In the early morning hours of December 2008 my friend John sat beneath the peaceful canopy of a redwood grove. He removed his off duty Glock handgun, leveled it against his temple and pulled the trigger. In an instant everything would change.
Two beautiful young daughters would never again experience their father’s love. His parents would face the insurmountable pain of losing a child. Urgent calls would reach shocked siblings, friends and coworkers. John’s girlfriend, a welcome light after his difficult divorce, would become consumed by grief.
For me the first news of trouble was a predawn phone call from a trusted friend. The ringing of the phone roused me awake. Then my friend’s voice, in cryptic tones, said, “John is missing.” As a police chief I’d grown accustomed to late night and early morning calls. They were usually bad news.
Friends and authorities began searching for John. Later that morning, troubling news came that he never showed up for work. And then I got the fateful call from the county Sheriff. “He’s dead. A hiker found him in the woods. Self inflicted gun shot wound. I’m sorry. You guys were buddies, weren’t you?” I remember holding the phone receiver in disbelief. No one close to me had ever committed suicide. “Yeah, we were buddies,” I told the Sheriff.
John and I began our police careers together. We used to be roommates. We went through training together. Bought motorcycles together. Got married, had kids. Back then we were young, ambitious and the world was our oyster.
John was strong, intelligent and proud. A rock to many. Someone you could count on and turn to for advice. He was the last person I ever thought would take his life. But despair can strike down the strongest among us.
Three warning signs most people miss
John surely meant no harm to the ones he loved and left behind. When you’re lost in the fog of sorrow and depths of depression, all you want to do is end the pain.
Much has been written about the warning signs of suicide. Things like changes in a person’s behavior or giving away personal property. Or the presence of a disturbing ambivalence. Such signals may reflect an anguished soul.
Jed Diamond, PhD, recently wrote an article entitled “Why Men Commit Suicide: The Three Warning Signs Most People Miss.” Dr. Diamond detailed “thwarted belongingness, perceived burdensomeness and a capacity for suicide” as the deadly triad of conditions that can lead to suicide.
Research tells us that 90% of people who die by suicide had a diagnosable psychiatric disorder. Most often depression. For others, their death was preceded by years of mental illness. We also know that major life hardships like the death of a loved one, job loss, divorce, chronic illness, addiction and severe financial distress can unravel a person.
When suicide prevention fails
As a 25 year police veteran I’ve been to many suicide scenes. What I’ve learned is that suicide takes no prisoners. And it doesn’t discriminate. Young, old, wealthy or homeless. The forces of depression, despair and mental illness whisper their wicked message and extinguish the light in many burdened souls. Even when you intervene, listen and get the person professional help, there are no guarantees.
That was the case with John. His friends cared, he got help and medication. His police department even had a program that enabled troubled officers to get counseling without losing their job. Sometimes you can do everything right and still lose. Despite all these efforts, John’s demons prevailed.
The reality is that there are limits to what we can do to prevent suicide. Even in controlled settings like prisons and mental institutions, the desperate find ways to escape their suffering.
Those who take their lives may end the pain, but the nightmare of suicide doesn’t stop there. It lives on to torment the ones left behind. If you lose a loved one to suicide, here’s what you need to know.
Three things to expect after the suicide
Loss from suicide is a persistent grief. It’s going to gnaw on your psyche for awhile. The duration of this emotional struggle will vary from person to person. The good news is that you will survive the pain. Even live a normal life again. And doing so is not a betrayal of the person you lost. My father used to tell me that the ones we lose would want us to live on and be happy.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (www.AFSP.org) tells us to expect three things after the suicide of a loved one.
1. You’re going to be haunted by one question. Why? Sometimes a note is left or the reason is obvious, such as intractable pain from illness or injury. Other times, there is no note or clear motive. Psychological pain doesn’t always make sense. What seems logical to us may not be to someone drowning in pain. We must reconcile ourselves to the hard reality: we may never learn or understand why.
2. You may wrestle with guilt and ask “ Why didn’t I prevent this? Why didn’t I do more?” Such questions are common. They reflect your love. But you have to let the guilt go. We can all point to times when we were less than we should have been. Those times are not why your loved one ended his or her life. Such a desperate act reflects a more complex, deeper psychological illness.
3. You can expect to grapple with anger. I know I did. I remember pounding my desk at work. As cops in the police academy we were taught a central axiom: Never give up. I was angry that John gave up. Others feel that their loved one rejected them. Whether you feel anger or rejection, such understandable feelings will lessen in time. They’ll likely be replaced with affectionate thoughts. Memories of better times and the best qualities of the person you lost.
I have a picture of John on my desk. It stands next to a photo of my father, who I lost in 2004. Seldom does a day pass that I don’t think about them both. I believe as we age we appreciate life more exquisitely. We better understand the profound dignity and value of human life. Age and wisdom also refine our understanding and acceptance of death. Even our own mortality.
Some are blessed to experience little hardship in their lives. They’re the exception. Most of us will have to endure loss, pain and possible tragedy. Should the suicide of a loved one touch your life, know that you are not alone. Others have navigated through the same turbulent waters. Seek the support and counsel of others. Visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (www.AFSP.org) for more information and free resources.Take your time. Eventually, you’ll be able to breath again.