Last night I got the kind of email that makes me cry, and the kind I get with some regularity. A friend wrote to say that a friend of his had died by suicide.
We all have a thing, I suppose. And suicide, it turns out, is mine. And actually, it was my thing before my dad died, because he took his life on his seventh attempt. And the six prior were no jokes. A number of you lived through the 2007 attempt with me. It was terrible.
His psychiatrist told us that the severity of my dad's attempts and the fact that he lived through them made him almost believe in God.
But although suicide was something I knew a lot about because of personal experience, I knew nothing about prevention. I knew nothing about healing. I knew nothing about the resources that were available that could've helped my family, even before my dad died. That could possibly have kept my brother from abandoning us.
I have some strong personal feelings here.
So my friend, he was wondering if I had thoughts on what to say to the spouse, who he doesn't know well. And if I could suggest any resources.
Resources first, because that is easy.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention,
the organization to which many of you have contributed by supporting my overnight walks, has
incredible resources. And by resources I mean both literature and
people. Without exception, the staff and volunteers I've encountered have been incredibly kind and thoughtful and gentle.
On their website is a whole section called Coping With Suicide Loss. I told my friend to start there, and look at Where Do I Begin? And Find Support. Because support makes a tremendous difference.
is different kind of loss than diseases like cancer or ALS. These may be
painful and senseless losses, but they are not stigmatized. And the person who died didn't
deliberately end their own life. Didn't "want" to die. (I say "want" because to many people that's how suicide seems. A choice.)
Those left behind from other types of death are not left with the
same sense of deliberate abandonment that can accompany suicide. How could you leave us? Didn't you love us enough?
suicide, you are left with the feeling that there must have been
something you could have done to change the outcome. You're left with guilt. You should have known. You had a feeling. You somehow let this happen. So many of
my dad's friends and colleagues have said this to me.
Surely they could've done or said something that would've changed things, and he would still be here.
Magnify this by a million and this is how I felt.
And while I am saying this, it's important to mention prevention. There are warning signs. There are questions you can ask, things you can do if you are worried about someone. And it is always better to risk offending the person by asking.
If you are scared, for yourself or another person, and you don't know what to do, call the Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Ask for help.
Now, what to say to the grieving friend? You do not have to say much, I said. Say something supportive. Something like, "I'm sorry for your loss, and if you would ever like to talk, or to get a drink or take a walk or anything, please know I'm here."
Too many people say nothing. Or they say, "I'm sorry for your loss." And then when they find out the cause of death, they avoid you. Because at that point, they do not know what to say.
You're alone and devastated because your loved one has died, and then you're even more alone because people don't know how to talk to you. Suicide is still so stigmatized that the ones left behind might feel ashamed, might be scared of being judged, scared of having their loved one judged.
Now, when I read about a death and see the words "died suddenly" with no explanation, I am almost certain it is suicide.
After my dad died I sent in an obituary to the Washington Post for their consideration. You know how they run a couple big obituaries with a picture? He was an interesting character with an international career, and you never know where they are in the news cycle.
The woman who called me said it sounded interesting but, "You didn't note the cause of death."
And I said, "It was suicide. But my mom doesn't want it in the paper."
And she said, "We have to say the cause of death."
So I said, "Then don't bother."
Now I believe I would say, "Then say suicide. We are devastated, but we are not ashamed."