I am a survivor of suicide.
I don’t talk about it a lot these days, as I’ve reached the point where it feels like a lifetime ago. Healing was a long and grief-stricken process. There were times when I felt very alone in my grief and there were times when I felt lost and confused. The trouble with suicide is that no one knows what to say. No one knows how to react. So they smile and wave and attempt distraction… but they never ever say the word. The survivors, it seems, are often left to survive on their own.
I experienced endless waves of emotion in the days, weeks, months and even years following the loss of my father. The “what ifs” kept me up at night, causing me to float through each day in a state of perpetual exhaustion. What if I had answered the phone that night? Would the sound of my voice have changed his mind? Would he have done it at a later date, anyway? Survivor’s guilt, indeed.
Sometimes, I cried. Sometimes, I sat perfectly still watching the waves crash down on Main Beach, hoping for a sign of some kind that he had reached a better place. Sometimes, I silently scolded myself for not seeing the warning signs. Sometimes, I bargained with God or anyone else who might be in charge up there. Bring him back to us. Please, just bring him back. Sometimes I felt angry. Why us? Why me? Why him?
Yes, I experienced a range of emotions before making peace with the loss. But one thought that never ever (not even for one second) crossed my mind was this ill-informed opinion that suicide is selfish. Suicide is a lot of things, but selfish isn’t one of them.
Suicide is a decision made out of desperation, hopelessness, isolation and loneliness. The black hole that is clinical depression is all-consuming. Feeling like a burden to loved ones, feeling like there is no way out, feeling trapped and feeling isolated are all common among people who suffer from depression.
People who say that suicide is selfish always reference the survivors. It’s selfish to leave children, spouses and other family members behind, so they say. They’re not thinking about the survivors, or so they would have us believe. What they don’t know is that those very loved ones are the reason many people hang on for just one more day. They do think about the survivors, probably up until the very last moment in many cases. But the soul-crushing depression that envelops them leaves them feeling like there is no alternative. Like the only way to get out is to opt out. And that is a devastating thought to endure.
Until you’ve stared down that level of depression, until you’ve lost your soul to a sea of emptiness and darkness… you don’t get to make those judgments. You might not understand it, and you are certainly entitled to your own feelings, but making those judgments and spreading that kind of negativity won’t help the next person. In fact, it will only hurt others.
As the world mourns the loss of Robin Williams, people everywhere are left feeling helpless and confused. How could someone who appeared so happy in actuality be so very depressed? The truth is that many, many people face the very same struggle each and every day. Some will commit suicide. Some will attempt. And some will hang on for dear life. Most won’t be able to ask for the help that they need to overcome their mental illness.
You can help.
Know the warning signs for suicide. 50-75% of people who attempt suicide will tell someone about their intention. Listen when people talk. Make eye contact. Convey empathy. And for the love of people everywhere, put down that ridiculous not-so-SmartPhone and be human.
Check in on friends struggling with depression. Even if they don’t answer the phone or come to the door, make an effort to let them know that you are there. Friendship isn’t about saving lost souls; friendship is about listening and being present.
Reach out to survivors of suicide. Practice using the words “suicide” and “depression” so that they roll off the tongue as easily as “unicorns” and “bubble gum.” Listen as they tell their stories. Hold their hands. Be kind with their hearts. And hug them every single time.
Encourage help. Learn about the resources in your area so that you can help friends and loved ones in need. Don’t be afraid to check in over and over again. Don’t be afraid to convey your concern. One human connection can make a big difference in the life of someone struggling with mental illness and/or survivor’s guilt.
30,000 people commit suicide in the United States each year. 750,000 people attempt suicide. It’s time to raise awareness, increase empathy and kindness, and bring those numbers down.