress and grief that no one can understand until they go through it. 

At the same time, Dad’s suicide opened my eyes to just how taboo conversations about death and the end of life are in our society. It brought home to me my own mortality.

After I lost other people I loved, I thought I’ve got to find a way to work through this and understand it better, to give back. I’d watched a friend who was dying of cancer receive really great palliative and hospice care, and I wondered if I could be a person in the community who provides support and respite to caregivers. So I became a hospice volunteer. 

At the hospice volunteer training, I told my coordinator that they should teach segments of this in high school because we’re all going to walk this road, and there’s almost no preparation or discussion for it. I started listening to podcasts and recently became a co-host for Death Over Drafts events at local breweries here in Virginia Beach. My husband and I have completed our advance directives, which we submitted to our healthcare provider for our doctor to sign and scan. (It turns out they weren’t really sure about the process either. They’re not talking to you about this when you’re 52.) It’s never too soon. My children are 23 and 20, and they’ve completed the paperwork that allows us to be involved in their medical care in case a situation ever prevents them from making their own medical decisions. 

For me, planning equals peace. On National Healthcare Decisions Day (April 16 every year), I send all my friends links to the advance directive forms for the states in which they live. I just don’t ever want to see anybody in the same spot we were in after my dad died, managing grief and logistics at the same time. We should be able to plan medically for ourselves and have the autonomy to access the full range of end-of-life care. We’re all marching toward the end, and we can’t live in denial of that. 

If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, please call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. Talking with someone about your thoughts and feelings can save your life.

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VICTORY: Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed the improved End-of-Life Options Act.