It Never Happens When You Are Ready

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I had just finished a conversation with someone who was in crisis. We were just saying goodbye and my phone rang. When I answered the call, I could hear my sister screaming at me. I knew that this was not going to be a good omen. I was trying to listen carefully to what she was saying in the midst of her crying. I then detected the following:

“My great-nephew had killed himself the night before.” He was studying at a state university in the Western United States.

At that moment, I froze. I told the person that I was finishing the conversation with that I would get back to them later. I returned to the call to hear the rest of the conversation with my sister.

My great-nephew had been suffering from Schizophrenia and Bi-Polar Disorder for quite some time. He had been seeing a therapist, had taken psychotropic medication along with ancillary therapies. I had just spoken with his mother two days before. She indicated that he was doing good. She was sending him a card for his upcoming nineteenth birthday.

I started to play the tape in my head. What had gone wrong? What had been missed? Did I miss anything? I felt terrible for the loss of his life and equally horrible for the grief now being carried by my niece and her family.

After the initial shock of the news of his death, the automatic pilot switch went on as the focus was upon supporting my family. I called the Student Counseling Center at the university. They were aware of what happened and I arranged for two staff members to meet my niece and her husband at the dormitory where they were picking up my great-nephew’s belongings. I was able to talk with my niece that evening and found out that the student counseling staff had been able to meet with her.

I went online and researched what bereavement programs of support would be available for them. I found two hospital–based programs in my niece’s community and referred the information to her.

The next few days were spent preparing for my nephew’s funeral and memorial service. He lived in a small rural community, and there was a tremendous outpouring of support from his high school and from the surrounding area. I also learned that another classmate from the same school had taken his life just three months earlier. Clearly, this spoke to the sense of despair that was occurring in the lives of these young people coupled by the reality of being in a small community with a lack of quality mental health resources.

Suicide is a tragic event that effects everyone, the entire family-the extended community, even the helpers including the therapists. Carla Fine in her book “No Time To Say Goodbye: Surviving The Suicide Of A Loved One” (1999) speaks frankly about the overwhelming feelings of confusion, guilt, shame, anger, and loneliness that are shared by all survivors.

I have found myself only now coming off of automatic pilot regarding the death of my great-nephew. This painful event connects me to another person, a minister and Chaplain friend of mine who ended his life in 2014. Both my friend and my great-nephew were suffering from long-term mental illness. Some progress was made for both lives but unfortunately the disorders that they suffered from proved to be too powerful and overwhelming.

I don’t blame myself. I know that I did everything possible to help save these two individuals. The end of their lives and the manner in which it occurred only reminds me more acutely about the preciousness of life. There is also the realization that any of us could be vulnerable, “there for but the grace of God go I.”

Tragic events in life will occur when we are not ready. The good news is that we can have the emotional wisdom to seek out support and affiliation with those who are willing to walk beside us as we carry our pain.

Sure enough, you won’t necessarily get over losing someone you love who takes their own life, but there may be indicators as to how you can better pay attention to your own emotional inner life and to the lives of others.

We need not go it alone, but we can be a part of a loving, nurturing supportive community that can give us life, so that in turn we can give life to others.

May it be so.