I couldn't wait until National Suicide Prevention Week in September to tackle this topic.
Suicide is worth talking about now. Of late, it has been a frequent, unwelcome visitor, and it's not one to greet alone.
Is there another kind of death as complicated and heartbreaking as this? Who has not been touched by it in some way?
After my cousin Peter committed suicide in March, and I beheld his wounded survivors scattered about, I could only liken the aftermath to one that might result from gathering loved ones in a small room and then rolling a live grenade into their midst.
It is estimated that 105 Americans die each day by suicide (CDC), leaving friends and loved ones behind to confront the devastation and pain. In Milford, we know that every such death is one too many.
When suicide occurs, I think it arouses the “terrible twos”; that is, two soul crushing emotions that breed isolation. They are blame and shame.
About blame, the priest who eulogized my cousin rightly noted at the church service that many of us were wondering, “Is there something I could have done that would have stopped him (or her) from taking this action?”
Indeed, I sat with Peter many times over the years enjoying dinner, coffee and companionship. He talked often about his loneliness since his wife had died. I loved Peter despite his tendency to tilt toward the dark side. I attributed that, to some degree, to the fact that his mother, my aunt Dolly, had once attempted suicide, and that our family was scarred by alcoholism.
The experts would say Peter had several risk factors for suicide.
As the priest surmised, I scoured my memories after my cousin died for clues I had missed. What if I hadn't delayed our coffee date in February until after I returned from Florida? Would he still be alive? What if? What if? What if?
The universal advice for survivors is to deal with and discard this urge to blame — both ourselves and others — as quickly as possible.
And what of shame, the second “terrible two”?
For years, researchers have struggled to track suicide rates and attempts because of this very thing. For some, there still is a stigma surrounding suicide that can make it hard for people to talk about it.
Shame begets silence and, in that lonely place, survivors might be deprived of much needed caring, help and support. Implicit in shame can be a false idea that the loved ones left behind somehow “caused” this tragedy. We must reject this idea at every turn.
In fact, researchers believe most suicidal people don't want to die; they want the pain to stop.
The experts tell us that suicide is preventable. They wisely warn us to remove the means of committing suicide from the reach of a person who exhibits suicidal tendencies. I wish this always worked.
I recall a beloved friend, who for years had battled mental health issues before walking in front of a speeding train last fall. Just as we can't install fences around every railroad track, we can't completely remove every possible means of self-destruction. Unfortunately, a determined mind can make a way.
For me, trying to understand suicide is like trying to grab air.
In this place of powerlessness, how can we try to reach someone who is contemplating suicide, if this is possible? How can those left alive heal from the grief, the pain, the anger, the sense of abandonment, the hurt, the blaming, the shame?
There are many resources, both therapeutic and in the public domain. Regarding the latter, Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (save.org) offers outreach suggestions, scripts for talking to a depressed person about feelings of hopelessness, and heavily promotes the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255), for anyone trying to work out of a dark spot.
The best way to prevent suicide is through the early detection, diagnosis and treatment of depression and other mood disorders, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (afsp.org). Research shows that 90% of people who die by suicide have an existing mental health or substance abuse problem at the time of their death.
And what about the living?
If it's true, as my faith teaches, that from every season of grief and suffering something good can come, then the good here is the compassion and love with which this community is comforting those who have endured recent losses.
This kind of death can change how we live.
For example, I now better recognize when someone is working to distract me from their own pain. When I sense it, I talk with the person about it. Often, my effort is rebuffed. I don't care. I have to say it.
And I'm more mindful that my own darkness is reduced when I let others see it. So I'm working as hard as I can on the life skill and spiritual work of staying connected with others.
On October 4, I'll participate in my first Out of the Darkness community walk in Hamden. AFSP coordinates them around the country each year to heighten awareness about suicide, to educate people, to fund research, and to support others.
Why not talk about it with your loved ones, and walk with me in October? I don't want to walk alone.