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