One wrong turn

Content warning: This post directly addresses suicide

Originally published in 2009 as a column, but it’s history is deeper. Having experienced suicide as a survivor, I will try reach our to families when I hear of a suicide in our circle of friend or extended circle of acquaintances. Knowing the complexity of the immediate aftermath of suicide, when an friend in our community killed himself, I wrote this as a private letter to the family, something that I could just drop off at the door without intruding too much on a very private grief. They invited me in, and I spent a couple of hours with them and left the letter for them. Many months later, I ran into the victim’s octogenarian mother, who was not part of my initial visit to the family,  at a local event and she pulled me aside and asked me to please publish the letter as a column because it had helped their family begin the journey of grieving the suicide of a son, husband and father.

Of the over 200 columns I wrote, this one still gets people seeking me out and requesting a copy for someone that they know who has a suicide to grieve.

It occurs to me that I have been writing on grief and love for a long time now, and much of my thinking on grief was becoming well formed at the time I wrote this, which was bine years after my brother’s suicide and four years after our son’s death. It’s taken me another almost fourteen years to start this blog, but I have never stopped writing, so I have a wealth of staged exploration, knowledge and insights, because I wrote.

A final note: Since I wrote this, Canada now has Medical Assistance In Dying for hopeless terminally ill patients. We are exploring these concepts as a people, and possibly extending them to intractable mental illness and possibly dementia, which are more complex situations than terminal illness tends to be. 

One Wrong Turn by Peter H. Ratcliffe

Published Hudson-St. Lazare Gazette September 2009

More than four thousand Canadians kill themselves each year, with the vast majority being men.

In September 2000, my youngest brother Michael killed himself at age 43, leaving a loving widow, two children, two brothers, a sister, two loving parents and an extended family a lifetime of grieving pondering more questions than he answered quickly one morning with a rope.

My sister once chided me for saying clearly and directly that “Mike killed himself”, suggesting I could find more polite or sensitive ways to voice his final act. “He took his own life” was one several gentler suggestions she made. Mike’s act wasn’t polite or sensitive; suicide is never polite or sensitive, so to this day I use the “killed himself” to properly describe the violence he committed on himself and his family and friends. Suicide is a shocking abandonment of the deepest trust we share with a loved one; there is no polite or sensitive descriptor I could use.

Suicide is often described as a selfish act. I believe that when we live a life full of family and friends that our own life is no longer simply ours to decide what to do with. In any good life, our lives and souls become intertwined and conjoined to so many by blood, love, friendship and community. We can’t kill ourselves without doing major damage to those we have conjoined to us. So, it’s not just our life we’d take, but also many good parts of all of those lives touching and being touched by us. Perhaps that sense of family, friends and community pulls most back from the edges of despair they might find. Unfortunately some only find a blinding darkness that isolates them from those saving graces and they can’t find their way back.

The sole suicide I might be able to find personal understanding and compassion for would be a terminally ill patient in intractable suffering with no treatment options or hope of improvement. Usually, those victims have discussed that option to some form of acceptance with those closest to them and the trauma is mitigated by preparation and answering of the obvious questions we must ask. I refuse to judge those who choose that path because I can’t walk in their shoes, but I hope I’d choose to fight for one last breath surrounded by those I love.

Those of us left behind when someone kills himself or herself are referred to as survivors of a suicide. On the psychological trauma scale we have endured one of the most traumatic events a soul can experience. We survivors have suffered a random act of violence to our own lives; I’ve often called these events drive by shootings in our own life. We survived, but we will carry scars on our soul from that event for the rest of our life. Unless we heal and find strength, a significantly higher percentage of us will kill ourselves, encounter addiction, battle depression and a myriad of mental and physical health problems. This is the road we’ve been left on would never be our choice, but where we go from here is our only choice.

One of the great tragedies of suicide is that we don’t talk about it, but bury it. Professional media correctly doesn’t cover suicide unless it’s linked to a serious crime or is a very high profile public person. The view is that publishing information about suicides brings copy cats or might break down a barrier for those most at risk and who might be close to or contemplating killing themselves. The downside to that lack of coverage is that suicide is much more prevalent than most people think, and survivors are more isolated and less apt to talk or seek help. In the months after Mike’s suicide, I was shocked at the number of people who came to me and talked about suicides in their own family. I also felt less alone and less different for those discussions. Without open honest discussion, the rate of suicide will continue to climb, so I encourage survivors to talk to each other and help each other heal. We’re not alone, there are far too many of us survivors. We are unique in our experience and understanding of one of life’s great tragedies.

At the very central root of suicide is mental illness. No one with a completely healthy mind kills himself or herself. The mental illness that took this person from us may have been a life long struggle, or it may have been a singular sudden fit of irrational behavior. We may argue forever about which it was, it was probably somewhere in the middle, and we will never really know.

In any case, I eventually came to the comfortable conclusion that the man who killed my brother wasn’t the gentle caring Mike we knew as a son, brother, husband, father and friend. For that one deadly moment, a different Mike took over and destroyed that fine man we knew. Perhaps our Mike had silently battled inner demons and never reached out to any of us for help. Perhaps it was a sudden impulse on a moment of despair. Don’t ask the questions we can’t ever answer, spend your energy remembering the good you knew.

One of the issues that can gnaw at the survivors is questioning why exactly did they kill themselves. I suspect that even if there were a note or message that we couldn’t or shouldn’t trust anything that was said in a time of deepest despair. It is much better to cherish the memory of many years of a fine soul’s life in a balance of significance against that one terrible moment and self-destructive act that became beyond their control.

In my healing journey from Mike’s suicide, my thinking became much clearer. On Mike’s journey along the road of life, Mike had made many thousands of good turns to better places and a better life. Mike wasn’t afraid to change paths in life; he changed directions for good reasons and to great outward success. Mike was a loving, happy, proud, productive, valuable part of a family and society. He worked hard and built a life and family most would envy.

One morning at home Mike found himself in a dreadful place he didn’t recognize. He couldn’t or wouldn’t reach out to anyone for directions or help. He couldn’t see backwards to where he came from, or forward to where he thought was going. He couldn’t sense the value in his life or the love around him each day. On one side of his path was an immense cliff he knew he couldn’t possibly climb and on the other side was a dark quiet bottomless abyss he couldn’t understand but he felt was calling him. Mike, for reasons he himself most likely didn’t understand made that one deadly wrong turn of his entire good life and killed himself.

We must never lose sight of the value and meaning in our lives. We must never lose sight of those we love and those who love us. Those thoughts are multiplied for we the wounded survivors of a suicide. We survivors can understand and must comfort and support each other and do our best to make sure we don’t find ourselves one day on that path to a wrong turn.

We can spend the rest of our lives wondering and arguing amongst ourselves about what killed Mike and we’ll exhaust ourselves without ever really understanding. Or we can spend the rest of our lives together remembering all the great days and turns we loved in Mike’s wonderful life. I choose to only remember the great loving, laughing Mike.

I encourage every survivor of a suicide to compassionately try to imagine the immense pain that our loved one found themselves in that one terrible last day of their life. A pain so real and intense that it completely blinded them to everything of value in their life and left them with only the conclusion that killing themselves would fix the pain. Then find it in your heart to forgive them for that one wrong turn they made in a wonderful life. Find it in your heart to forgive them for the damage, betrayal, questions, confusions and challenges they left behind for you.

Drive any anger or darkness in your souls away and fill those empty voids with the wonderful loving memories of a dear loved one we lost who made one and only one really wrong turn. In honour of those memories of your love, find your way along this road to eventual healing.


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