Left Photo by Amy Vernon, right photo via Anne Weiskopf

Suicide’s (Not) An Alternative

Death stays with the living.

As a society, we don’t much like to speak of death.

Despite it being the only thing certain besides taxes, we approach people who’ve had a loved one die with kid gloves. As if even mentioning the word death is going to plummet them into the depths of despair.

Double that kid-glove treatment when the cause is suicide.

My young adult life was forever changed when my friend Justin killed himself. I was 18. He was 16. I got the news late one day in early August, 26 years ago.

His parents, his sister, his girlfriend, his friends — we all drew together in those days afterward. Some of us have remained friends all these years later. That’s him in the picture on the left, in the middle.

In late July this summer, a new friend called with the news: Our friend’s wonderful son, Jacob, had taken his life the day before. That’s him on the picture on the right.

There were many similarities: Both suffered from depression. Both were incredibly intelligent, personable and creative young men.

There were differences, too: Justin planned out his suicide, even giving away some of his belongings the day before. Jacob’s was of the moment.

The specific details are not important. What is important is that there were people hurting then (and still) and people hurting now. Any happy memory becomes bittersweet, accompanied by a wonder of what might have been if things had gone just a little differently.

In time, the pain subsides, becomes more like a dull ache. Days might go by when you don’t think of the person at all. Early on, you can feel guilty when that happens. Later, you realize all these years have passed and your loved one is still the same age — will always be the same age.

For me, I wondered if Justin and I would even still be friends today. Would we even have kept in touch, in those pre-Facebook, pre-email days?

But that doesn’t matter. What ifs don’t matter.

The most important people in the time after a suicide are those who are left behind. They need to be able to talk about their loved one. They need to be able to remember that person, revel in the happy memories and wallow in the sadness.

Everyone grieves differently. Even friends who didn’t know Justin or Jacob grieved — grieved for their friends’ losses. Grieved because they knew they couldn’t fill the void left, but they wanted to try.

This all came to mind this week, because it’s Suicide Prevention Week.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collects data about mortality in the United States, including deaths by suicide. In 2010 (the most recent year for which data are available), 38,364 suicides were reported, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death for Americans. In that year, someone in the country died by suicide every 13.7 minutes.

According to the American Association of Suicidology,

Experts believe that most suicidal individuals do not want to die. They just want to end the pain they are experiencing.Experts also know that suicidal crises tend to be brief. When suicidal behaviors are detected early, lives can be saved. There are services available in our community for the assessment and treatment of suicidal behaviors and their underlying causes.

This makes the efforts of ImAlive, the first wholly online crisis network, so vital. Now they’re trying to make their network available 24/7 (not so simple when staffed wholly by volunteers, all of whom have been trained and certified in crisis intervention).

Anne Weiskopf’s friends have banded together to help make that happen, with Team Jacob.

We won’t be able to end suicide. We won’t be able to end the pain of those whose friends and loved ones have killed themselves.

But if we can save even one Justin or Jacob, well, that’s a job well done.