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My Uncle Is So Much More Than a Suicide Statistic

Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

The problem with writing is I love it too much to do it half-assed. There are days when I write entire blog posts in my head while driving to work or playing with the kids on the floor, but they never make it to the page. There are other days when I open up my laptop, pour a glass of wine and contemplate writing, but then realize I have no direction to my thoughts or nothing relevant to say at that particular moment.

This doesn’t mean I am not constantly thinking because I am, all the time. While making the kids’ lunches, while walking to the mailbox, while drifting off to sleep. I mostly think about people. I don’t waste time worrying about politics or events that are occurring halfway across the world because they are out of my control. Instead, I spend most of my life focusing on the people I care about (and there are many). I try and make their lives inherently better just by being a part of it. I love to listen, to truly listen, to what people have to say. Over the years, I have certainly done my fair share of talking as well, but when I was younger, I was more of an observer. I think when you start out life as a shy, introspective child, you gain a lot of insight and perspective about the world around you. You can immediately tell when someone is hurt, even if the person that inadvertently hurt them might not notice. You see and notice small changes in facial expressions like disappointment or sadness. You watch and take internal notes, or at least I did. I may have been too quiet to do much about these observations until high school, but I know the time I spent both writing and observing during those formative, character-building years made me into the empathetic person I am today.

So a few summers ago when I was sitting on my love seat and heard about the death of the beloved Robin Williams, like everyone else, my jaw dropped open and I almost ran off to Snopes to find out if it was true, but mostly an overwhelming sense of melancholy washed over me because of the cause of death.

Suicide. I hate that word. I also hate the phrase “committed suicide.” It’s so cold. It sounds so harsh. I don’t know if “took his own life” sounds any better, but at least it’s less clinical. People expressed shock about his untimely death and I suppose that’s understandable in a way, but if you are familiar with suicide, and have lived through the death of an immediate family member, you know depression can completely change a person’s life view in a matter of months. It can often change their personality and their physical appearance, their mannerisms and their routine. It can affect their level of patience, their former passions, their every relationship. It may not be completely transparent to the public, but the signs are there. And sometimes there’s nothing we can do to recognize how serious the situation is until it’s too late.

The other day, I was home alone with my son. He went down for a nap and I decided to relax watching some old home movies. (In addition to writing and being empathetic, I am also extremely nostalgic and sensitive). These particular movies are silent because they were filmed with my parents’ Super 8 camera prior to their mega Camcorder purchase in 1986. I watched my first day of kindergarten… blonde curls and blue crocheted dress with little brown Mary Janes and a white button-up cardigan. Care Bears lunchbox. Then I watched my brother’s second birthday party, in September of that same year (1984). I watched my Uncle Billy come up the hill with my aunt. He was a young 30-year-old, even younger than I am now. He was sporting faded, but surprisingly designer-looking blue jeans and a long-sleeved V-neck shirt. Young and happy as could be with a blonde woman (who had a Farrah Fawcett haircut, I might add!).

Looking at them, tears glistened in my eyes as I did the math. In 25 years, he would take his own life. Would you ever have guessed had you been in that moment? Would I have ever guessed it? My four and a half year old self running around the front yard in that video without a care in the world? No. I wouldn’t have. Even in the months before his death (and I was 30 when he died), I honestly didn’t think he had it in him, even after hearing he had been experiencing depression. I pride myself on being empathetic, but I didn’t even notice he felt suicide was the only alternative.

I fell on the couch when my mom called to deliver the news. I was pregnant and alone, and thought I might explode with sadness. I had just spoken to him the day before on my birthday. How could this have happened? But looking back, there were signs. Even when I had talked to him on the phone the day before, I know he knew it was the last time we would ever speak. It chokes me up to even write that now. While we will never be able to understand with our rational minds, it is an illness and it is important that people are aware of the signs and of how to get their loved one help.

After Robin’s death, I heard some unsophisticated caller on the radio stating that Robin must not have “given a shit” about his three children to do this to them. I was practically shaking with anger at that statement because it is so false. So unfair. Depression is serious. Be aware and reach out. Help in whatever way you can.

Every year my family and I do the American Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide (AFSP) “Out of the Darkness” walk in October. All donations go towards research and education programs to prevent suicide and save lives, because suicide is more prevalent than you think. Suicide claims more than 38,000 lives each year in the United States alone, with someone dying by suicide every 13.7 minutes. A suicide attempt is made every minute of every day, resulting in nearly one million attempts made annually.

I hope the death of Robin Williams has just one silver lining: awareness. If you see someone struggling, be empathetic. Don’t judge. Take the time out of your busy day to reach out and listen. It only takes a few minutes or hours, but may make a difference. I know there’s nothing I could have done to save my uncle, but I take comfort in the fact I was there for him every time he called me that fall and winter. I cheerfully told him all about the events going on in my life and tried to make jokes and make him feel like his “real” self again. I am sure I wasn’t completely successful every time, but I know in my heart that he knew I loved him and that I was trying to make a difference. Let’s all take care of each other. Life is too short to do anything else.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Photos via contributor.