There are days we remember and days we’ll never forget. February 12, 2002 was one of those days for me. It’s the day we discovered my step-brother took his life. Losing a loved one to suicide is one of those defining moments in life. One that leaves you changed forever.
We all experienced this recently in a more distant way with Robin William’s suicide, although those close to him certainly were impacted more directly. Well known, well loved, well respected for his comedic talent and acting ability...Robin Williams is one who will be remembered forever. His death left a hole in the fabric of the entertainment world. His suicide left all of us wondering, “Why?”
After a suicide loss, many survivors of suicide are plagued by one question, “Why?” We try to make sense of something that seems so contrary to our human instinct for survival. I was tormented by this question for months and carried out the psychological autopsy that is common in the aftermath - trying to piece together the precipitating events and make sense of the senseless. This is the problem - us survivors try to apply logic and rationale in understanding the minds of those who were not in a logical and rational state at the time of their death. It doesn’t work. Eventually, I had to come to grips with the reality that I knew all I was possibly going to know and still did not have all of the answers. I also came to understand that it is not just the precipitating event that is the causal factor in a suicide, but it is a multi-causal phenomonon and in 90% of the cases involves a mental health condition that possibly could have been treatable.
After the shock of Jason’s death wore off, I went through denial. My mind didn’t want to accept reality. Every time I saw a green Honda accord, I’d look to see if he was behind the wheel. I created a scenario in my mind to protect myself from my pain, imagining he was in a witness protection program and he was alive somewhere. I didn’t really believe this, but I’d fantasize about it at times.
The grief would strike me at the most inconvenient moments….in the grocery store upon seeing his favorite food, in a restroom when I saw a hole in the wall that reminded me of the bullet hole he left behind in his condo, or when a certain song would come on the radio. I couldn’t always predict when my grief would be triggered, and this left me on an emotional roller coaster ride.
I struggled with anger and guilt and did a number on myself. I wasn’t angry with him. I was angry with myself. As a counselor, I felt like if someone should have seen the signs it should have been me. I even questioned if I wanted to continue in the field of counseling and wondered if I was even competent to be practicing. I had to learn to be gentle with myself, forgive myself and recognize that hindsight is 20:20 and if I knew this was going to happen I’d have done something about it. The reality was I had not spent a lot of time around my step-brother in those recent months prior to his death. Life had it’s grip on me and I was consumed with my own life and raising children. I eventually learned not to “should” on myself, but it took time. I realized this grieving thing truly was a process and it had to run it’s course.
Early in the process I had an “aha” moment. I truly believe it was God’s hand on my shoulder, grabbing my attention and telling me to use this experience for good. It was in that moment that I realized I needed to find purpose in Jason’s death. I needed to give it meaning. I came to the conclusion that I was meant to help with suicide prevention efforts in some way.
One of the most healing aspects of my journey was participating in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Walk in Washington, D.C. I raised $5,000 in a month’s time and hit the streets walking. Every step I took training for the walk was for Jason. Every dollar that poured in was for him as well. Each step and every dollar brought tears, but in my crying, healing was happening - little by little, step by step. The walk was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. It started shortly after dinner, then into the darkness we walked for 26 miles. I was prepared to powerwalk as I usually do, but in the opening speech we were told it wasn’t a race to get ahead, as in our race to get ahead, others are left behind. We were encouraged to have conversations along the way, share our stories of grief, help people up who have fallen, be with one another’s tears. This message hit home. I walked. I talked. I listened. I cried. I helped others along the way. I was honored and overcome with emotion as those lining the street with photos of their loved ones thanked me for walking. Then out of the darkness I eventually arrived at the finish line. I did it. I did it for Jason and for others like him. I did it for those who are left behind after losing someone to suicide. I did it for myself.
I went on to help start a support group for survivors of suicide called H.U.G.S. (Healing and Understanding of Grief from Suicide) and co-facilitated that group for a number of years. I became involved with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and helped start National Survivors of Suicide Day here in Charlotte. I attended workshops and learned all I could about suicide. I eventually was willing to work with suicidal teens and help them in their walk out of the darkness through my counseling practice. Hearing parent share with their teens about how they'd feel if they acted on their suicidal thoughts brought the most moving and powerful moments into my counseling office, which I was privy to witness.
Breaking the silence surrounding suicide became my mission after Jason died. So, with it being National Suicide Prevention Week, I decided it was time to use my voice again and share my story. One thing I learned in all of this was that when I would share about my experience, I made it okay for others to do the same. In doing this, I learned just how many people are touched by suicide in some way - either they have been in that dark place themselves at some point, or they know of someone who died by suicide. People just don’t talk about it. We have to make it okay to talk about. When we do, then perhaps those who are struggling with suicidal thoughts will talk about it too and reach out for the help they need. Say the word and save lives. Suicide.