Here are practical ways to stave off suicide contagion. They’ve worked for me and countless others.
This entire column, not just this entry, contains a content warning. I will be writing about suicide, depression, post-traumatic stress, and other serious topics. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please reach out to someone you trust, establish care with a therapist, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255), or go to your nearest emergency room. Please stick around. We need you.
Part 7 of the Secular Suicide Survivor series. Here’s how it began.
Despair took me by surprise on a Monday morning. The weekend had been a decent one, at times pleasurable. On Saturday, my wife Jessica and I watched hundreds of migratory birds fly past our outdoor table at an adorable pub. After dark, we sneaked into a state park, descended to an abandoned beach, and gaped at our first-ever sighting of the aurora borealis.
Then came Monday. Wave after wave of bereft sadness and sobbing hit me. I could distract myself for a few hours, but then it would resume. I started feeling hopeless, thinking I didn’t want to—I couldn’t—live like this anymore.
Fortunately, this has a positive ending, which I’ll get to shortly. But for now, let me say this was distinct from the sorrow trudging beside me since my son Josh took his life. Sure, I still derive enjoyment from my weeks: that magical Saturday evening, a walk with my pups, a scrumptious new microbrew, a silly TV comedy. But under it all is a melancholic current, a yearning for my son. Tears may wait till nightfall, but they arrive almost daily.
Despair is a whole other animal. When I’m sad, I want to go on. With despair, a part of me longed to leave this pained existence.
What brought it on? I think it was a combination of fatigue, trauma reminders, and an anniversary. During the week in question, I attended a five-day online educational conference. My brain was exhausted, and being a mental health professional, some of the teaching involved suicide and its prevention. Triggered much?
That Monday was also the 50th day since Josh died. The finality of his death landed hard, a pile of bricks added to the realization I’m never going to see him again. I miss him immensely every day, but this time, his absence devastated me.
While sadness is the norm after losing someone to suicide, despair can be deadly. Of course, not everyone who feels hopeless takes their own life. But despondency typically precedes and accompanies suicidal behavior. And if a loved one dies from suicide, your risk of self-murder increases fourfold, compared to the general population. Possessing this knowledge, I recognized I was entering dangerous headspace.
It was time to auto-apply skills learned as a mental health professional. I turned to techniques of cognitive-behavioral therapy in general and the development of a crisis response plan in particular. (for those who’d like to dig deeper, I’ve found Dr. Craig Bryan’s explication of the latter to be helpful.)
My first step when hopelessness assailed me was self-soothing activities. For me, that includes walking outdoors, taking a scenic drive, scanning the shelves of my favorite bookstore, sipping a microbrew (always in moderation!), watching a “comfort food” movie, or listening to music.
When those patches proved too transient, I knew I needed to reach out to someone I trust. The desolation I felt that Monday and Tuesday prompted me to craft a list, in case this happens again. On my list are Jessica, my two adult children, a friend who’s also survived the death of a child, another friend who rebuilt herself stronger after her own suicide attempt, and one of our suicide support group’s co-leaders.
Ultimately, I connected with three people from my list. I didn’t go into extravagant detail with them. The waves of emotion were dampened simply by speaking through tears with a kind confidant.
If you’re fending off hopelessness, Dr. Bryan recommends creating an index card of known triggers, soothing activities, reasons to keep living, people you trust, and emergency numbers. Then be sure to carry it with you everywhere. When despair hits, you’re not lucid or rational. Your options may seem dangerously constricted. Research has shown that having something tangible to reference at such moments can literally be a lifesaver.
On Tuesday evening, I also reached back for two techniques I learned long ago: watch your language and break things down into smaller components. Words matter when you’re struggling. The stories we tell ourselves can have awful consequences. When I caught myself thinking “this is unbearable” and “I’m losing my mind,” I paused and evaluated my language. Instead of all-encompassing negative sentences, I broke it down into “I miss my boy so fucking much” and “I’m so sad I’m never going to see him again.” I became descriptive on a micro level, noticing the hollow sensation in my chest, lightheadedness, and of course, sorrow. By analyzing and restructuring my thoughts and feelings into smaller specific components, it felt manageable.
By Wednesday, I felt wiped out from the emotional half-marathon I’d just run. But life’s savor started to return. I relished music videos from one of my favorite bands. The out-of-tune horn section of trumpeter swans overhead. The hoo-hoo of owls in a nearby park.
Since that scary stretch of days, my despair hasn’t plunged to those depths. These strategies are working. With a nudge or three from my therapist, I’m reaching out to my support network sooner when high distress hits me. I’ve reduced the self-talk that I’m being a burden or bother.
As the storms relented on that Wednesday in November, an aha moment spurred me to write the first draft of this column. I realized how much effort I’ve expended across five decades in the pursuit of happiness. I accepted anew that sadness will be a steady companion over the coming months, probably years, perhaps my remaining natural lifespan. But there is pleasure, there is contentment: in hours with my wife and children, in discovering new books and music, in breathtaking moments in nature. I will continue to find meaning in loving others, in remembering Josh, in helping my patients, in writing this column.
And guess what? I can live with that.