The month of September is known as National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. It’s a time when a lot of attention is placed on suicide and mental illness by news outlets and other organizations. There are typically, an abundance of articles about:
reaching out for help if one is depressed,
reaching out to help those who are depressed,
and recognizing “signs” that someone is suicidal.
This month – for the third year in a row – we are launching our “Suicide is Complicated” campaign on social media. Our intention is twofold: 1) to increase public awareness of the complexities surrounding suicide and suicide prevention, and 2) to increase support and understanding for suicide loss survivors.
Survivors empathize with the intention of the slogan, but say the blanket assertion is vastly oversimplified, and often lands like a secondary wound — leaving them feeling guilty and judged. Typical comments are like these below:
“Suicide is Preventable” adds another layer of guilt. If it is preventable, why couldn’t I prevent it? It makes me physically sick to my stomach. It really does.” Purplekingsmomma.
“My husband’s suicide was a complete shock! No signs whatsoever! How can one prevent it if they had no idea it was even an issue?” ~Marybeth975
“I hate the blanket statement that suicide is preventable! For whom? Cause it’s certainly not everyone – obviously. … This was never ever on my radar. My dad never tried anything like this, he never talked about anything like this, there were no signs. One day he just was gone. How in the heck was I to prevent that?” ~Brokn13
Suicide loss survivors have a direct and deeply personal experience with suicide that alters their perspective forever. The profound trauma of their loss, recollections of events prior to and following the suicide, and the knowledge they gain from other survivors leads them to realize the complexity of trying to prevent someone from ending his or her life. Suicide is complicated.
Survivors know this is a very challenging issue. There is no one size fits all solution to prevent suicide and it can’t be summed up in a soundbite.
Please consider joining us this month, on Facebook or Instagram, and sharing our posts with others, if they resonate with you. Let’s work together to increase public awareness about the complexity of suicide and suicide loss.
The year 2001 was the worst year of my life. In January, one of my closest friends was admitted to the hospital with a “mild” case of pneumonia. It developed into acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). The day before my birthday, she died while I held her hand.
Shock and grief sent the depression I had battled all my life spiraling out of control. The medication I had taken for years no longer seemed to help. The simple act of breathing was physically painful. I wanted the hurt to stop. More than anything, I wanted to go to sleep and never wake up. Almost without realizing it, I drifted into planning how I could make that happen.
Why am I telling you this? Because if you are like most survivors, including me, you’ve spent a lot of time agonizing about what you could have said or done to keep your loved one alive.
I have been where our loved ones stood.
I know the tunnel-vision lure of the suicide trance. And I also know that there was nothing anyone could have done to get through to me at that point. Absolutely nothing.
I knew that my family and friends loved me and worried about me. Somehow, my mind twisted their concern, distorting it into the conviction that I was making them miserable, and they’d all be better off after I was gone.
Were they perfect? No, of course not. They were human.
Did they sometimes say the wrong things in their desperation to break through to me? God, yes.
But not one of them said – or could have said — anything wrong enough to push me into suicide nor anything right enough to pull me back from the brink.
I could barely register their words, anyway. All I could focus on was my own all-consuming anguish.
The only reason I survived my suicide trance was sheer dumb luck.
While I was making my plans, I had scoped out a pawnshop that sold handguns and wasn’t too fussy about paperwork or mandatory waiting periods. The night I was ready to act, I took $300 in cash out of my bank account and drove over to the pawnshop … only to find that it had gone out of business.
My tunnel vision was so narrow at that point that it didn’t occur to me that I could go to another pawn shop, and I was too mentally and physically exhausted to think of a different plan. I sat numbly in my car in the parking lot until daybreak. Then I slowly drove to my doctor’s office.
By the end of the year, I had acquired a psychiatrist, a new diagnosis – bipolar disorder – and a new treatment regimen that slowly began to disperse that dark cloud of despair that had shrouded me for so many months.
Looking back on that time in my life now is a little like trying to remember a nightmare in the warm safety of daylight. One thing I cannot forget, however, is the dull resignation of being trapped in a prison of depression with walls so thick that not even love could penetrate them.
If you are still struggling with guilt over your loved one’s suicide, please make today the day that absorbs the knowledge, in your mind and in your heart, that you are not to blame. You did not cause it. You could not have stopped it.
Fairy tales and Hollywood tells us that love is enough to overcome anything. I used to believe that. I don’t anymore. Sometimes the bad things are stronger than love. Sometimes the bad things win. As the song, “I Dreamed a Dream” in Les Misérables says so eloquently, “… there are dreams that cannot be / and there are storms we cannot weather.”
It is sad – horribly and tragically sad when depression or another mental illness steals a life. But it is not your fault.
It was a typical morning on May 8, 1997. I woke up in the same black mood that I had been experiencing for the last eight months. I was in the midst of a severe depressive episode and was scheduled to go to my therapy group that day. Normally, my wife Joan would help me get ready and then drive me to the Pacific Counseling Center. This day, however, she took me aside and said, “We’re not going to day-treatment today. I have something I need to share with you.”
Joan took me by the hand and we went outside, walking down the tree-lined streets of Portland’s Alameda neighborhood. After we had gone a few blocks, she stopped and said, “Somebody you know has died. “
I thought about the many friends who were helping me through this horrible depressive episode. Could it be one of them? I asked Joan who it was.
She responded, “I’m sorry to bring you this bad news, but your therapist Anne has died.”
I was stunned to hear those words. Anne was a relatively young woman and as far as I knew in good health.
“Are you sure? How did she die?” I asked.
“She died by suicide,” Joan responded.
My first reaction was that of shock. How could this be? I knew that Anne had been severely depressed since the recent loss of her therapy job and the death of her father. But I didn’t realize that she was experiencing this depth of despair.
I hadn’t worked with Anne for nine months, but the memory of the three years I spent as a member of her therapy group was fresh in my mind. I started attending the group during a painful separation from my wife Joan. Over time, the group had become my new family. The five other members and I had become very close, and Anne was the glue that held us all together. I couldn’t imagine that she had left us. I was silent as I processed the many painful feelings I was experiencing. After a few minutes, Joan asked, “Are you okay?”
“I’m alright,” I replied. “I just need some time to think about this. I’m glad you prevented me from going to my therapy group today. I could not have focused on the group with all of this on my mind.”
As the day progressed, I thought about my memories with Anne and how helpful she had been. Then, I thought about all the times during this depressive episode that I had contemplated suicide to end my current torment.
Suddenly, I realized that Anne’s death was showing me a path I did NOT want to take. My survival instinct had become activated, and a voice within me called out, “I want to live.” I also considered the effect that my death would have on my friends and family; a trauma that could last for the rest of their lives. I knew that if I killed myself, they would not only be grief-stricken, but angry and feeling guilty as well. “Why drag my loved ones into my nightmare?” I thought. I remembered the words spoken to me by a friend, “Suicide doesn’t end the pain; it just passes it on.”
In the days ahead, I had new insights about Anne’s death. During her depression, she left Portland and moved to southern California to live with her daughter. Anne’s support system remained behind in Portland, making it difficult for her to connect with those of us who cared about her. I felt sad that she did not get the help she needed. Thinking about her isolation made me realize that I needed to reach out for more support in my own life.
Anne’s death brought about a determination to stay alive that was an important factor in helping me to survive my suicidal episode. After my recovery, I decided to take what I had learned through my depressive ordeal and use it to support others who were going through similar mental health crises. This led to the publication of my book Healing From Depression, the creation of my website healingfromdepression.com, my depression recovery YouTube channel, and my website overcomingsuicidalpain.com. I developed the latter website to give people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts the hope that they will be able to recover from their ordeal and the tools to do so.
Anne’s life was tragically cut short. Yet, twenty-four years later I still think about the impact she had on my life. She guided me through a painful period and helped me to survive a difficult transition. This is why I dedicated my book Healing From Depression to Anne Zimmerman with these words: “Although you could not save yourself, your spirit lives on in the lives of those whom you loved and served.“
Over the years, many suicide loss survivors have contacted the Alliance of Hope, searching for a counselor who understands the unique nature of their grief. Some have told us that a counselor who helped them previously doesn’t know how to help now. This is not surprising because few graduate schools include suicide aftercare (or postvention) in their mental health curriculums and there is little continuing education in this area.
This lack of attention to the needs of suicide loss survivors has always occurred to me as a profound void in the arena of mental health support because the complex and traumatic nature of suicide catapults family and friends onto a challenging grief journey. In the initial aftermath, those closest are almost 10x more likely to have suicidal thoughts than the general public. They are also more likely to leave their jobs or drop out of school.
Last week, USA Today published an article that highlighted another crucial gap in support. Prevention campaigns urge suicidal people to seek treatment – yet most mental health practitioners have no formal training in how to work effectively with suicidal people.
Journalist Alia Dastagir wrote: “Suicide-specific training is not commonly offered as part of college curriculums, optional post-graduate training opportunities are limited, costly and time-consuming, and experts say some therapists may not be aware they even need the education.”
Dastagir points out that only nine states in the U.S. mandate training in suicide assessment, treatment, and management. Prominent organizations that accredit graduate programs in psychology and social work do not require specific competencies in suicide prevention.
Lacking training and experience in this area, many therapists feel lost. Some hesitate to take on suicidal clients, fearing they might say or do the wrong thing, that a client might attempt, that they might be blamed, or that they might be sued. Making things more challenging is the fact that there are few options available to therapists treating someone who is actively suicidal, other than sending them to an ER, or involuntary hospitalization – both of which are proving to have questionable outcomes.
Those of us who have already lost loved ones to suicide are keenly aware of the complexity and challenges associated with preventing suicide. We know that “noticing signs,” “calling an 800 number” or “getting a loved one into treatment” does not always work. Too many loss survivors have discovered that being in treatment or on medication, does not ensure suicide will be prevented.
In her article, Dastagir cites experts who suggest that preventing suicide “requires a holistic approach that includes communities, families, educators and religious leaders working together. But society, they say, has placed the burden of caring for suicidal people on a mental health workforce woefully underprepared to help them.”
It is disconcerting to realize that those we rely on to help us and our loved ones may themselves feel lost, with little training, or few tools and resources to help. It is my hope, that in the coming decade there will be better training for mental health professionals, and greater emphasis on the importance of holistic support, so that we can help those who need it most.
Last month, the Alliance of Hope created a social media campaign to bring a different perspective to National Suicide Prevention Month. Our goal was to increase awareness about the challenges suicide loss survivors face, give survivors a voice, and provide an opportunity for dialogue to occur.
Understanding that many loss survivors feel discomfort around traditional prevention messages, we wanted to expand the public discourse. We shared a new post every other day, with original content inspired by the words of survivors.
The response we received was overwhelming. Thousands commented on and shared the posts, telling their own stories of struggle andloss.A common theme survivors felt was that others did not understand suicide loss unless they had been through it.
In their comments, loss survivors addressed issues you don’t normally see discussed during prevention month. They repeatedly spoke about the oversimplification of the “suicide is preventable” statement and the need to change the conversation to include addressing societal issues, and the importance of social support and kindness.
The most widely shared posts were: “Sometimes There Are No Signs” and “Suicide is Complicated.”
Hundreds wrote to say they saw no “signs” prior to their loved one’s death. They felt the common emphasis on looking for signs was overly simplistic. Some wrote to say they DID see signs — and had done everything they could to help their loved one — but nothing worked.
This post, featuring a quote from Dr. Amy Barnhorst’s New York Times oped: “The Empty Promise of Suicide Prevention,” was also very popular.
Other posts focused on the devastating impact of suicide on those left behind — and the importance of providing support in suicide’s aftermath.
We are very grateful to Pinckney T., a member of our community who provided the inspiration and designed the graphics for this campaign. Pinckney lost her beloved brother to suicide and understands firsthand the experience of loss survivors. She is a strong advocate that survivors’ voices be heard.
National Suicide Prevention Awareness month has come to an end, but discussing the complexities of suicide loss shouldn’t end with it. Let’s keep the conversation going.
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month – a time when many organizations and media outlets share warning signs, resources, and inspirational messages. Some of those messages tell us that “Suicide is Preventable.” Some organizations go as far as to say that “Suicide is 100% Preventable.”
Suicide loss survivors tell me they view “prevention” campaigns with mixed feelings. While everyone wants suicide to be preventable, many feel that assertion is unrealistic, or overly simplistic, because it is not at all in line with the reality of what they experienced. Many say that prevention messages leave them feeling guilty, upset and fearful of being judged – as if they “dropped the ball” and hence their loved one died.
Over time, I’ve realized how many loss survivors feel alone with these thoughts. They suffer in silence, reluctant to share their own experience in the face of large-scale campaigns led by mental health experts. And they don’t want to criticize a campaign that just might do some good.
Recently a survivor on the Alliance of Hope Forum asked other members for their thoughts on the “Suicide is Preventable” campaign. The responses she received from other survivors reflected a variety of experiences and opinions. Here are just a few:
The Original Question:
MMaryAnne: “I drove past my local hospital today. They have a large electronic sign out on the corner. Every two weeks or so they change the message. Today it said, “Suicide is Preventable” and provided the suicide hotline number. What do we think about this?”
“It’s Too Simplistic”
Rainy: “Ugh to the slogan. Bottom line – they mean well but have obviously never lost a loved one to suicide. Far too simplistic.”
CherylD: “I think different people will have different perspectives on this. Personally, I think it can be (preventable) – but not always. The answer depends on the individual situation.”
“It’s Preventable Only if Someone Shows a Sign”
Chloe’sMom: “I believe suicide is preventable “ONLY” if someone shows a sign. …My daughter did not show any signs. In fact, the night she died by suicide we had watched our favourite soap together and made plans for me to go with her on her next flight to China (she was a flight attendant). She had even made plans that very same day to go on vacation with her best friend and lastly had ordered my birthday gift online … bought some clothes … so many things yet not one little sign. So yes, it is preventable in certain circumstances but not in mine. I understand and agree that for most of us this “slogan” makes us feel like we have failed as parents. I prefer to think that my husband and I gave ourselves, our love and our time unreservedly to Chloe. The fact remains that suicide is a consequence of mental illness. There will be some who survive and some who won’t just like cancer.”
Jay14: “These campaigns oversimplify suicide. … I think it’s well-intended to raise suicide awareness and create hope. However, not all cases are preventable. If someone is seriously considering it, they will likely make every effort to conceal their plan. And even if some people do show some “signs” – even if we knew what to look for – the signs often don’t sink in. The possibility of a loved one ending their life, is not even a remote reality for most people, until it happens, even if they’ve had previous attempts. It’s just so painful and out of this world …”
“It Requires a Societal Effort”
Tigerlily: “It should say: ‘Suicide, it’s preventable if you’re willing to vote to increase spending for research on physical and psychological causes and creating the infrastructure needed to treat those in danger – if we are willing to remake our culture into one that works for the betterment of all people and that cares for all the disabilities of our citizens before it cares for the padding of our bank accounts – and that would rather open the door and let light into the dark room than to let someone suffer in it alone.’ Then, maybe then, some of them will be preventable. But none of us can do any of these things on our own. It’s preventable only as a societal effort.”
“It’s Unsettling to Read”
Malia 1230: “Seeing those words makes me feel so guilty and utterly worthless as a mother. Those words, in my mind, substantiate what a horrible mother I am and that I should have known and been able to save my daughter! I do hope that other parents and loved ones are able to save their children and prevent more suicides from happening.”
AlwaysMissYou: “I’m finding this campaign very hard. … I lost my husband to suicide four months ago. … it makes me feel cold and sick in the pit of my stomach when I read ‘suicide is preventable’ because I think: ‘It’s my fault, I let him down. I could have prevented this if I’d been better, more loving, more listening, more empathetic, I didn’t do well enough, I didn’t prevent this’. — Then I can’t stand the pain of that thought process so I start on all the reasons that it may not have been preventable, ‘his childhood wasn’t my fault, if he’d been able to say something different to me perhaps I could have been different, could have understood more, how could I understand something when he wasn’t verbalizing it to me, the doctors didn’t listen, they couldn’t balance his meds right, etc. etc.’. … it’s really tough to read ‘Suicide is Preventable.’”
“It Makes Me Angry”
Always4Hope : “I think it is a waste of funding. Awareness yes. Preventable no. There was nothing to prevent what happened to my son. Nothing. And I am so sick of the saying it is preventable. The a-holes do not even know what happens. They all have thousands of theories or drugs to prescribe but when it comes down to it. They do not know. Sorry, this anger is not directed at you or anyone. I just think it is pathetic to say suicide prevention. Give me a break. Ok rant over – truly wishing peace.”
Stay Gold: “As a newly bereaved mother, I find the campaign offensive & repulsive. It places the responsibility on family members and those who are about to take their lives. We obviously would have done something if our loved ones expressed their intentions … and our loved ones were obviously not in their right states of mind so how/why would they have the foresight to find & call a hotline number. We (the survivors) are the ones that need resources! If half the money that was spent on campaigns & training was allotted to us (an at-risk demographic) then there could be meaningful enhancements to the quality of life. Fewer people would drop out of society if we had more support … this would mean less unemployment or social welfare benefits. … I don’t even want to get started with the cost/benefit analysis. I’m an Economics professor so I could talk all day about the impact on society.”
In Summary …
It becomes obvious when reading the comments above or listening to loss survivors, that the “Suicide is Preventable” campaign, though aimed at increased awareness and reduction of suicide, also triggers guilt, frustration and even anger for many loss survivors. And the consensus seems to be that public health campaigns oversimplify the matter – leading us to think in simplistic ways. Suicide is a complex problem with no easy answers. It’s possible to prevent sometimes — but not always
On April 24, Governor Larry Hogan signed Maryland’s Extreme Risk Protection Orders bill into law. It empowers family members, licensed health professionals and counselors, law enforcement, immediate relatives, lovers, guardians, and roommates to seek protective orders to remove guns for up to one year and possibly also an emergency psychiatric evaluation if an individual’s behavior signals they may harm themselves or others.
I asked my state delegate to introduce this bill in memory of my dad Edwin, 51 who shot himself in 1965 and my son Pete, 25 who did the same in 2012. Passage involved many hours with all sides at the table to craft a bill with strong due process protections that the NRA did not oppose. I gave this testimony before the House and Senate Judiciary committees:
My hope in speaking to you here today is that you will give families whose loved ones pose a danger to themselves or others one more way to save them. Over 250 Marylanders shoot themselves each year. Many of them signal their intent to die to their loved ones. Family members are on the front lines of this battle. We are often the first to see the warning signs.
People claim suicide is inevitable, that it is not preventable. I hear people say, “If someone is determined to kill themselves and you take away their guns, they will just find another way.” But that’s NOT what the research shows. Removing firearms is simple, quick, inexpensive and effective at saving many lives.
My father was an Army Master Sergeant who fought in WWII. In late August, 1965, my mother knew my dad was contemplating suicide. He went out and bought a handgun. He laid out his will and his life insurance policies. If there had been a way back then for my mom to have dad’s gun taken away, maybe he could have been saved long enough to get the help he needed. Instead, my mom raised us five kids, then ages 5 – 15 by herself.
I don’t know what demons my fathers succumbed to at age 51, nor do I judge him, but I know that his last act sent a shock wave that has reverberated throughout my family for over 50 years.
I was at work on a Friday morning in April, 2012 when a police officer called, asked my name and if I was Peter’s mother. He then asked, “Why would he do this?” I asked, “Do what?” He replied, “Shoot himself.”
Peter was just 25 years old. He’d graduated two years earlier from college with honors. He worked as an environmental scientist. He loved music, played soccer and hiked the Appalachian Trail with his brother and friends. With his girlfriend of five years, he’d recently bought a home which they quickly filled with pets. He bought a new car and then, for protection, he bought a handgun. Less than a year later, Peter wrote me and his girlfriend notes of love and apology, walked to the woods, called police and shot himself.
Maybe if my mom had been able to get a protective order, my dad would have set a better example for Peter to follow. He would have known it’s OK for a grown man to ask for help and get treatment for mental illness, just as he would for any physical illness.
I’ve noticed that many domestic violence abusers and mass shooters are known to be suicidal before they turn homicidal. Family members need this power to stop any escalation to lethal violence by removing guns from those in danger of hurting themselves or others.
Please give Maryland families one more chance than my family got to intervene and break the cycle of violence whose devastating effects can last for generations.
The MD Psychiatric Society, the MD chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, MD Sheriff’s Association and many other groups weighed in. Also informing these discussions:
–The 2017 American Bar Association Resolution 118B in support of these laws,
— University of Virginia’s Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy Vol. 36 Issue 2 Summer 2017 Mental Health Law 50+ page article on Gun Violence Restraining Orders
— Duke University’s Dr. Jeffrey Swanson and team’s 2017 study of the 18-year Implementation and Effectiveness of Connecticut’s Risk Based Gun Removal Law
This “red flag” bill gained traction with bipartisan support after Parkland’s mass shooting, the fatal shooting of a young teen girl at Great Mills High School in southern Maryland by an ex-boyfriend, and that of an off duty police officer killed when he intervened in a domestic assault by a man known to be violent.
Maryland’s law is a model for other states. Most states’ laws currently do not consider danger to self as justification for a protection order, only danger to others can result in firearm removal. Since 1999 in Connecticut, risk warrants have been used most often for suicide prevention which is not surprising since most gun deaths in the US are suicides. In case this could help you in your state, here is a copy of the final enrolled bill. A clean copy won’t be available until it’s added to the Annotated Code of Maryland.
No one thing can save everyone from suicide, but this law will save many. People need to know that access to a gun and ammunition triples the risk of suicide. Asking two questions: “Are you thinking of suicide?” and “Do you have access to a gun?” could make all the difference. Gun safety practices and laws that keep loaded firearms away from minors and suicidal adults have proven effective at reducing the terrible toll suicide takes.
A Navy veteran, Dorothy Paugh lost her father to suicide as a young girl. In 2012, her middle son followed in his footsteps. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We all know the number of suicides increases over the Christmas holidays, right? Actually, wrong. The idea that more people kill themselves at Christmastime than at any other time of year is an urban legend.
In fact, according to the National Institute of Health, studies have found that the suicide rate actually declines on Christmas and on the days leading up to it, although one study that they surveyed did suggest that women were at a higher risk for making nonlethal attempts during the holidays.
New Year’s Day is a little more tricky, with some studies showing no significant fluctuation in suicide rates and others recording slightly higher suicide rates on the beginning day of the New Year.
These findings are interesting from a statistical perspective, but not much help when trying to predict the behavior of any given individual. It doesn’t help to know what 90% of the population will do when your loved one is in the other 10%. And we all know people -perhaps even ourselves -who find the holiday season a sad and overwhelming time of year. Even people in the best of mental health feel let down when their own holiday celebrations fail to match the ones depicted in television commercials and movies.
If the holiday season feels impossibly hard this year, remember to reach out to others for comfort. Your friends and family probably want to help you but are just waiting for you to show them how. The Alliance of Hope forum is also open 24/7, even on Christmas day.
Finally, if you become depressed over the holiday season and begin to consider harming yourself or killing yourself, go to the nearest emergency room for help. If you live in the United States, you can also call the National Suicide Hotline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK).
An invisible bond connects survivors. In the face of tragedy, things which often divide us –like politics or religion –fall away.
I’ve been filled with memories and concern the past few days, as I’ve watched the devastating damage and flooding in Texas. I worked as a crisis counselor in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina and still vividly recall the faces and stories of people who had lost their homes, their businesses, their communities and all sense of control in their life. Now it’s happening again. The damage is incalculable and the need for support overwhelming.
Seeing strangers link hands to rescue the stranded gentleman reminded me of how many times I’ve heard survivors refer to the Alliance of Hope forum community as their “lifeline” in the challenging aftermath of suicide. Over the years, I’ve read comments like this one:
“I lived in a very rural, small town, and had no counsellors or support groups near to me. I knew I had to have help. I was going towards the place where he had been. … I honestly do not know that I would not have followed him by now if I had not found this place. This is my lifeline. This is where I go every day to give me just enough strength to go a little farther in this journey. … I would be a sinking ship in a stormy sea without all of you.”~PamL)
An invisible bond connects survivors. In the face of tragedy, things which all too often divide us –like politics or religion –fall away. United by our humanity after tragic loss, we reach out to each other.
Many survivors who have been around for a while, know that in the early months after a suicide, those closest are more likely to feel suicidal than the general public. The emotional, physical, social, and economic challenges of surviving can feel daunting. We know something that researchers and authorities are just starting to figure out: Postvention is Prevention.
US National Guidelines already exist urging organizations to take”bold and drastic action” to give compassion to those exposed to suicide. Yet, it is still up to us to reach out to each other. We are the lifeline that provides hope when hope is gone. We are the ones who offer friendship to those who feel most alone. We are the face of courage in the wake of tragedy. Together, in community, we help each other though the darkest of times.
As we enter September, which is officially designated “Suicide Prevention Awareness Month,” I am fully present to the importance of kindness. Kindness Matters. To those who have lost a loved one to suicide, and to all who are hurting, it matters a lot.
When I am asked to speak about suicide prevention this month, I will bring kindness to the forefront and I will speak about the need to fund and expand suicide postvention programs for survivors. Perhaps someday, there will be a shift in the funding and availability of programs and trained mental health professionals, but until that day comes, we are the ones we have been waiting for.
There is no greater gift you can give or receive than to honor your calling. It is why you were born and how you become most truly alive” ~Oprah
This week, I was saddened to learn of the death of Amy Bleuel, founder of the Semicolon Project. Amy was a survivor of the suicide of her father, who ended his life when she was 18. She understood both the pain of loss and the challenge of life-long depression. She was plagued with suicidal thoughts most of her life.
Amy’s compassion and commitment to encouraging others –and her desire to end stigma, struck a chord in the hearts of millions of people across the globe. Her first social media call out was simple:
“On April 16, 2013 everyone who self-harms, is suicidal, depressed, has anxiety, is unhappy, going through a broken heart, just lost a loved one, etc. draw a semicolon on your wrist. a semicolon represents a sentence the author could’ve ended, but chose not to. the author is you and the sentence is your life. Repost and tag to #semicolonproject416”
It’s estimated that millions of people have gone on since then, to share photos of semicolons –drawn or tattooed on their bodies.
When I think about Amy’s short life, it becomes clearer than ever that how we live our life –what we do with the time we have allotted –matters. The world has been changed by Amy’s efforts to erase the stigma that surrounds mental illness and to let those who suffer know they are not alone. Amy ended her life, but her message lives on.
As I grow older, I become more anchored in the belief that each of us brings something very special to the planet: something intrinsically us –a soul imprint or signature contribution –commitments and capacities so familiar we take them for granted. It’s just who we are and what we do. Amy’s death –and her life –remind me to how few days on this planet we really have –and what an opportunity it is to make a difference.
A few days ago, I was asked to visit a family who had, just that day, lost their 19-year-old son to suicide. There isn’t much one can offer by way of consolation, even faith consolation, at a moment like this, when everyone is in shock and the pain is so raw. Few things can so devastate us as the suicide of a loved one, especially of one’s own child. There is the horrific shock of losing a loved one so suddenly which, just of itself, can bring us to our knees, but with suicide there are other soul-wrenching feelings, too: confusion, guilt, second-guessing, religious anxiety. Where did we fail this person? What might we still have done? What should we have noticed? What is this person’s state with God?
What needs to be said about all of this: First of all, that suicide is a disease and the most misunderstood of all sicknesses. It takes a person out of life against his or her will, the emotional equivalent of cancer, a stroke, or a heart attack. Second, those left behind need not spend undue energy second-guessing as to how we might have failed that person, what we should have noticed, and what we might still have done to prevent the suicide. Suicide is an illness and, as with any sickness, we can love someone and still not be able to save that person from death. God loved this person, too, and, like us, could not, this side of eternity, do anything either. Finally, we shouldn’t worry too much about how God meets this person on the other side. God’s love, unlike ours, can go through locked doors and touch what will not allow itself to be touched by us.
Is this making light of suicide? Hardly. Anyone who has ever dealt with either the victim of a suicide before his or her death or with those grieving that death afterwards knows that it is impossible to make light of it. There is no hell and there is no pain like the one suicide inflicts. Nobody who is healthy wants to die and nobody who is healthy wants to burden his or her loved ones with this kind of pain. And that’s the point: This is only done when someone isn’t healthy. The fact that medication can often prevent suicide should tell us something.
Suicide is an illness, not a sin. Nobody just calmly decides to end their life and burden his or her loved ones with that death any more than anyone calmly decides to die of cancer and cause pain. The victim of suicide (in all but rare cases) is a trapped person, caught up in a fiery, private chaos that has its roots both in his or her emotions and in his or her bio-chemistry. Suicide is a desperate attempt to end unendurable pain, akin to one throwing oneself through a window because one’s clothing is on fire.
Many of us have known victims of suicide and we know, too, that in almost every case that person was not full of ego, pride, haughtiness, and the desire to hurt someone. Generally, it’s the opposite. The victim has cancerous problems precisely because he or she is wounded, raw, and too-bruised to have the necessary resiliency needed to deal with life. Those of us who have lost loved ones to suicide know that the problem is not one of strength but of weakness; the person is too-bruised to be touched.
I remember a comment I over-heard at a funeral for a suicide victim. The priest had preached badly, hinting that this suicide was somehow the man’s own fault and that suicide was always the ultimate act of despair. At the reception afterward, a neighbor of the victim expressed his displeasure at the priest’s homily: “There are a lot of people in this world who should kill themselves,” he lamented bitterly, “but those kind never do! This man is the last person who should have killed himself because he was one of the most sensitive people I’ve ever met!” A book could be written on that statement. Too often it is precisely the meek who seem to lose the battle, at least in this world.
Finally, I submit that we shouldn’t worry too much about how God meets our loved ones who have fallen victim to suicide. God, as Jesus assures us, has a special affection for those of us who are too-bruised and wounded to be touched. Jesus assures us too that God’s love can go through locked doors and into broken places and free up what’s paralyzed and help that which can no longer help itself. God is not blocked when we are. God can reach through.
And so our loved ones who have fallen victim to suicide are now inside of God’s embrace, enjoying a freedom they could never quite enjoy here and being healed through a touch that they could never quite accept from us.