‘So, so you think you can tell
Heaven from hell
Blue skies from pain
Can you tell a green field
From a cold, steel rail
A smile from a veil
Do you think you can tell?’
(Wish You Were Here)
Many of us have deceived ourselves into thinking we can.
A couple of months ago, we were shocked to learn that Robin Williams took his own life. In his case, many of us joined in a common display of solidarity and grief over the loss of a beloved comedian and actor. Someone who was gifted with the power to make us laugh throughout the years. With his lighthearted humor and whimsical ways, he temporarily eased our own pain and suffering. Even more, he unwittingly succeeded in contributing to the illusion that if we would only put on a happy face and pretend that all is right with the world, it magically would be.
Or so we thought. And so we wanted to believe.
And we tried. Because people like Robin Williams showed us it seemed possible. After all, they appeared to have succeeded in doing it themselves.
Only in the end in a tragic twist of fate, did we find out the truth; that so often laughter was mostly a lie that became the mask that hid the tears of our beloved clown.
Too great of a price to pay in my heart and mind….
As beloved as Robin Williams was to many of us, most of us did not know him personally. And yet, we only heard about him and his death because he was famous enough to be newsworthy. What about the 40,000 other people who commit suicide in America each year? What about them? And the reality is unless they are famous or we know them personally, we aren’t going to hear about them.
Speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves.
So I’m writing today on behalf of one who’s voice was not heard. At least not by those that may have been able to help. Shortly before Robin Williams took his own life, my next door neighbor did as well. However, unlike Robin Williams, most of the world didn’t know anything about her. Only a small handful of people that she has left behind.
On a more personal note, this woman wasn’t just my next door neighbor. She was also a relative by marriage. We had known each other for a decade and when I moved here, little did either of us know we would eventually be related!
Naturally, the news was shocking when I found out. I had just spoken to her not too long before she died and in that conversation, nothing gave me any indication that she was suicidal. In fact, much of our conversation revolved around health and fitness and her expressing a desire to want to get back in shape. Generally not a sign that a person was in despair and feeling hopeless.
We don’t know what we don’t know.
Only after making contact with my neighbor’s daughter, who no longer lived at home, did I realize just how little I really knew about her and her circumstances. Although I had known general information that she had struggled with depression and anxiety, I didn’t know how severe it was. I learned from her daughter that there had been a suicide attempt a couple of years prior when she still lived at home. And no one else knew a thing about it. Not even extended family members. And the daughter had been conditioned to not share secrets about the family because it’s private business.
What happens when people reach out for help and are shamed back into silence?
I learned from the daughter that her mom really did try and get help. She was seeing a counselor when she attempted suicide the first time. This episode appeared to have been brought on in a period of intense overwhelm while caring for her dying mother who had cancer. Instead of getting the help she needed, the therapist she was seeing dropped her as a client because, apparently, the manner in which she tried to kill herself was too disturbing. So she slipped through the cracks of the system and was left without any help at all. Including her only child who was in high school at the time. And that meant her only daughter had to cope with this all by herself as well.
I don’t want to dwell on the manner in which she took her life, however, I will say she did leave a brief note. She had given up all hope.
When all hope is gone, people look for a way out.
And here I lived right next door without any knowledge whatsoever that she was feeling hopeless. The sad reality is that I could and would have been there for her if I had known that she was in need.
I can’t tell you how many tears I’ve shed over this. Or how many times I’ve replayed the last conversation we had together in my head. Or how much I’ve wondered what I could have done or said different that could have possibly altered such a fatal course in this woman’s life. And yet, as I know only too well from all the grieving over the loss of my husband, none of it has the power to bring her back.
‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’
At some point, either someone you know is going to deal with someone who has at least attempted or committed suicide, or you will have to face it directly with someone you know and love. I don’t have the cure for suicide right now except for the all too generic cure called LOVE… so I’d like to offer something in the way of an honest and practical contribution based on my own experience going through it (two months now after the event) and an invitation to have a conversation about it. If not with me, with yourselves and with those you love.
We cannot heal what we still are too afraid to talk about.
So this is my way of wanting to help make uncomfortable feelings of pain and sadness easier to talk about so that we can learn to ease the suffering in the world. Or at least in our own tiny corners of it.
The Grieving Process
As with any death, survivors are going to go through the grief cycle. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with it, there are five stages to loss and grief. People will cycle through any number of them and in some cases several times through the grieving process. It is most common for people to experience denial or shock when first learning of the death of a friend or loved one.
It took a few days before the full impact of my neighbors suicide really hit me. I had been caught up in my own life and tackling things that had been put off. I had even repainted most of the walls in my place while my daughter was on vacation visiting her grandmother. I felt like I had a new lease on life with some grand new goals I was implementing and feeling the momentum slowly build. Then ever so slowly, as the full impact of the suicide crept deep into my bones, I felt the wind begin to slowly let out of my sails. My own fledgling hope began to flounder, in danger of being entirely snuffed out. I was caught in the midst of another grief cycle and one that I wholeheartedly did not want to be in.
NOT NOW! NOT AGAIN!
I started skipping meals because I wasn’t hungry. I was crying at the drop of a hat. I felt displaced from my surroundings and out of step with the world. I’d get online in hope of connecting with those I had developed a close affinity for, and simultaneously, as is the nature of the internet, I’d get bombarded with all sorts of unhelpful messages and cliches, more then ample doses of shame that can be absolutely lethal if you are trying to keep hope alive. Difficult to keep the bad out while clinging to some good for encouragement and support.
And naturally, I found the all too common message loud and clear.
- ‘If you’re unhappy, we don’t want to hear about it.
- ‘It’s up to you to change your attitude.’
- ‘Steer clear of negative people! They are toxic! Reject them! Abandon them!’
And countless other messages from all corners of the internet world from people who don’t really know what they are talking about.
One giant toxic shame dump.
And yet even though I consider myself to be spiritual and no longer religious, I would hear those old familiar words in my mind, ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.’ ~Luke 23:24 Yet with not enough power to ease the pain in my own heart or soothe my bruised soul.
Then after reading so many mixed messages day in and day out, I couldn’t help but understand why America is experiencing over 40,000 suicides a year. Unless you can pretend to be happy and put a smile on your face, it’s just not safe to talk about!
And I’m here to tell you that unless we START talking about it, statistics aren’t going to improve.
Trying to Make Sense of It All
Naturally, part of my own grief process has been in a quite emotional struggle in trying to make sense of it all. I had shared with a Twitter friend recently, Alli Polin, and said that I feel like I’m having to search for the needle of truth in a haystack of mixed beliefs on this one! Oftentimes, it’s not until we are in the midst of an experience, do we come face to face with what we have learned to believe. And this happens whether we like it or not; whether we want it to happen or not. And believe me when I say I’d rather being doing anything else but dealing with suicide, thoughts on suicide, death, grief, and loss.
In no particular order, here are some of the questions and issues I have struggled with over the past couple of months:
- Not understanding why it happened
- Struggling over possible ways the suicide could have been prevented.
- Replaying our last conversation (and history) over and over again in my mind to look for some sign that I missed…for something that I could have said or done differently.
- More aware of just how important it is for people to feel connected and have a sense of belonging.
- I wondered about some of the things I’ve heard online about people criticizing the deceased and calling them selfish. After much thought, I have come to the conclusion that it might be just as selfish to desire people who are living in a personal hell and emotional torture to have to live that way day in and day out without any help or relief. People end their lives because they can’t take the pain anymore, not because they are on a thrill seeking quest or adventure!
- I’m reminded that we really don’t know what we don’t know about each other. Fortunately, the daughter told me that her mom only showed me what she wanted me to see. She didn’t think there was anything more that I could have done based on the knowledge I had over the years.
- How can we make it safe for people to talk openly and honestly about what is going on in life so they don’t have to ultimately end their lives?
- Wondering how we can bridge the gap for people who wind up without families or in fractured families where there is little to no support.
This list by no means exhausts the topic. I’m sure I’ve missed quite a few things I’ve thought of and pondered over the last couple of months yet can’t recall at the moment. I do hope this topic is treated with some care and compassion by those who know me and considered to be an invitation to talk about these things with those you love. As you do, here are some questions for reflection that you might want to consider.
- When you struggle with painful feelings, who can you turn to when they become difficult to handle? Do you have anyone at all that you can turn to?
- Who makes you safe enough to express your honest feelings?
- Do you know how to get help if there is no one you know that you can turn to in a time of need? If not, please consider a Suicide Hotline >> 1-800-273 – TALK
- If you UNDERSTOOD that today could be the last day of every person you encountered, how would you choose to treat them? How much more gentle, loving, and kind would you be?
- If someone comes to you with suicidal feelings, do you know how to handle it responsibly and with compassion? If not, what can you do to learn some basics so you are prepared?
What other questions would you add to the list? Comment below and I’ll add them to this post.
Additional Related Resources:
In Comes the Storm by Samantha Hall – My account of the day my husband died. The beginning stages of grief and loss.
Exploring the Meaning of Acceptance by Samantha Hall
On the Edge of Life and Death by Nic Askew
Don’t Turn Away by Nic Askew
A Glimpse of Reality by Nic Askew
The Humility of Taking Notice by Nic Askew
Suicide Resources by Teach Ade