One of the things I love most about being a writer is the power a story has to start a dialogue, to share experiences and invoke a sense of purpose, of awareness, of hope. As my laptop sat open last night, the cursor blinking over so vigilantly on the screen, my fingers took pause on the keyboard. Usually when it comes to putting thought into words, it’s easy, a natural flow and progression. It’s kind of my MO.
But last night it was different. Last night as I sat with a heavy heart hearing of yet another life taken too soon by suicide, I struggled to describe what it was I was feeling.
Sadness. Confusion. Heartbreak and numbness.
Suicide is not easy to talk about. But it’s something that I feel must be done.
My cousin Nick committed suicide a little over five years ago, a day just short of his 35th birthday. Growing up, I idolized him – everything from the music he listened to and the shoes he wore, to the hockey team he cheered for and the car he drove. He was the epitome of cool and could do no wrong in my eyes.
I think the thing I loved most about him however was his zest for life. He was a source of joy and positivity, something that radiated to everyone who was lucky enough to know him, to love him, to call him son, brother and friend.
When I first heard the news of his passing, I didn’t want to believe it. I couldn’t. How could a person so full of life get to this point? To feel like he had no other option? To be so consumed with hopelessness and darkness that leaving this earth was the only option? His only saving grace?
When someone passes away from old age, we tend to have some preparedness for it. None of us live forever. At the time of their passing, there is an immense sadness from the loss of this person, but our natural response is to channel our attention towards celebrating their life and memories.
When someone passes away from cancer or a terminal illness, we pour every amount of our effort into wanting to diminish any remnant of pain, or defeat, or fear that individual felt at the end of their days, and we vanquish it by adamantly honoring their courage and unwavering bravery. The last thing we would want is to allow ourselves to be disdained by how much their sickness took from them against their will. In response, we contribute to fundraisers, we join advocacy groups, we take a stand against this illness that took our loved one, and we make sure to let their name and legacy be known more than the thing that overcame them.
Why is it then that when someone kills themselves, we tend to not want to acknowledge the disease, the demons, the mindset, or the brokenness that contributed to making it happen? As humans, our instinct is to survive. Our bodies are wired to jump into action and respond to life threatening situations, for instance, it’d be nearly impossible to succumb to drowning. For someone to kill themselves, they must go against every one of those instincts that have been ingrained within their being since birth. It’s unsettling to think of all the invisible antagonists that could cause a person to do such a thing. However, that still doesn’t prevent us from wanting to fault the victim when they lose the fight.
Before anything else is said, perhaps we need to start by admitting that suicide is not easy to talk about.
We tend to not want to dwell on death and dying, in many of the forms that it takes. Whether it’s the sudden kind, like a car accident, or the slow kind, like growing old. We tend to only meet with it for a moment, handle its weight for a mere second, and then hastily retreat into our sheltered world where everything is safe again. Suicide, on the other hand, subjects us to a significantly darker side of death.
There’s a tendency to talk about suicide before as if it’s unheard of. I could never imagine doing such a thing. I wouldn’t have it in me. Not to mention, I would never allow things to get that bad. I would seek help. He/she has so much to live for. Their family is perfect. They do what they love and they’re so good at it.
I don’t blame you. It’s hard to put a feeling to something you have never felt, or a circumstance you have never experienced. It’s like asking someone exactly what they would do if an active shooter ran into their place of work and pointed a gun at them. There are so many ways it could go. It’s not something that daily life prepares you for. You may have an impression of what you’d do, but you’ll never really know until it truly happens.
We talk about suicide after as if it’s reprehensible. It’s never that bad, where it feels like killing yourself is the only way out. They should have asked for help. They threw away a lot. What a waste of a life. How selfish. How could they do this to their family, their friends, their loved ones?
After my cousin’s passing, I was talking to someone who had known him well, and they said to me, “It never gets that bad,” in regard to their frustration towards him ending his life. My breath caught in my throat. Hearing that inspired a very profound thought within me, though I wasn’t about to challenge, or debate what this person was commenting on. They had every right to say that. When it comes to suicide, it’s very natural that the thing you are most angry with for taking your loved one is your loved one. Death by suicide doesn’t alleviate any pain, it simply bestows pain onto those who remain living, and leaves them to grapple with so many questions that will never be answered.
Personally, I could not bring myself to feel anger toward my cousin and what he had done. No matter which perspective I tried to view — he abandoned his family and friends, he made a selfish decision, he didn’t alert me, or any of us, to the way he was feeling, he should have known to get help — I could feel nothing more than wanting to acknowledge his actions, and let him be at peace.
He was not an abandoning person. He didn’t have a selfish bone in his body. He always spilled his heart out to me with the utmost honesty. He tried to get help, but it wasn’t the equivalent of what he truly needed. How could I be angry at him for not being able to defeat this shapeless thing, this psychological and emotional terrorist? Yes, the reason for his death is terribly regrettable, but I can’t stand to let it diminish his existence. His name and legacy will overpower that which overcame him. I’m here to make sure of it.
I also had a retort for the statement: it never gets that bad. What if it does? What if it is that bad? We don’t ask for proof and validation from cancer patients for how bad their diagnosis is. Cancer is tangible; therefore, it is valid, we believe it, and we fear it, regardless of if we have it or not. Death from old age is inevitable, it has a ballpark occurrence that we are aware of years beyond its happening. Suicide and psychosomatic warfare are incomprehensible. We can’t see it, so consequently, we do not have the aptitude to fight against it and, as a result, the battle often becomes invalid.
In pondering the thought, it never gets that bad, it hit me that as a society, we are not only incapable of displaying altruism towards people who are depressed or suicidal, we also feel like we must blame them. The perpetual inevitability is that there are as many ways to blame as there are to take your own life.
On April 19, 2012, I became a suicide survivor. Deceiving as the name may sound, this does not mean I tried to take my own life and was unsuccessful. I am a survivor of someone who took their life by suicide. I have witnessed the physical manifestation of the torture that suicidal thoughts put a person through.
I’m not the only one. I have had close friends lose their members of their family, fiancés, boyfriends and girlfriends. I’ve seen the pain, confusion and despair that they’ve gone through trying to understand, to heal, to move forward. I’ve also had close friends admit to me that they’ve battled suicidal thoughts on occasion, have felt that all-consuming darkness. Suicide affects 1-4 people, yet it still has this negative stigma around it. I am here to try and challenge that. To encourage an open dialogue, to begin a conversation.
I refuse to become complacent, and I refuse to believe that suicide cannot be understood as tangible because I have felt it. I’ve seen others feel it.
I also want to tell anyone out there who is struggling that your feelings are valid, and that you are not alone, you are never alone. If someone you know is struggling emotionally or having a hard time, you can be the difference in getting them the help they need.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is here 24/7 to help: 1-800-273-8255.
Let’s begin this conversation, together.