Suicide is not a topic anyone wants to talk about; it’s painful, gut-wrenching, ugly stuff. Our community has suffered so much; precious lives lost, families forever changed. Suicide forces those left behind to somehow cope, blinded by unimaginable hurt and questions that will never be answered. As a medical and behavioral health community, we are struggling to reach out, to support, and ultimately, prevent suicide. One life lost is too many; the ripple effect that occurs is devastating.
The facts are staggering; suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., and the second leading cause of death for people 10-34 years of age (Centers for Disease Control). Suicide in rural areas is almost double that in the city; poverty, lack of access to medical care, and not wanting to ask for help, are the most impactful reasons (JAMA, NPR).
I wanted to understand this epidemic, and the only way I knew how, was to talk to those directly affected by this, whether through suicide attempts of their own, or through family members who have died by suicide. This has been a journey that has been more difficult than I ever imagined, but I am honored and humbled by those who shared their pain with me, and give so much credit and appreciation to those who opened up those scars to help us gain insight on this issue.
I talked with two amazing people who survived through suicide attempts. When I asked them how they ever got to the point of wanting to take their own lives, these are some of the statements they shared:
“You can’t imagine the darkness, the burden, the weight that you feel; your soul even feels heavy.”
“It feels like you’re living your life in black and white instead of in color.”
“You only hear the negative; one negative comment erases all the good ones.”
“I had the worst self-esteem, and it didn’t have anything to do with anyone else. I wanted to feel the love of others, but I wouldn’t let myself. Puberty and hormones played a part for sure.”
“I was impatient; I wanted to feel happy, not sad all the time. Cutting helped; I was trying to control the emotional pain and self-hatred, and that was the only thing I could control.”
“It wasn’t about hurting anyone else; when you get to that point, the only person you need to care about yourself is you. I needed me to care about me.”
“You feel like everyone’s life would be easier without you.”
I asked them why they didn’t ask for help from their family, friends, or seek counseling?
“You don’t feel like you’re worth the help.”
“The best way I can explain it is like an aquarium tunnel you’re standing in. Your friends and family are around you, but you’re in a tunnel blocked by a thick glass; you see them, and know they are there, but you’ve created a wall to keep them away. You can’t process that they love you, that they care about you.”
“I felt like a sand castle built too close to the waves; I would get built up a little, then I got wiped out in another wave that hit.”
Some of these precious people I spoke with, or their loved ones, were already in counseling, even hospitalized for long periods of time. The survivors stated that counseling and hospitalization helped; they said that being patient with the healing process, was one key to success. Even if it feels like forever, things will get better with time. One person shared, “The depression version of me is NOT ME.”
One of the most difficult interviews for me was a mom who lost her child recently. She struggled with not realizing how horrible he felt inside. She shared that he was the kind of person who always thought about others; who tried to make other people laugh. She brought up actor Robin Williams as an example, and shared a quote from him; “I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel that way.” The pain is still etched in her face, but it was incredible to see how she would light up when she talked about her son. She told me that the most healing thing for her, was talking about him. She told me that one of the toughest things, was when people tried to avoid talking about him; she said it was like putting another nail in his coffin. She pleaded with me to let people know that she didn’t want them to shy away from talking about him, that “in our hearts, he is still alive, and it helps to keep that memory alive when we talk about him”.
I asked a sweet, gentle giant of a man, what it was like to lose his son, his only child to suicide. He told me, “It’s been 30 years ago, and it’s as clear to me today as the day it happened. It does get easier, but it never goes away. There’s not a single day I don’t think about him.” He shared the hurt with a flash of anger saying, “Suicide is such a selfish act. You’re out of your troubles, but you left me, saying what did I do?” He shared that the self-doubt and guilt are overwhelming at times. The hardest thing for him is when he sees a father and son spending time together. He admits that he gave up many of things he loved doing with his son, because it was just too painful. He asked me to let people know that survivors WANT to talk about their loved one; that person was important, and they want to keep that memory alive. He keeps the hope that he will see his son again in heaven, and referenced John 10:28, “Who can pluck them from my hand?”
A dear friend of mine lost her husband to suicide, and was left behind with three teenage boys and a wall of debt and fear. It has been eight years since this occurred, and I asked her to share her thoughts, her journey. She expressed that only recently has she been able to realize that she didn’t have responsibility in this. She told me, “I held on to so much guilt; as a survivor, you take on so much blame and responsibility. It took me years to realize that you cannot know what’s going on in someone else’s head; even if other people somehow hold you responsible, it was the suicidal person’s decision. There is no road map or set of rules for surviving this; everyone has to grieve in their own way.”
The most painful thing she endured, was the judgement of others; people telling her what she should do, or people not saying anything at all. She said she already felt isolated; it was like an elephant in the room that no one wanted to talk about. She cherished those who listened; saying, “We all want to be heard; empathy and compassion are so important”. No special requirements needed here; just a good listener. She stressed that in supporting others, don’t have an agenda; it’s not about “fixing” the situation. Her biggest take away? Death is final; it is a ripple effect that will affect survivor’s lives forever.
Yes, our community has lost so much, but let’s take the advice of these survivors, and support each other. Let’s reach out and listen, set aside our agendas and just be there. Let’s honor those in our hearts, by becoming a community that shares and remembers the good.
Karen R. Yocum, MSN, CPNP, is with A Kidz Clinic and helps serve the youth of Delta County.
If you or someone you know needs help, here are some resources:
1-800 SUICIDE (784-2433)
Crisis Safety Team Montrose (walk-in) 970-252-6220 (crisis text line – 741741)
1-844-493-8255 (Colorado Crisis Services)
Our Team at A Kidz Clinic can help also; 970-874-2753