The thing about suicide is that once you are touched by it, it’s always there.
For people like me, who have attempted suicide, suicide is always in our back pocket. Yes, I got well. I got treatment, therapy, medications and unfailing support. I now have a life beyond my wildest dreams but suicide is still in my back pocket. I am as far away from suicide now as I can be and the thought of it is absurd to me now.
When my drinking and depression were at their worst, I would awaken in the middle of the night, lie still in bed and listen to my thoughts: “Oh, you didn’t hear? She killed herself.” Over and over I heard someone explain my death. I no longer awaken to those horrible thoughts. Today, my middle-of-the night thoughts are of stepping on damn dog toys on the way to the bathroom.
Suicide is not an option for me now but it’s still in my back pocket. Most of the time I don’t even realize it’s there. But it comes rushing back when I hear about someone who has done “it.”
It’s probably even worse for someone who has had a parent, brother, sister or loved one kill themselves. They say those people – the true survivors of suicide – are more prone to take their own lives, too. But that’s just a statistic – which is what a lot of the chatter about suicide is: data and statistics. We don’t really get to hear about it first hand because we don’t know how to approach suicide survivors.
I once went to a fundraiser for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and struck up a conversation with a couple whose son had killed himself years ago. They had shared their story often and were as comfortable as parents can be sharing their child’s suicide. They encouraged me to ask questions.
All I wanted to know is, what’s the best thing to say to someone who has lost a loved one to suicide? Much of the information we get about a suicide is hearsay and rumor. When we actually cross paths with that parent or wife who has survived it, we don’t know what to say. If we can’t avoid them altogether, we try small talk or speak in generalities. The last thing we do is ask specific questions about “it.”
They both nodded when I asked my question. They had endured uncomfortable, awkward encounters many times before. Their suggestion: Just speak the truth – that you had heard about their son/daughter/husband/wife’s death and that you are very sorry for their loss. Don’t pass judgment. Don’t ask details. Don’t try to sweep it under the rug. Acknowledge it happened and offer prayers and support.
I’ve been thinking about that couple today because I have been listening to an audio project published this summer by the Huffington Post. Huff Post asked relatives of military members and veterans who died by suicide to tell their stories. It is a brilliant, poignant and powerful package of vignettes that – while sometimes difficult to listen to – offers a rare opportunity to hear the voices of suicide.
They hope their stories will help other suicide survivors find comfort, and will convince those at risk of suicide to seek help now. If you have tried to kill yourself or know someone who is thinking of suicide or has survived the loss of a loved one to suicide, please listen to these stories. I pray they will help me and others empty our back pockets.
Help Me image available from Shutterstock.