Suicide: An uncomfortable but necessary conversation
Data, discussion and stories of a national crisis
Part one of a multi-part series
I have a friend who lost nearly her entire family to suicide within four years: her brother, then her father, followed by her mother. Gloria Johnson, another friend and my mentor since college, lost one of her twin boys. It’s been 12 years since she lost her son, and the tears still fall.
These friends are remarkable women – with a rare level of kindness and wisdom. Resilience is a mysterious force. I always looked at them with reverence and the persistent question in the back of my mind: But how did YOU survive that?
My question was fitting. The American Psychological Association states that surviving the suicide death of a loved one is psychologically at par with surviving a concentration camp. Think about that for a minute. Imagine Auschwitz and Dachau: the horrors seen; the starvation; dysentery and death.
A year and a half ago, I found myself in the throes of my greatest loss and gauntlet thus far in life.
Someone for whom I cared a great deal was 800 miles away and contacted me to say he wasn’t going to make it for Thanksgiving – because he wasn’t going to be alive. I was at work, with weak signal and trying to process his cryptic messages. Then, I was attempting with every fiber of my being – with the power of words – to keep him alive; to make him want to live.
His response was, “I’m tired, Jana.” He killed himself as violently and efficiently as he had taken out insurgents during his service in the military.
The friend I lost to suicide had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We’d talked about it. Fifteen years of warfare left an indelible mark. He expressed his jealousy of the soldiers of World War II because they traveled home by ship and had more time to process things.
From a foreign country, surrounded by combatants, killing a selected target to back in the civilian world strolling down the street at a farmer’s market a day later: modern warfare allows no time for processing. I foolishly believed he had mastered his PTSD since he was able to discuss it – and was painfully wrong.
Was losing him in that way akin to surviving a concentration camp? I don’t know. How could I know? I do know that guilt is a powerful thing. Uncertain of the depths to which I would travel with mourning, I took my gun to a friend’s house for safe keeping.
As predicted, the waves of dark water came and did not subside for some time: anguished nights alone in a cabin, sorting through my own psyche, hikes in the woods while crying. I had an extensive support network, but the unwillingness to engage most of them.
Recently, my friend Gloria and I found ourselves discussing how even the simplest acts, like showering or eating, took so much effort in the early days of our losses. She has a friend who saw her raw pain and lives to this day despite suicidal tendencies. It was a wake-up call for him. He didn’t want to put her or his loved ones through that kind of torture.
My parents insisted I move home. I told them that wouldn’t help anything. A few key friends gracefully and gratefully helped bring me through.
My process for dealing was twofold: For a year and a half I helped every person I came across who seemed like they were struggling – sometimes to my own detriment. I had to begin asking the question, “At what point does my responsibility for this person end and their own begin?”
That question is still a struggle for me. It was the emotional way of dealing – the “I-can’t-go-through-this-again” approach. With two parents in the sciences, I also confronted the staggering reality of that loss with a level of analysis: research, research, research – seek to understand.
Necessity is driving a conversation on the international stage with various subgroups of people seeming most vulnerable: veterans, bullied children, men over 65 years old, LGBTQ, people struggling with employment, etc. Numbers are up.
A few examples of the dire data: 54 percent of people who died by suicide did not have a known mental health condition according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. There was an 80 percent uptick in Army veteran suicide between 2004 to 2008, according to the Mayo Clinic. Deaths by suicide tripled in Special Operations units, according to CNN reporting. Teenage suicide saw a 70 percent increase from 2006 to 2016 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
We have more desperate friends and family in our midst than ever before. Some wear their scars visibly. Others, like the guy I lost, seem so together that the loss of them is shocking to the system.
One positive outcome from all that pain – the only positive outcome, that I can see, is that vulnerability allowed for connection. There have been so many real conversations in my life the last year and a half: masks fully lifted; sharing; understanding. I was exposed to the best and the worst of humankind, but usually the best. I found myself in cafes, coffee shops, on hikes and on airplanes talking about it with friends and strangers because it was all I could do.
One such conversation occurred with Big Sky local and CEO of Big Sky Chamber, Candace Carr Strauss who lost two close family members to suicide. One of those family members was her 19-year-old nephew. She believes it shouldn’t be a taboo topic. She doesn’t want other families to suffer staggering and needless loss. Friends, family and community members should not exist without hope. We are in agreement that the community needs to talk about it and find solutions.
Piece by piece, I have built myself and my life back. I learned painful lessons from that loss which I believe subsequently helped save the lives of two other friends.
There are things we can do of which many of us are unaware. We will be confronting this topic in the Lookout in the coming weeks; deep-diving into the research and science behind it; interviewing first responders and mental health professionals; and creating a plan for if you get that call or text from a loved one threatening suicide. We will have the discussion of how this is impacting our community directly and what steps community leaders are taking to address it.
I have no doubt that reading this series will be uncomfortable. Yet, I also have no doubt that shining a light on this – starting this conversation – is vitally important.