Not all the stories of the people in my path are humorous or entertaining; there are some that are heavy, racked with pain that is real and truly part of our human experience. Over the last few days we’ve been alarmed and saddened by the tragic suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, and the knowledge that there were other suicides by lesser known people– all leaving a trail of unfathomable grief.
As a nurse working in mental health for fifteen years and school health for twenty, I’ve seen the devastation of death by one’s own hand. I was a trainer for Youth Mental Health First Aid because I wanted to help teachers, educational staff, and others in the community watch for those who showed signs of depression, signs they may be considering suicide. In the sadness of these recent deaths, we’re reminded of the expanding need for mental health services in our pressure-filled society, and the importance of reaching out to one another in the truth about our struggles, instead of presenting that perfect social media picture of everything being okay.
Hopefully we realize the importance of being present to each person, staying in the moment and being able to stand with them in their pain. I’m reminded of a chance meeting with a woman in my path during my solo journey back in April of 2013.
I was spending a few days exploring Colorado Springs before the Pike’s Peak Writers’ Conference. After a very scary, and ‘sickening’ trip up Pike’s Peak on the Cog Railway, I spent the next two days in bed with altitude sickness. Thankfully, I’d stayed in a Bed & Breakfast where the staff came to check on me. The woman who owned the guesthouse, brought me medicine her son took when he visited, since he always had problems with the altitude. My last evening there, I heard a knock at the door. I was just able to crawl out of bed, put on my robe, and open the door to one of the staff. She handed me my bedtime chocolate and an extra towel.
“I hear you’ve been having some trouble with the altitude,” she said. “When I moved here from Kansas, it took me almost 6 months to adjust.”
“Yeah, I thought I would be okay. I’ve been in Colorado for days, even went up into Rocky Mountain National Park last weekend. When the cog train reached 11,500 feet, that’s when I lost it, literally!”
She asked me where I was from, calculating how much I was having to adapt.
“So you’re used to being in North Carolina. You’d better get back to sea level!” she said and chuckled. “It’s beautiful in the South. I used to have a son that lived in Charleston. Went there when he was nineteen.”
I was startled by her response.
“What do you mean by ‘used’ to have a son?” I asked.
“He moved across the country, trying to get his life together. We thought he was doing better,” she said, her face changing from the dark cloud that moved in. “But then we got the news that he took an overdose and killed himself.”
We stood there, her in the hall, me in the doorway, trying to take in her sad story.
“It’s been so hard. He was my stepson and I loved him,” she continued. “It’s killing my husband. I don’t think he’ll ever get over losing his boy.”
I told her I was the mother of two sons, and that I was so sorry for their loss. I couldn’t imagine the depth of that pain.
“Suicide is the hardest death, I think. Such a senseless loss and leaves people behind with so many questions,” I said, wanting to support her, but like everyone, not quite sure what to say.
“Yeah, we knew he had problems. But we never thought he’d do that,” she continued. “It was like a horrible nightmare to go there afterwards for his belongings.”
We talked for a while longer, and eventually she led us back to the present, asking me about the remainder of my trip, interested in my writing conference. Our conversation ended with her wishing me to feel better and me telling her to take care of herself and her husband as they found the strength they needed.
Maybe I’d provided at least a moment of comfort for the grieving woman. She had ministered to me in my physical illness, providing cheer with her unexpected presence after I’d been so isolated. I hope she’d felt some relief to share her story since many times those dealing with a family member’s suicide may keep it to themselves.
My hope for the woman at my door as well as others who are either feeling sad in themselves or from the suicide of a loved one, is that they will get the professional help that’s needed to go beyond the sadness to a place of hope. May we all support each other, being honest about how we struggle and finding comfort and strength to move forward hand-in-hand down the road that is life.
How about You?
(For this post, the Reflective Questions seem to be more personal. At this time, I am no longer a Mental Health Professional and therefore I’m not able to respond to comments that are of a clinical nature. However, I do encourage my readers to consider these questions and take the needed action to get help for themselves or others.)
Have you ever experienced depression yourself or in someone else? How were you able to express your feelings to someone else or to listen while they shared with you?
How can you be more honest with others about the things you struggle with? What type of professional, family/friend, and/or community support might help?
National Suicide Hotline. (800) 273-8255
Website with information on depression and suicide prevention–