Suicide isn't painless

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

An acquaintance of mine committed suicide a couple months ago. I didn't know him well and I'd never claim to, but he did live in the house Gideon and I lived in before we moved to Eureka Springs. He killed himself in the room adjacent to ours with our friends in a nearby room. While I was not his close friend, we were nice to each other and I can't think of anyone I ever met who disliked him. Normally I would not write about an acquaintance's death, as I don't want to appear to cash in on someone else's tragedy. You shouldn't feel bad for me. You should feel bad for his family and for his friends.

It's not really in my nature to write about such a sensitive topic, but I have been personally affected by suicide and feel that many people often focus on why and how this kind of a tragedy occurs rather than trying to help the survivors and potential future perpetrators of suicide.

Many called attention to suicide following the death of Robin Williams last summer, nearly everyone posting articles defending his final decision after a news anchor called Williams "cowardly."

My news feed on Facebook was full of people wishing Williams well or lamenting how depression goes unnoticed until it has tragic consequences. While I liked Robin Williams, I felt too little connection to the actor to write something sincere and too much connection to the subject of suicide to write something light. And two months ago, my acquaintance made the same choice Williams did and I felt I had to say something.

It has taken me a while to really come out with it, but I hope sharing my experience will help others. My personal connection to suicide began ten years ago. Having struggled with cancer for years, my grandfather gave up and shot himself in the early morning. I was 12 and had just finished the sixth grade. I actually intercepted my nana's phone call delivering the news, but she just asked me to pass the phone to my mother and didn't tell me what had happened. Around noon later that day, my mother came home and sat next to me on our porch swing.

"Your papaw died," she told me as tenderly as she could.

I wasn't too surprised, having seen him in and out of hospitals for the past two years. His closest friend had died from cancer only two years before, so I knew what death was and I knew how easily cancer caused it. When I asked her how he died, I fully expected her to tell me he had died in his sleep. I wasn't prepared for her to tell me he had killed himself. No one is prepared for that. (A week or so after he died, my uncle also committed suicide because of depression and bipolar disorder. It was a bad month.)

In the day, weeks and months following his death, I became hyper-paranoid about death. I remember breaking down in tears when my mom was driving home from my nana's house and exclaiming, "I'm just afraid that you're going to die and Nana's going to die and everyone's going to die."

My mom paused, unclear on how to respond.

"Do you think you need therapy?" she finally asked.

I thought she was attacking me and told her I didn't need therapy. Now I realize she wasn't attacking me. She had just lost her father -- the man who had raised her -- in the most unexpected and confusing way possible. She was devastated, but I couldn't see that.

When I got the news of my acquaintance's death two months ago, I forgot to breathe for a minute or so. I felt the same terrible weight on my shoulders that I felt the morning my mother told me that my grandfather had shot himself. I had to excuse myself to the bathroom to cry, because I didn't feel I had any right to cry about this person's death in public. He was not my friend, and I didn't want to receive pity from his death. Anyway, I wasn't crying about his death specifically.

I was crying because suicide devastates everyone. Robin Williams' death shows that more than anything -- with the massive outpouring of support worldwide -- but I don't think it ever hurts as much as when it hits this close to home. Suicide hurts because the survivors constantly question how they could have eased the situation or maybe prevented it. Realistically, I know there is no way I could have stopped my grandfather from killing himself. He was exhausted. He was sick. He wanted to die at home, and he made that happen. But an irrational part of me insists that I could have done more to help him, to make him feel loved and safe.

My best friend Dora gave me a card following his death that comforted me greatly; I'd like to extend her wishes out to all those affected by suicide. Inside the card, she wrote, "The last thing he said to you was, 'I love you.'"

She was right. She had been with me that day visiting my grandparents, and as we left, my papaw called after me -- and it was difficult for him to speak at this point -- "I love you." She reminded me to remember him as a person who loved his family and was loved by his family, not as a victim of suicide, sickness and depression.

I don't believe I can single-handedly stop suicide, but I do want to encourage everyone who has lost someone to it to remember that person fondly. When a loved one commits suicide, you don't just lose that person. You lose a bit of yourself, too.

So please, remember to be kind to others. Remember to love the people you love as loudly and fervently as you can, when they're alive and when they aren't. Remember to remember those you love before the sickness and before the depression. And while you're doing this, remember to cut yourself some slack, too. I could have used that last bit of advice a very long time ago.

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Samantha Jones is a reporter for the Carroll County News.