The time of year say “welcome” to the cooler weather, pumpkin spice, and football. Fall is the time when nature begins to shed it’s life from the previous months. Leaves fall, the green of the grass fades, and many animals begin to prepare to hide away for the next few months. It’s an expected “death”, so to speak. We know it’s coming, but we can marvel at it because we know that new life is coming.
But human death is different. We don’t marvel at this kind of death. We fear it, we grieve it. Even if it’s expected. But how do we handle an unexpected death? And not just unexpected death, but a death which may seem selfish to some. When someone has come to a point in their lives where suicide is the only option, there are left in the wake loved ones who struggle with the grief of unexpected loss in a deeply different way because their loved one “chose” to leave.
When I was 16 years old, this experience became a reality for my family. My grandfather, a pastor for a good portion of his early life, had entered a rehabilitation program to begin fighting his addiction to alcohol. Less than a year later, he would lose his battle from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The aftermath of this loss was almost indescribable. Each family member had the same gaping look on their faces as they sat in the living room with the proverbial breath knocked out of them. I watched our family grapple with this loss. First shock then anger. Anger at a husband for abandoning his wife, anger at a father for not caring enough about his children, anger at a friend for thinking only of himself. Other emotions eventually followed; guilt: “we should have known and we could have done something”, shame: “If only we appreciated him more; told him we loved him more”; blame: “the doctors didn’t do their job; his counselor should have seen the signs”. But what we failed to look at was the internal struggle my grandfather was experiencing.
Understand The Mindset
Not too long ago, a world renowned, out of the box chef lost his life to suicide, after battling severe depression for years. The Gospel Coalition released an article shortly after and quoted David Foster Wallace, a writer and university instructor who, himself, lost his own life to suicide. Wallace described a depression that leads to suicide in the following way:
“The so-called “psychotically depressed” person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of “hopelessness” or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling “Don’t!” and “Hang on!”, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.” David Foster Wallace
I truly believed the flames of my grandfather’s thoughts were too great to bear and jumping out of the window was all he felt he could do. My family has since come to that conclusion as well. But we had to go through a process first. We had to grieve in a way that we had never experienced before. Fast forward 20 years later, our family would walk this road yet again when my first cousin would also lose his life to suicide. Again, jumping seemed better than facing the flames.
So how do we stand in the flames with those in our lives who may be feeling trapped?
- Take passive suicidal statements seriously. Statements like “Your life would be better without me” or “I wish I was never born”. Ask open ended questions when you hear statements like this. “What makes you feel this way?” “How would my life be better without you?” Many may think someone will talk like this for attention. These are statements that reflect emotional pain and should not be ignored.
- Take suicidal behavior seriously. Some nonverbal cues may be:
- Appearing agitated, anxious, irritable
- Becoming extremely sensitive and strongly reactive to criticism
- Talking, writing, journaling or joking about suicide
- Withdrawing from activities or friends
- Gathering special items to give friends or family
- Saying what sounds like a final goodbye
- Seeking out the means to kill themselves – a weapon, substance, or dangerous location
- Ask questions or make statements of concern. If you have a concern that someone you love is suicidal, speaking up is better than worrying in silence. Thoughts and questions of concern that stay in our head do nothing to show the our loved one we see them and we care. Some example response are:
- You seem really depressed lately – how are you handling that? Getting help?”
- “Do you think about hurting yourself?”
- “What do you think about your future?”
- “Are you feeling hopeless?”
- “Have you thought about doing something about that?
Are you a survivor of suicide loss? Do you struggle to process the loss of your loved one? Have your flames become less terrifying than the jump? The time to reach out is now. We care and we are here.
If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please get help immediately. Call 911, go to the nearest emergency room, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or call Denton County MHMR Crisis Hotline at 1-800-762-0157.