I returned to work a week after Jay died. I braced myself as I headed towards my desk; I needed to be prepared to cope with the cards and flowers that people likely left there. I needed to steel myself for the outpouring of sympathy, knowing it would be hard, but well-intentioned. It’s what we did as a group – we came together to support our teammates during their times of loss or need. Plus, for the most part, people generally like me (except that one woman who clearly has no taste). Why wouldn’t I expect a big show of support?
I wasn’t prepared for what I found as I rounded that corner. I found nothing. Absolutely nothing. No cards. No flowers. No little notes. In fact, people kept swinging by to ask me about my vacation, and I stared back at them dully, unable to speak. Others avoided me (for months). In fact, I asked one months later if they knew Jay had died. They did. They explained they didn’t know what to say, so they decided to say nothing. That friendship is dead to this day.
Let me clarify something real quick: I had an incredible core group of coworkers who rallied around me and supported me completely. They attended Jay’s memorial. They sent cards, texts, and called me on the phone. But when it came to telling the rest of the team, they found themselves in an extremely awkward situation. They worried about how to share my news and they had serious concerns about violating my privacy. Their silence on the subject was well-meaning. How do you tell everyone, “Beth’s husband died by suicide?” They decided it was better to err on the side of caution to avoid causing me additional pain. No one wanted to see me hurt more.
Unfortunately, the side effect was that I did not have the usual support that one would receive after losing a spouse. So, in the absence of a conga line of teary-eyed condolence hugs and cheer-up candy from my coworkers, I began to behave in ghastly ways. I was blunt. I was harsh. I was rude. I was unforgiving and unapologetic. When asked about my vacation, people staggered out of my office backwards while stammering out their apologies. When asked in meetings, “Is everything ok, Beth?” people suddenly wanted to end the meeting early while quickly excusing themselves. I was unpleasant on a good day, and intolerable on a bad day, and there were plenty of bad days.
I finally had to ask a team member to spread the word that Jay had died, because crushing people’s “welcome back from vacation” cheer was wearing me out.
What happened to me was not atypical.
There’s a stigma around suicide and around mental health issues. We, as a society, shy away from talking about it. If it happens in your family, you keep it in the family. I mean, what will the neighbors think? (Well, in my case, my neighbor threw Holy water over the fence into my yard.) What will your friends think? What will your co-workers think? What does it say about you, your lifestyle, your family…? And talking about it, except in hushed whispers, makes us uncomfortable.
Well, if suicide makes you uncomfortable, it should. Here’s why – it’s the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and it’s steadily increasing each year. In 2017, 47,173 Americans died by suicide. That same year, in the US, there were over 1.4 million attempts. There are approximately 129 suicides per day, 22 of those are veterans. Globally, over 800,000 die by suicide annually.
We need to talk about it. Hiding it isn’t working. Silence isn’t working.
People who are struggling need help, and we’re telling them to be silent. We’re telling them there’s shame in having a mental health issue – there’s shame in suffering. However, if they had a chronic condition like arthritis or asthma or even cystic fibrosis, we’d encourage them to seek treatment. If they had cancer, we’d make referrals to well-respected oncologists. We’d offer advice. Hell, we’d become WebMD authorities and merrily hop down every homeopathic trail in hopes of getting them relief.
What we wouldn’t do:
We would never ask a person with a chronic condition to suffer silently. We would never tell them they needed to smile more. We would never insinuate they were making a choice to be ill.
And if a co-worker lost a spouse to cancer, the team would rally around them because we understand cancer. There is no shame in having a spouse die due to cancer.
Like many people who die by suicide, Jay suffered from depression. He’d suffered since he was a teen. Convincing him to see a medical professional was a battle. It took years of talking about medical intervention, and pointing out people he knew who, like him, suffered from depression but were having success with medication. I had to work on removing the stigma of seeking help just to get him to make an appointment. And once his medications started having an effect, he said something that broke my heart, “this is the first time I’ve ever felt happy.” Imagine going your whole life without knowing or remembering what “happy” felt like.
We must keep talking about suicide. We must keep talking about mental health. We must make mental health a priority.
When I first opened-up about Jay and the impact his death has had on me, I received feedback from a couple of people. They shared their personal struggles and said they didn’t fully realize how devastating suicide was to the people left behind; that my stories had made them think. Then last week another friend, also deeply was affected by Jay’s death, shared a similar story.
That’s why we keep talking about it. That’s why we cannot and should not be silenced or marginalized. Talk makes a difference. Talk saves lives.
Last year a co-worker attempted to admonish me by saying, “I don’t think you realize how much you talk about Jay.”
I will never stop.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) will also never stop. Their mission to fund important research into the best ways to prevent suicide, to advocate, educate, and provide support to those who have lost a loved one gives me hope that they will reach their goal to reduce suicide by 20% in 2025.
I believe in their mission.
That’s why on November 2nd I am walking in the Out of the Darkness Walk here in Austin, Texas. I’ve set a goal for our team of $5,000, and a personal goal of $3,000.
I believe it’s a challenging goal, but achievable with your support.
Please help by making a donation today.
We’d also be honored to have you walk with us! Just click the link! OR consider re-posting this blog post, and tell people your story.
But no matter what you decide to do, I ask one huge favor:
Never stop talking about mental health issues. Reach out to anyone you think may be struggling (assume you’re the only person who is reaching out).
Huge thanks to those who have already signed up to walk with me, and to those who have made a donation; it means a lot, it makes a huge difference, and I appreciate each of you!
If you or someone you know is in distress, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
24/7 Crisis Hotline: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Network
1-800-273-TALK (8255) (Veterans, press 1)
Crisis Text Line
Text TALK to 741-741 to text with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free, 24/7
Veterans Crisis Line
Send a text to 838255
As much as people seem to blah blah blah and tell everyone else how to do every little thing the crickets about depression, mental health and suicide is appalling.
Sigh, I guess it’s just tiny steps…people are beginning to talk about death ( how rude and silly to tell you you talk rot much about Jay. She is not “helping you” only reveals a great deal about herself that she is uncomfortable about it/clueless and wants to stay that way.)
After much time in observing/analysis of human behavior, I’ver pretty much decided people are pretty much “done” in though processes buy the time they are 5-6…people get taller, but so much of their personality/self image is frozen. Depression is often accumulative – rarely suddenly starts one day (with the exception of medical illnesses or issues/chemistry out of wack)
We really need to work with small children and all the way up to middle school age ( after that it’s probably too late – the teen isolation years always makes even normal kids struggle) about there are times you feel sad, things are out of your control and you are worried – all in developmentally appropriate ways – and help them find ways of tying a knot at the end of that rope and hanging on….each needs a firm “stop” mechanism to survive hardship either emotional or physical. They all need to know things change in an instant and what you feel at this point may be totally altered the next minute – so just hang on…take a nap (sleep being important), go outside and run, look at ants, pet dogs, find a friend and have a water balloon fight, cry, laugh out loud – force it if necessary, paint a picture, sing, dance as if no one is looking. Somehow coping is not being taught
Really serious if there’s also a chemical imbalance – or bad diet – that can start such a deep spiral…so deep people cannot fight their way out.
I’m not sure how to fix it – there are so many causes of depression and so many triggers, but talking about the destruction of a what begin as perfectly good human and the devastation of the pyramid of people left behind – we can do better.
Might lower some of the explosive rage so common in society today, too
Keep talking and walking Beth.
Auto response is driving me nuts.”Not” not “rot”. “thought process by” and probably more…(deep breath – its just a blog comment, no need to get outraged HaHa
You’ve got to love autocorrect. It’s so very helpful. (Typed in sarcasm font.) I’m convinced it has a sense of humor and that it masks what you’ve actually written so that when you finally hit the send button, you’ll notice a bit too late the various errors you’ve actually typed. It then giggles maniacally. I’ve tried to protest to my friends that I can actually spell – that autocorrect is just having a go at me – and I get these slow patronizing nods in return, “oh, we’re anthropomorphizing autocorrect now, are we? Mm hmm… No, I believe you. It’s a sentient thing that’s having fun at your expense. No no, go on. Tell us more, Beth.” That’s when it knows it has won – when I look absolutely mad. You win all the rounds, autocorrect but know I’m giving you the side-eye.
I’m afraid to type I agree with you…it knows where I blog….
With Jay there was a perfect storm of issues that began with his depression and like dominoes falling down, they all piled on him until his ability to cope was completely overwhelmed. Like you mentioned, there’s not just one single cause – one single event – and it all has to be addressed holistically by looking at each person individually – no “one size fits all” approach, but like you also mentioned we can do more to help build those coping techniques. I’ve had people ask me how I’ve come so far (if indeed that’s true), and for me I can thank DNA, I can thank coming from a long line of goofy people who laugh big and get silly, and I’m surrounded by a lot of love and support which I’m super lucky to have, but I can’t point to a single thing and say, “well… if you do x, y, and z you too will find your smile again – you too will begin to see hope” because again that’s me coming from the background I did, having the life experiences I’ve had, with the genetic makeup of a Vaudevillian. My reactions are different than anyone else’s, though similar to my family’s, and I can’t impart those traits on another soul. All of that to say that depression has never been as deep as Jay’s or others, though I’ve been profoundly sad – I’m just lucky that the me that is me has a decent rebound. Back to Jay though. I wish he’d been better able to cope with the pain, to feel comfortable asking for help, to realize he didn’t have to suffer, and that he could have felt a sense of hope, because truly he was a great guy – a kind person, a good person, an interesting person, and my favorite, which if he read this right now he’d just playfully utter, “uh uh!” and that always got an emphatic, “uh HUH!” 🙂
“he was a great guy – a kind person, a good person, an interesting person, and my favorite,”…those are the ones who somehow drew the short straw and suffer the most (often silently and feeling it’s deserved somehow)
You can’t tell someone “to be happy” “If you decide to be happy you will be” as one of my friends told her daughter. Total misread.
Worrisome , too, are the friends/survivors who are impacted.
Somehow we have to teach early that strong self reliant, hang on that pioneer spirit that kept women from going mad, depressed, and murderous in the sod houses surrounded by unfriendly predator humans outside in the bitter cold with slowly diminishing supplies and sick children while their husband was away for long periods hunting, driving cattle, working a ranch trying to stay alive…I know that sounds odd, but that rebound DNA like you have has to be triggered or learned. We need strong individuals – even if they stay alive and take another step just to irritate and prove wrong others/family who “knew they would never make it and would take the easy way out”. (My personal method).
I know he was a good person. At peace now…and chuckling. uh HUH forever.