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How I Became a Suicide Prevention Advocate After My Son's Suicide

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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.

“You’ll never experience a pain like this again, Lisa.”

Strange that this would be one of the phrases I held onto for dear life. Lord knows I didn’t want to go on living, nor did I know how. How would I go on after losing a child? How would I go on after losing a child to suicide? The despair choked me for months, leaving me empty, hollow and hopeless. This, I thought to myself, “must be some of what my beautiful boy was experiencing.”

My son, George Cameron, left this world on July 13, 2013. He was my only child and only 15 years old when he died. The usual demons staked their claim on me daily by demanding Why didn’t you know? Why didn’t he talk to you? What kind of mom are you? You should have loved him better! What kind of social worker are you if you couldn’t even help your own son?

These questions haunt me each and every day since the morning I found my beautiful boy. There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t cry, plead with God and tell my Cami I’m so, so terribly sorry. Sorry for his pain. Sorry I didn’t know. Sorry he felt alone. Sorry he felt no other option. As a mother, I cared for my son and would go to any extreme to protect him. Lord knows, I would have moved mountains for my son. Little did I know, he needed protection from himself — from this horrible disorder, depression.

Adding to the tragedy and shock was that George did not appear to be struggling. Like so many struggling with depression, he kept his depression private. Family and friends were stunned and heartbroken to hear the news. George excelled in sports and academics and enjoyed being the jokester amongst his friends. But of all of the trophies, accomplishments and great things George succeeded at, the thing I adored most about my son was his beautiful heart. At the age of eight, he pleaded with me: “Mom I want to have a Haunted House for Halloween. We need to raise money for Katrina!” In eighth grade, I picked him up from a dance and he told me he asked a girl to dance because she had been crying in the bathroom. This was a big deal for a teenage boy to “go against the grain” and do what was right and kind. That’s the kind of boy my George Cameron was, willing to put his heart out there for others.

I wanted my son’s legacy to be that of his character, not of this one action. So, I created a scholarship in his honor called “LIFT.” His love for weight lifting and God inspired this tribute. Peers from the sophomore class are called to nominate another who exemplifies George’s spirt. One who “lifts” others in spirit. One who “pushes” through difficult circumstances. One who expresses God’s glory through his or her talents.

I’d like to tell you it’s gotten easier in the past three years. But quite honestly, life just becomes a little more bearable. I now get some respite from the crying and have longer periods of time when I can function in this world without the impending cloud of doom. I’ve poured my heart even more so into my work in schools, working with administrators and our superintendent to bring a comprehensive suicide prevention program (Screening for Mental Health’s SOS Program) to our small city in Montana. With one of the highest rates of suicide in the country, Montana has a duty to educate its youth about depression and suicide. They need to be informed, need to know depression isn’t a secret you should keep and that it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Through my grief, I have become a strong advocate for suicide prevention in schools and communities, advocating for a two-day suicide prevention program for the district, working with the school administration to develop a suicide prevention plan and policy, all with the hope that it will prevent the same thing from happening to other youth. I am optimistic. Optimistic that this work has started and there’s no stopping us now. We will grow. We will reach kids. And most importantly, lives will be saved.

So, when I’m having an especially difficult day, missing my beautiful boy, or when I’m a nervous wreck about public speaking, I remember “The worst pain is over Lisa, you can do this.” Forever in my son’s honor. I love you George Cameron Friesen.

Mom

Lisa is a mother and has worked as a licensed clinical social worker for the schools for 25 years.  Her only son took his life in 2013 and she has been a strong advocate of prevention in her community since her loss.

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.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via Alvina_Denisenko.

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How It Felt to Read My Husband's Obituary Without the Word 'Suicide' Mentioned

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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.

Only rarely does the actual “S” word appear in an obituary. You might see “suddenly,” or “unexpectedly” or “tragically” — all potentially code. You might even read “accidentally” or “after a brief illness” or simply “at home,” which could be accurate, albeit misleading. Death is harsh enough without the added stigma associated with having been self-inflicted. It’s not surprising, then, that many obituaries avoid the term altogether. “Suicide” is seen as an ugly, loaded word, and the obituary bears a peculiar gravity, as if it is, indeed, the last word on a person’s life.

Suicide seems to stick to its victim in a way that seems to threaten the rest of his or her existence. As if life isn’t harsh enough.

The first line of Sam’s obituary read simply that he died suddenly on an October day near Los Angeles, California. That one sentence was followed by six paragraphs worth of biography, achievements and relationships, but the “suddenly” sits over his whole life in print, like a storm cloud, looming over his accomplishments and redeeming qualities.

If I had the chance for a rewrite, would I use the word “suicide” in Sam’s obituary?

It is, of course, an impossible question to answer, but I’d like to think that I would. I have come to believe that speaking of mental illness, depression and suicide will reduce its stigma and bring light and healing to many who struggle.

Privately, we said the “S” word candidly and frequently. One of the best pieces of advice I received immediately following Sam’s suicide was to be honest with the children about how their father died, even though the boys were only 6 and 8 at the time. The policeman advised me that children who knew the facts generally fared better in the healing process. He encouraged me, “You do not want them to find out the truth from somebody else,” and he was right about that. In the nine years since, they have trusted me to provide honest answers to their most difficult questions.

But publicly? I wanted to protect Sam and his reputation, as well as me and mine. I wondered if his suicide would reflect poorly on the quality of his relationships. Would people think his wife failed him in some way? Were his friends emotionally distant? What kind of parents have a suicidal kid? How could Sam have done this to his children? I didn’t want anyone to think less of Sam, but then why should I care? Who are “they”? And why did I believe that they would think less of him? Is it possible that they could think more of him instead?

The first time I spoke publicly was about a year and a half after Sam’s death. In many ways, I think Sam would have been appalled. After all, he did not speak a word of his struggles out loud – not to a therapist, not to his friends, not to me. There is so much shame. I was just angry enough, in the wake of his death, to expose that vulnerability. On the other hand, I know Sam’s heart. He would have wanted to help somebody else, to inspire and encourage. In fact, I am aware of at least two of Sam’s friends who struggle with mental illness, and he counseled them with compassion and strength. That’s why I share his truth. He would have wanted his life to be a blessing, and in fact, it is, not only to his immediate family but to people he never even knew.

Frederick Buechner, a theologian whose own father died by suicide when he and his brother were young boys, offers a thought-provoking interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25: 14—30). In the parable, a man is preparing to go on a trip, and before he leaves, he gives a certain number of “talents” (currency with significant value) to three of his servants. To one servant, he gives ten talents, to the next he gives five, and the last servant receives just one talent. The first two worked and invested and doubled their talents, but the third one was so afraid of losing his one talent that he hid it away safely until the man’s later return. The man praises the first two for their industry, and he criticizes the last servant for his caution, even taking that one talent from him. One suggested meaning of parable is that we will be rewarded if we are diligent with whatever “talents” (monetary or otherwise) we have been given. Buechner suggests that we think of the “talents” not as gifts, but as vulnerabilities and weaknesses. By hiding our vulnerability, we create isolation, which is in itself a type of death. When we are open with our weaknesses, we increase connection. In our vulnerability, we find our humanity and create community. We are not alone.

I was terrified that I would be ostracized after Sam’s death. After all, he had “abandoned” me in a public way. Instead, I was surrounded and supported by family and friends. So many rallied to my side that I was overwhelmed by their kindnesses and casseroles.

Acknowledging the dark, scary, painful parts of life allows greater freedom, joy and love. It is a fuller, more expansive life, when it is lived with a wholehearted acceptance of the range that life brings. It is, in fact, essential to our humanity. To live this life with as much compassion, humility, confidence and grace as possible is a gift to our families, our communities, ourselves. In sharing Sam’s vulnerability, as well as my own, my community increased and the stigma and shame began to dissipate.

Sam’s death was not the end of my story. I have found my way toward wholeness, joy and passion. My family has experienced healing, love and integrity. Perhaps each time I speak honestly on issues of mental illness and suicide, I believe I am rewriting Sam’s obituary, creating for him a legacy of acceptance, education and hope. Because the fact of the matter is, the the end of his life is not the end of his story, either.

Sam died by suicide on a Saturday afternoon in October, 2007, near Los Angeles, California. It was a gorgeous fall day, full of promise, the respect of colleagues, the gratitude of clients, the presence of friends and the love of his family, his parents, his sister, many aunts, uncles and cousins, his wife and his two little boys. Sam could not feel their love, so clouded was his thinking by clinical depression and chronic back pain.

In lieu of flowers, please be kind to one another. Share your struggles and fears and joys, be present and patient in each other’s journeys. And when love seems to fail – because sometimes love is not enough to ward off health conditions – then love more, pray more, talk more, learn more, live more.

Services will be ongoing, in moments of grace, hope, laughter, vulnerability, strength, compassion, acceptance, gratitude, community, forgiveness, joy, healing and inspiration. Notwithstanding his death, let love remain.

Follow this journey on Sushi Tuesdays.

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.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via seb_ra.

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As a Transgender Woman, I Need My Mental Health Support Team to Look Beyond My Gender

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I really needed to write about my experience earlier today and my thoughts on navigating the mental health system as a transgender woman.

I just met with my case manager and psychiatrist. They are both very nice people with the best intentions. I left the meeting feeling discouraged and down, though. It has taken the rest of the afternoon for me to sort out what was bothering me about it and put it into a somewhat comprehensible post. I wish I could have come up with the words during the meeting. I did not want it to come across as anger though and I think I often do come across that way when my emotions get the better of me. I guess I can thank borderline personality disorder (BPD) and anxiety for that.

In this meeting, I told both of them I thought I needed more support in the form of mental health groups or a community peer support worker, which I was told I would have access to even before I left hospital. They told me there were no transgender support workers available. Now I wish I would have told them that while maybe that would have been ideal, any support would be better than what I have now. As for groups, again their focus was on groups for the LGBT community. The honest truth is that I have that covered myself, and probably know more about that than they do. My need from them is mental health support.

I have seen the statistics that I am sure many are familiar with about the increased risk for suicide among transgender individuals. What I do not see in those statistics are the contributing factors for suicide. Sure, I tried to kill myself and I happen to be a transgender woman, but in my experience, one was not directly related to the other. I remember seeing a statistic somewhere about females struggling with depression more than males. My point is, I do not think a doctor would assume someone is depressed solely because they are female. Gender would not be the main focus of the caregivers.

To me, it seems like the health care providers in my hospital system cannot get past the label of “transgender woman.” They assume all of my problems are because of that. If they would look deeper, they would see that I do not let that label stop me from socializing, working or living my life. In fact, it has not been an issue in my day-to-day life except when I interact with the health system. They seem to make it a bigger deal than it is. I do not want my identity to rest solely on the diagnosis I have been given or on the fact that I am a transgender woman. I am me.

I have given a lot of thought to how my mental illness and gender may be related. I am no doctor, but all I can see is that maybe hiding my true identity for so long contributed to my lack of self-identity. I stress the word “contribute” and acknowledge it is by far not the only contributing factor.

My feeling is that the health system needs more education. Transgender people are just people, like anyone else. If gender is a problem for someone, please help them. If a transgender person attempts or dies by suicide, please do not assume the only reason possible is gender. I feel that focusing so intently on my gender is a subtle form of discrimination. Treat me like you would treat anyone else. If I say gender is not an issue for me, focus on what the real issues are. If a transgender person is not available as a peer support worker, give me a choice of someone else.

Does anyone else have experiences with doctors not recognizing the real problems or only fixating on one issue? I would love to hear your comments.

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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Why I Hike for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention

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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.

In 2016, I “thru-hiked” the Appalachian Trail with my childhood friend Sunshine, fundraising for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and raising awareness to stop the stigma surrounding mental health.

“Hiking Miles for Smiles” became our MO as we aimed to raise $3 for every mile we hiked and 100 percent of the donations went directly to AFSP. Now, it’s almost a year since we set off at Springer and I want to encourage others to take on their own hiking miles for smiles journey. Here are the five reasons why I hike for mental health and will continue to do so wherever the trail takes me.

“Hiking Miles for Smiles” became our MO as we aimed to raise $3 for every mile we hiked and 100 percent of the donations went directly to AFSP. Now, it’s almost a year since we set off at Springer and I want to encourage others to take on their own hiking miles for smiles journey. Here are the five reasons why I hike for mental health and will continue to do so wherever the trail takes me.

1. It’s Personal

In 2006, my cousin Eric died by suicide at the young age of 23. Eric battled his depression and bravely fought the illness. As 2016 marked the 10th anniversary of Eric’s passing, hiking miles for smiles became a meaningful part of my thru-hike. I’ve experienced the stigma, the isolation and the difficulty of losing someone to suicide, depression or mental illness. Thus, I want to start conversations to stop the stigma.

Depression sucks. I know because I have depression and anxiety. I’ve climbed mountains and hiked over 2,000 miles and some of my hardest days are getting out of bed. For those struggling, know you are not alone. I want to encourage others to talk about suicide and depression to stop the stigma surrounding mental health. We created a personal fundraising campaign with AFSP so 100 percent of the donations were going directly to AFSP for suicide and depression research, policy and education programs.

2. Hiking Miles for Smiles is Motivation, Motivation, Motivation

For every mile we hiked, we aimed to raise $3 for The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The night before we set foot at Spring Mountain in Georgia, we reached our fundraising goal of $6,540. To date, we raised over $10,000 for the AFSP, hiking miles for smiles, and had important conversations about mental health on the trail, in towns and on social media. We are so thankful and grateful to our generous donors for supporting an important cause. During hard days, knowing others were counting on us to hike miles for suicide prevention with AFSP was motivating. More importantly, we were able to raise awareness and talk about a cause close to our hearts. The stigma surrounding suicide is significant and the conversations we had with people we met who were affected by depression or suicide motivated us to keep going.

3. The Trail Is As Much Mental as Physical

The saying goes, “The trail is just as mental as it is physical.” I firmly believe this is true; hiking day after day is hard on the body and mind. The elevation change on the trail is like climbing Mount Everest 16 times so it’s certainly challenging. However, there were days with conditions out of my control — like horrible thigh chafe due to hot, humid weather and forever soaked clothes — that made hiking harder. Furthermore, I found these days to be harder mentally than physically. For this reason, I knew I could hike but given the circumstances, I yearned for the comforts of town. I didn’t want to be in the woods. And, rallying through these times was tough.

4. Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace” are important ethics to live by in the outdoors and in everyday life. The seven principles are: Plan Ahead and Prepare; Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces; Dispose of Waste Properly; Leave What You Find; Minimize Campfire Impacts; Respect Wildlife; Be Considerate of Other Visitors. These seven principles are important to consider the impact one has on their surroundings.

Moreover, Leave No Trace serves as a sustainable guideline for outdoor adventures. Further, I believe this philosophy can and should be applied to day to day interactions. When comparing Leave No Trace to hiking for mental health, I want to expand upon “Be Considerate of Other Visitors.” Everyone is climbing a mountain or fighting a battle you know nothing about. The people you meet and the words you say carry significance and weight. It’s important to take care of yourself and your environment, whether it’s your mental and physical health, the Appalachian Trail or Trail Towns.

Furthermore, talk to people. Ask how they’re doing, check in and take the time to have a conversation if someone needs to vent. On the other hand, be sure to speak up if you see people failing to practice Leave No Trace. In my opinion, be respectful always, but discuss how their behavior is potentially harmful. Backpacking is an equalizer; everyone carries what they need on their back. Let’s keep it that way and do so sustainably.

5. Suicide is the 10th Leading Cause of Death in the United States

You can fight suicide. Don’t be afraid to reach out for yourself or a loved one and have a conversation about your/their mental health. Most importantly, talk saves lives. Hence, by being a safe person to have a conversation with, you can make a difference — perhaps save a life. If you or a loved one are in crisis call the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Sometimes, checking in to let someone know you care or are thinking about them can give them the support they need to get through the day. For that reason, we signed the AFSP “Let’s Have a Conversation” pledge campaign to be a safe person to talk to in times of distress; to be open, honest and free of judgment when someone needs to talk. In fact, over 7,900 people have signed to date. Sign the pledge here.

“Hiking Miles for Smiles” became an important part of our Appalachian Trail story for raising awareness on how to get involved in the fight to stop suicide. Our Instagram allowed us to reach thousands of people. We hope people learn something about mental health and the Appalachian Trail through our story. On the trail, we had conversations about mental health almost every day. We were touched by the stories people shared with us.

In conclusion, wherever the next trail takes me, I will continue hiking miles for smiles to fundraise for AFSP and fight to stop suicide and the stigma surrounding mental health.

Follow this journey on the Hiking Miles 4 Smiles Instagram.

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, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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What Birthdays Mean to Me as a Suicide Attempt Survivor

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Editor’s Note: If you’ve experience suicidal thoughts or have experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Birthdays.

To some, they are just another day. Maybe with the exception of some birthdays when you gain privileges such as driving, voting, drinking or renting a car without extra fees, nothing ever really changes when you turn another year older. It’s not like you wake up and suddenly have matured a year. It’s a gradual process, and your birthday is just a marker along that path.

But to me, birthdays — especially my upcoming 23rd birthday — mean so much more.

I started self-harming when I was in sixth grade. The depression and anxiety that drove me to self-harm continued to get worse as I progressed through middle school. I was in eighth grade when I made my first suicide attempt. I was too scared to tell my parents what happened.

During that time, I remember feeling completely hopeless and convinced that depression and anxiety would take over my life. I remember thinking I wouldn’t live to be 18 years old, because surely by that point, I would have ended my life.

Those years between that day and my 18th birthday are a fuzzy blur of anxiety and depression, drug addiction and rape, coming out and bullying. All I remember is the bad experiences and the twisted sense of hope I had that came from knowing I would end my life soon enough, ending the pain and misery.

It was during these years, shortly after being raped by three students who wanted to “make me straight,” that I made my second attempt. I was 16. It was a way to escape not only the pain, but also the fear that someone would hurt me again. I was an out queer teenager in the deep south with unsupportive parents and very few accepting friends. Matthew Shepard — a gay man who was brutally murdered — was the only gay person I knew about at that time, and his story shook me to my core. I continued to be convinced I would never live to see 18, believing if I didn’t end my own life, someone else would.

But somehow, I woke up on my 18th birthday. I felt shocked, relieved, hopeful and distraught, all at once. I pulled myself together enough for the next year and a half to make the world believe I was OK, to make me believe I was OK. That’s when things started to unravel again, and I spent the next year or so spiraling downwards, convincing myself this time I wouldn’t live to see 21. Three months before my birthday, I made my third — and hopefully last — suicide attempt. This was the only attempt I was ever hospitalized for, the only attempt that came close to actually ending my life. And that scared me.

I started getting serious about recovery, and while the journey is never over, I have come a long way in these past few years. Now I’m able to look back and say I survived. Now I’m able to look forward and say I can continue surviving and thriving. My teenage self never thought I would make it to 18, but here I am, almost five years after, with a desire to keep living as long as possible, so I can do and accomplish all that I dream about.

For a long time, birthdays acted as a sort of countdown of my life, filled with nothing but doom. Now, they serve as a source of hope and strength, reminding me I have and will continue to overcome.

If you’re feeling suicidal, or just needs a safe place to talk, you can call the Trevor Lifeline at 866-488-7386.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

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Unsplash photo via Annie Spratt.

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Why I'm Glad I Took My Friend's Phone Call at an 'Inconvenient' Time

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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.

I was late picking up my son from his friend’s house when my friend Justin from New York called. On any other day, it would have been no big deal to tell him I had to run and would call him back later, but I felt something in my gut that told me he really needed to talk. I decided instead of calling him back, I would continue our call in the car on speaker phone as I headed to town to pick up my son. I pulled into the subdivision only to realize I could not remember which house belonged to his friend. I needed to call my son for the address, but I was still on the phone with Justin. I circled the block over and over, looking in the backyards for any sign of him, all the while continuing our conversation. After 20 minutes of circling the block, my son finally spotted the car and came out. I really needed to end the call so I could greet my son, but I didn’t want to hang up. My heart knew he needed to talk until he had said all of the things he needed me to hear. He needed my time, and I will be forever grateful that I took the time he needed.

Justin and I met each other a few years ago while volunteering for an organization that supports persons with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), a disorder we, unfortunately, shared. We met during a conference call and became fast friends. We bonded because of CRPS and the work we were committed to doing for this organization, but also because we both loved foreign films, typography and gummy candy. I met him in person only once, but I spent hours and hours on the phone with him for several years. Somewhere along the way, we made a deal that one of us could be a “Negative Nelly” as long as the other was a “Happy Hannah.” It didn’t always work, but the exercise forced us to try to give the positives as much weight as the negatives. We were each other’s counterweight, as if our friendship were a pontoon boat, floating down the river in the wake of a speedboat. When the wake hits the pontoon, the port side goes up to meet the crest and the starboard side dips low into the trough. To keep the boat afloat, you need to counterbalance the boat’s motion by adding weight to the port side. That’s what our friendship was like — we were both in the same boat, and one of us was always ready to move from port to starboard if the wake was big and we were taking on water.

My phone call with him that day turned out to be the last time I would ever hear his voice. Three days later, he died by suicide. I learned of his death from his best friend in New York a few days after the doorman found him in his apartment. It was heartbreaking, but I cannot say it was unexpected. He never shared any of his intentions with me because he didn’t want to burden me with that knowledge, but I knew his pain and disability left him feeling debased, defeated and depleted. When I learned he was gone, I did what many people do in this situation. I went back to our last conversation to try to cement his words in my mind. At the time, I certainly did not know the gravity of our last conversation, but I did know he needed me that day. I believe he needed me to hear him say what was in his heart before he was gone. I believe he needed me to understand how much our friendship meant to him. That call was a gift, and I am grateful for every last minute I spent driving around and around the block that day.

Unfortunately, many of us who have lost loved ones to suicide never get this chance. I believe he knew I would feel immense pain in the wake of his death, and that I would endlessly search for clues in our last conversation for things I could have known, or should have known, that may have stopped him. I’ve searched my memory of the words we shared for things I might have missed, but there is nothing there. He did everything a solid crew mate would do in rough seas. He made sure that when the crest of this giant wave hit, I was in position to keep the boat afloat. I cannot feel
anything but gratitude for having him in my life and I am glad I listened to my heart that day. My boat has taken on a lot of water since his passing, but with the gift of time, our friendship serves as the counterweight I need to stay the course.

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.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

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