The first time I learned about suicide I was about thirteen years old. My dad got a call from his cousin. Her husband had hung himself. Although we were quite close with my father’s family, it didn’t hit me right away. I didn’t understand how to feel bad, I didn’t even fully comprehend how he died. The only kind of death I understood back then was the kind that was caused by either old age or an accident. This was a whole other thing. My parents were really open about it, they explained to me that suicide is when someone takes their own life.
I remember very clearly, asking my mother, “Why? Why did he kill himself? I tried to think back at the time I spent with him and I couldn’t find an answer. I remember him being calm, hardworking, and at times grumpy, but not sad. Or at least, not that sad.
“He was troubled. He was a very sad man.”
This confused me even more. Again, I couldn’t recall a time when I saw him visibly crying or showing any other sign of sadness. It didn’t make sense. I asked again,
“But…he didn’t seem sad?”
My mother replied,
“Well that’s the thing. This is a sadness that you can’t really see. But it’s the worst kind, it forces you to give up on everything in life.”
That answer still left me confused for many years. I never asked about it again, just accepted that it was a sad thing that happened, to a very sad man. In the year 2014, in a very startling way, I finally understood what my mother meant.
I was 19 and I was a sponge, slowly sucking up experiences and lessons around me from everyone I met. I quickly fell in love with trying to understand people; their hopes, their dreams, their sadness. Obviously, by now I had learned about the specifics of suicide, and the many debates surrounding it. By now, I had known about depression and that it is a leading cause for someone to commit suicide. However, I still didn’t fully comprehend how disturbingly common suicide and having suicidal thoughts was in our society. I knew the facts, but I was still as confused as I was six years before. Still not fully grasping this horrific thing, until I found myself staring it right in the face.
It was Thanksgiving weekend. My two best friends were home from college. My one friend I had known my entire life. Without sounding incredibly sappy, the best way I could define her was as the sunshine of my life. Her and her brother were part of my life for as long as I can remember, and were two of the happiest people I had ever known.
Happy. That’s what I always thought when I thought of her. She literally lit up the room, because of her smile and her beauty. My whole life she was the person I turned to when I was upset or stressed out.
On Thanksgiving weekend, my best friend told me and my other friend that she had considered killing herself twice in the last few months. When she said those words, my entire body froze. The cold November breeze was nothing compared to the pit that was placed in my stomach at that moment. I didn’t know how to react. It was like I flashbacked to when I was thirteen, struggling to understand why things like this happen. I kept trying to rewrite the words she just said in my head. No, I thought. She didn’t’ say “kill myself”, she said something else. Maybe she hurt herself? Maybe it was an accident? Maybe she just blurted it out? I was in denial. My friend sounded more serious than ever. She explained it as if it was a normal thing, a part of her routine. She was stressed with school and it was becoming too much, that was her reasoning. I looked straight at her, and calmly asked how long she’s had these thoughts and when was the exact time she almost did. She explained her plan, it involved pills. And she said she ran into her brother right before she did it, and it somehow distracted her, changed her mind? I couldn’t believe I didn’t see it. She was at a school five hours away. She was stressed out, I knew that. She had a full time job and a demanding major. But I figured she could do it. She was the happy one. The one who could go through hell and back and still come out with a smile on her lovely face. She was the last person I expected. Literally. The last person in the whole world I expected to tell me this kind of news.
Thankfully, my friend got better. We never really figured out if she had depression or not, but nonetheless her dark thoughts had gone away and she was back on track and not letting school overwhelm her. It was different now though, my other friend and I were now very cautious. Very attentive, but in a different ways. We had seen our best friend in a different light, that night and we now realized that it was wrong for us to assume that everyone is always “okay” just because it seem like it on the surface. We learned that if the happiest person we knew could go through this, then it is much more common than we could have ever imagined. It could happen to anyone.
Months later, there was another incident. My other best friend who lived far away from me sent me and our other friends a message; I’m planning to kill myself this week. The sentence hit me like a ton of bricks. I remembered she was depressed, and that she had been going through a lot. But I didn’t think, no I still couldn’t imagine. I was a thirteen years old again, trying to comprehend it. That sad? No. She couldn’t be that sad? But by now I knew this was more than a sadness.
I still couldn’t believe it was happening again. For a second I stared at my phone and was almost sure that this would be it, this would tear me apart. I would lose all hope in happiness and give up on understanding what joy is. How could so many people I love so much be in so much pain? And how in the world am I supposed to identify with such scrutiny that they’re feeling? If I can’t understand them. If I can’t understand them, how can I even help?
At that moment I realized one important thing that many people should when they are in this situation; it’s not about me. I realized I need to take a step back and stop trying to empathize, but just simply be there and show my support. All my life I had been a classic empath, someone who yearns to feel and understand others, and to be as open as possible. But I couldn’t do this now. I couldn’t step into my friend’s shoes and show them a reason to live again. I couldn’t look through their eyes and make them see how their death would impact so many people. I just couldn’t, which at first made me angry and helpless.
I simply realized, I needed to talk to them. I needed to keep their mind off the darkness and back on the real world. It seems oversimplified, but that’s all I could do. Keep them going. Not just in that one moment, but always. Ultimately, I knew then that I couldn’t develop a perfect argument to convince them to stay on this earth. I simply had to tell them that I’m here and to show them in the best way I can, that they matter.
I’d like to say these two instances taught me a lot about how to deal with people who are suicidal. But I can’t completely say that I know exactly know how to deal with a situation like this if it ever happens again. Mostly because every person we encounter is different, and you can’t simply generalize all suicidal people as to why they are the way they are. However, these experiences did alert me to how often these things happen. It taught me that it could happen to your closest friend or a stranger on the street. It could be happening to the person struggling with mental illness or to the outwardly joyful person who you would least expect. Overall, it taught me to be kind. Because quite simply, everyone is fighting a different battle in their lives. Everybody has problems that affect them in traumatizing ways that we couldn’t even begin to comprehend. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore it, but rather be compassionate and aware of other people’s pain, without trying to fix it immediately.
It will always be a battle for people like myself to understand what goes on in the head and heart of a suicidal person. Although, I think the point is not to understand, because unless you are in that exact situation, it is impossible. It’s more about accepting that we will never fully understand. It is about realizing we have an obligation to start a conversation, become aware and stand by others who simply need to know that they’re not alone in this insane thing we call life.