Today is National Suicide Prevention Day. I lost a friend and father figure to suicide when I was twelve. In many ways, I believe that loss had more effect on me than the loss of my own father when I was eight. I can never speak for all the grieving or any of them. Either way, here are some things I wish people knew.
- I don’t tell you about this loss because I can’t stand the look on your face when I do. Many people in the U.S. are very uncomfortable with death and mortality. When it comes to suicide, it’s even more pronounced. That flinch – you know the one I’m writing about – it says “Oh I’m so sorry,” and “Please don’t let that happen to me.” It also says, to me, “Didn’t you know?” Of course I didn’t (at least not at the time) and for that I am forever sorry.
- My head knows it wasn’t my fault but my heart does not. Every time I think about the night he locked himself in that basement, I wonder if I hadn’t tried harder to open the door, blocked him as walked down the stairs, behaved better, whined less, showed my love more and a million other things if he’d be sitting across from me today. Clocks only turn in one direction and I don’t have that choice to make again. I have different choices.
- Mental illnesses can be terminal. There are people walking around today with profound depression. We don’t understand and they aren’t getting the help they need. Their illness is as acute as someone with stage 4 liver cancer but we don’t think of their illness that way. When they die, we don’t think of them the same way as we do someone who died of stage 4 liver cancer. It is because we still blame the person even if we don’t mean to. This is wrong and we must change our thinking.
- I can’t unsee certain things, but that doesn’t mean I am broken. The memory of his body being wheeled out in a black zippered bag, attached to a stretcher with yellow stretchy seat-belts, will forever haunt me. I saw it from my bedroom window. It bounced, without reverence, over the lawn into an ambulance in the driveway. It’s dark and horrible, but it’s always there. If I look like my mind is far away, it probably is. Even with that, I am able to live my life. Just because have a traumatic memory doesn’t mean I can’t live a happy, mentally healthy life.
- Life with him was wonderful. When someone dies from suicide there in an underlying assumption that person was visibly depressed, possibly making bad choices, and hurting others around them. That’s not the case for me. My neighbor was capable of the greatest joy of anyone I’ve ever known save my six-year-old daughter. I never knew an adult who could play with such childlike enthusiasm and abandon. We played an elaborate game of tag. He was lizard-man. His long arms were his jaws snapping at us as we ran away to base squealing in delight/terror. I miss that and only hope that I can bring one tenth of his warmth to my own play with my daughter.
My neighbor loved us. I know that he did. I still love him and remember his capacity for joy, excellence, and compassion. He understood what it was like for me to have lost my father when I was eight because he did too. It took me a long time to realize how ill he was – to comprehend that he was a terminally ill man living his life right in front of me.
This year, I promise to ask the questions I am afraid to ask. I will not be shy if I think someone is struggling. It may not help, but it may stop one child from growing up without a dad, a father-figure neighbor, or always worrying that someone they love is going to die. I can do that. We all can.