Survivors of Suicide

We are called “Survivors of suicide” because someone we loved or knew committed suicide. When speaking or writing on grief, I focus on removal of anger as a critical step to healing. Suicide is a complex grief that makes the elimination of all anger an unreasonable expectation. Instead, we become firefighters extinguishing anger from wildfires of emotions that will follow us for the rest of our lives.

Twenty three years ago this morning, my forty-three year old brother killed himself by hanging while his wife drove their two young children to school. He had no visible or spoken warning signs, he was never under a doctor’s care for depression or mental illness, he was not a substance abuser, he was successful and employed, married once, two great kids, two living parents, three living siblings. He never reach out to any of us for help, he made the decision and took action on his own.

The survivors of suicide, for a lifetime, will suffer many additional statistical risks because on that suicide. By some small very hard to define margin we will live shorter lives. We will statistically be more prone to mental illness, with depression topping that list. We will be statistically for likely to abuse alcohol or drugs. We may struggle in our studies, or career. We may withdraw socially; there are many things most of us just can’t talk about. We will be subject to higher than average divorce rates. The list goes on.

By the actions of a loved one’s suicide, we have been sentenced to carry the grief, and the confusing emotional waves of that grief through our lifetime. And that disruption and weight will continue to bring us anger when we expect it, and when we least expect it.

Sentences beginning with “if only they had” will drag you under until you can’t breathe. If only he had called even one of us, he might be alive. If only he had sought help. If only he had felt the love we gave him. If only he could have held out for another minute, he might have changed his mind. If only a thousand or a million times, each bringing a sense of our impotence in preventing this catastrophic end to what we saw as a wonderful life.

Walking alone in our village early one dawn, I crossed paths with someone I knew and asked him how he was. His reply, looking me in the eye: “I’m going to kill myself today”. Looking into his eyes I saw what I believed to be serious risk. I thanked him for trusting me with his intent. He mentioned that through my columns published in the local paper on suicide and also the accidental death of our son five years later, he knew he could talk to me.

We spoke for half an hour, a random encounter at dawn by the side of a road. I came to understand that he had been struggling with depression for years: I had only seen the successful retired businessman, artist, husband and father that he presented as in our community. His mental illness had been addressed crisis by crisis through Emergency Room medicine and he had a complex soup of medications that collectively made him feel nothing. He saw himself as a burden on his family, the lows had become lower and the medicine held less hope.

I spent a few minutes telling him about the life of a survivor of suicide, because he intended to make his family and friends become survivors. I told him about the pain, the confusion and especially the anger he would force upon his wife, his children and his community. Then, I offered to become his friend in finding the ongoing help he needed.

Then I did something that would haunt me for a few hours. I told him it was his choice, told him to call me if he wanted my help, wished him a good day and walked away back home. I had looked into his eyes talking for half an hour, I saw light coming back to him, saw a person inside and I trusted him to do the right thing.

It was a bumpy road for him: I did virtually nothing in the journey after that talk. His wife phoned me a couple of hours later and told me his attitude had changed after I had talked with him. An immediate Emergency Medicine consult changed drugs yet again without results. A voluntary institutionalization withdrew all meds under supervision and the slowly found a balance that worked, therapy that was relevant, and most importantly ongoing support and adjustment.

In a small way, I believe I helped save a life from suicide, and the lives of many who will never know how close they came to being survivors of a suicide. I did exactly what I would have done for my brother, if only he had opened up. That brought anger back to me, the anger of knowing that I might have done something is only I had known.

Suicide is a tsunami of anger directed at oneself, and unintentionally that anger is spilled onto each and every survivor. Unless we came create an openness and approachability, we just can’t reach someone intent on killing themselves. My openness and approachability came not from my losses, but from the ability that those losses brought me to be able to speak and write openly and honestly about my grief.

If you know any survivors of suicide, keep a connection and conversation open without smothering it in worry. It begins with trust, and I believe that trust this deep relies having at least once looked into the eyes of the person who might need you. Those who intend suicide are brilliant actors, skilled liars hiding their truth. They know what they intend to do, and why. They don’t easily talk without trust.

Become the one someone could trust when they most need another human.