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When Being a Suicide Survivor Makes You Think in Retrospect

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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 almost named “The S Word” – our upcoming documentary – “Retrospect,” because this is a word I often use when it comes to suicide.

After long, sleepless nights obsessing over what I could have done or said to have kept my father and my brother from killing themselves, my takeaway was always something like this, “In retrospect, when he said x, I could have done y.” If only. There are a lot of phrases for it – “Monday morning quarterbacking,” “hindsight is 20-20” and everyone’s favorite “coulda, woulda, shoulda.” But the bottom line is, it doesn’t matter what I could have done. What matters is what we can all do now in regards to those who are alive and not sure they should be.

Of course, we can name all the reasons why we think it would be good for them to stick around regardless of their pain and hopelessness. We could disregard those feelings and assure them tomorrow is going to be better. Do we know this for a fact? Tomorrow will be pain-free and those feelings were momentary and we can just push them aside and go on with our day? We could do that, but we might be doing it for us, not them.

Instead, maybe we could validate their feelings. If somebody feels like they don’t want to be here anymore, it may suck, but it is a legitimate feeling. Feeling despondent and depressed and suicidal – nobody wants to feel that way. And asking, “what could possibly be that bad?” is extremely unhelpful. With that phrase alone, someone who already feels like shit is then thrust into “My feelings don’t matter, they’re not valid, so what the hell am I doing here?”.

How about this. Rather than invalidating their feelings – and they are the only ones who truly know how they feel – how about accepting it is OK to feel bad? Sad. Depressed. And yes, even suicidal. Because, like it or not, dying sometimes feels like an option. But, as Dr. John Draper of the National Suicide Hotline said to me – and I paraphrase – “Let’s think of five other options. What else could we do about your pain? What are some things we could try to make you feel safe?” I think the takeaway is when somebody is feeling suicidal, no one else can solve all (or maybe even any) of their problems right then. But what we can do is listen. Validate the fact they feel miserable and listen to the two or five or 300 reasons why. Chances are they need to be heard, not lectured to. Even a well-meaning lecture may not feel so great while in the midst of a crisis.

On the other side of this is loss, which is never the result we want. But, the staggering numbers prove it happens anyway. And sometimes this is just the reality. But, oftentimes, it doesn’t have to be. Any of us can be on the line between death and life. But even more so, we can all have a life worth living.

As we began to interview people for “The S Word,” we found a strange disconnect between those who have lost loved ones to suicide and those who have attempted suicide. Sometimes they were one and the same. Sure, there were people who couldn’t believe somebody would have the capacity to take their own life and leave their loved ones behind. “Who does that?” they would say. Some went so far as to say it was a “selfish act.” Some couldn’t face it at all. When my dad died, the story was he had had a heart attack. Then three months later, my brother killed himself. Eventually, I learned my father had as well. When she finally told me, my mother said: “How could he have done that to us? It was so selfish.”

I wondered this as well, until I started talking with and listening to people with lived experience – people who had attempted to take their lives and survived. Those conversations compelled me to think differently. To look at my dad’s life through a different lens, one of courage rather than of weakness.

Make no mistake, this was not an overnight enlightenment on my part. I wondered how he could possibly leave his wife and three children who needed him. Why? I didn’t even know he was struggling or depressed or anything. I was completely wrapped up in being 18 and in college and independent and everything that goes along with that. I figured my parents could take care of themselves – like always.

At the time, my brother was 26 and still trying to find his place in this world. Again, I didn’t know anything about anything – except making the most of my college years – and that’s exactly what I did. That is, until I got the call I needed to get home right away. I went home and my dad was dead. Then, three months later, my brother killed himself. And that’s when the retrospective thinking set in. What could I have done? Or said? Why wasn’t I there?

But the more people I meet who have attempted suicide and survived, the more I realize it’s not about me. They didn’t leave me – they tried to erase themselves because the pain was too much to bear. At least that’s my guess and it’s what many who have attempted suicide and survived have told me.

These are things I learned from the wise and compassionate people I met along the way while making “The S Word.” I could list them, but I am afraid to leave somebody out, so I send my love and gratitude to everyone who has been a part of this film – either in front of or behind the camera. To say we couldn’t have done this without you would be a gross understatement.

And to my dad, in retrospect, I can finally say:

Thank you, dad, for having the resilience to be there for me for as long as you could.

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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Thinkstock photo via Archv.

Originally published: February 24, 2017
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