A local woman committed suicide this week leaving behind school aged children and her parents. The community is reeling over this act and trying to make sense of it. Why did she do it? What pushes any person to take their own life, how might you be able to prevent it, and how can you be supportive to friends and family?
I don't have all the answers, but I have some. After my marriage ended, I felt devoid of hope and morbidly depressed. My unhappiness impacted the lives of my family and friends. They worried about me and my depressed state made them unhappy. Their concern for me and their worry over my mental state added to my depression. It was kind of a treadmill. I was unhappy, which made them unhappy, which made me more unhappy, which made them more unhappy, etc., etc., etc. I dreamed up ways to die that were passive, which could look like an accident - going for a long walk in winter inadequately dressed, walking into water too deep for me to swim out of (I'm not a particularly strong swimmer.) I progressed into considering slitting my wrists, overdosing on pills, hanging myself or about driving my car into a tree or culvert at high speed.
Was my life really that horrible? To this day, 10 years later, I don't know, and that's the honest truth. I know I was unhappy. My marriage was over and then I lost my job. My former boss black-listed me, making it impossible for me to find work for the next 1 1/2 years. It seemed to me that the unhappiness had no end. I needed to know it could and would have one. I was convinced that there was absolutely no hope and that death was the only viable solution. In my heart I knew I was a huge burden to those who cared about me. I really believed that if I were gone, not only would my unhappiness be over, but that it would come as a relief to those who cared about me because they would no longer have to watch me suffer. You tell yourself that taking your life is the only solution that will make everything go away and be better. If you've never been suicidal, you know nothing could be further from the truth, but when you are suicidal, this seems rational. You are deceived into believing lies.
A 55-year-old man I know suffered greatly as a boy when his grandfather committed suicide. I've never been told what led this man to take his life, but the impact is still felt three generations down the line. Today this 55-year-old man is a psychiatric nurse because he has never forgotten his grandfather's death and his career choice helps him feel he is making a difference in the world (and he is.)
When my second cousin was a young man, he came home one day to find his father dead and hanging from the rafters. He had no idea anything was bothering his father until he made that discovery. He is now in his 60's, and has still not fully dealt with what he saw, largely because he has refused to talk to anyone about it.
A co-worker of mine found her husband who had hanged himself when he was afraid that the dyslexia he'd managed to hide all his working years would come to light on account of a job transfer. He chose to end his life rather than have everyone know his "shame." Eight years later, his widow is getting on with her life, but I doubt she will ever completely recover from her husband's choice to take his life.
Here is my explanation to help understand why someone might decide to take his or her life and how to deal with those left behind. I certainly don't have all the answers, but as someone who has battled with depression and suicidal thoughts, I do have some first-hand knowledge. There's more to suicide than the death of the victim. The other victims are those who are left behind to deal with what their loved one has chosen to do. I remember being in church once and hearing the pastor talk about a member of the congregation who had just taken his life. The victim was a Christian who was involved in numerous church committees. He was a veterinarian by profession.
He had spent many years battling depression. I'm not sure if the anti-depressants he'd been taking didn't agree with him, but he made a decision to stop taking them. He put on a show of that everything was going well, but those who knew him were aware how badly he was struggling. The pastor felt much concern for him, but when he asked, the man responded that he was fine. He refused every offer to help. It ended one evening when this man went to his clinic and euthanized himself. The pastor pointed out to the congregation that his entire family was reeling with the pain of his loss and trying to come to grips with what had led this man to end his life. He encouraged the congregation to remember the family in prayer, and not to avoid contact with them. They needed church family to rally around them and support them especially at this difficult time. How wise! It is natural for us to shun and withdraw from people who are suffering from something we cannot understand and can't figure out how to "fix." The cruel truth is that you can't fix this, nor should you try. Shunning people in this kind of pain only adds to their pain and telling them you understand doesn't help either.
Unless you've had first-hand experience with suicide, don't tell them you understand. In fact, tell them you don't understand but that you'll try to support them however they need. The best thing you can do is to provide your presence. These people need you to cry with them and provide a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. Anyone can do that.
A recurring abusive situation might lead a person to believe that death is the only escape. In this case, it might not be only about escaping the abuse, but it might also be about getting even with the abuser. It might be about feeling cornered - a situation that looks as though it can have no satisfactory outcome, like having a huge and unserviceable debt. It might be a chemical imbalance in the brain, which leads to depression and makes you feel death is the only way to end the sadness. Taking your life certainly ends your unhappiness here on earth, but it's permanent, which is something you might not fully consider or even comprehend when you plan to die. You can't come back and try again and I believe this is largely what kept me from doing it. In the back of my mind was the hope that things truly could get better, and they did. Given time, many situations improve, even without intervention.
There aren't always warning signs that something is wrong. Sometimes the warning signs are so vague that even a trained professional may have trouble picking up on them. With these people, the first inkling you have that something isn't right is their death. We all have times of being down, but not all of us contemplate suicide as a way to deal with our depression, so don't assume that every person who seems depressed will consider suicide as a way out. If possible, try to intervene when you realize that someone is battling with thoughts of suicide. Let the person know that you care deeply, but be honest and tell them how selfish their decision is and how those who care will suffer if they follow through on their plan. People contemplating suicide tend to close themselves off to everyone while at the same time desperately wishing someone would listen to them, understand and help.
They withdraw completely. They often lose the ability to socialize. They have to force themselves to perform simple and routine tasks like personal hygiene or grocery shopping. The hopeless desperation they feel is difficult or even downright impossible to comprehend, never mind deal with. Find a counselor or pastor trained in dealing with depression and suicide intervention and ask for advice on how to intervene. Get that person involved. Don't keep silent. If you know friends and/or family members of the person thinking of ending their life, let them know what you know and impress on them the seriousness of the situation. Get out of your comfort zone and do whatever it takes to help. You could be saving a life.
Do not judge people who have chosen to end their life. If death has occurred, don't treat the family and loved ones left behind like lepers. They are not only dealing with the death but also with thoughts of guilt and blame because they might be thinking they could have and should have been able to prevent this. They need support. Give them your shoulder and not your mouth. Give them a comforting presence. Polish their shoes. Cut their grass. Shovel snow. Don't be passive. They are hurting, confused and looking for answers. Being supportive by being with them is vital.
To close this, I would like to thank my friends and family who rallied around me when I wanted to die. They forced me to be with them even when I didn't want to and they impressed on me that they cared. They continued to love me even when I was completely unlovable. They told me in no uncertain terms how much I would damage my family with suicide and that they would probably never get over it because suicide is a "solution" that only creates more problems for those left behind. They were blunt and told me that self-inflicted death is not noble or romantic (forget about Romeo and Juliet!), that it's permanent and that it's utterly selfish. They were brutally honest with me and in this way, they loved me to life.