“You may not want to exist right now, but someone is very happy that you do. Stay for them.” – unknown
I have waited for what is now nearly seven months to write about a fact of life that no one should have to experience. A small part of the wait has come from my own inabilities to understand and adjust to the effects of a family member’s suicide. The bigger part, and the overwhelming reason I’ve waited, comes from the up-close and personal experience of witnessing the impact on my sweet wife, Sonya. That impact is not only unfathomable, it is full of anguish, heartbreak, depression, and guilt … for starters.
It was on a cold January day in 2009 when my wife’s dad, a man profoundly affected by enduring physical pain brought on by a series of strokes, chose to end his life at the age of 68. Like many daughters, Sonya was a daddy’s girl and, like many sons, her brother, Monty, was a momma’s boy. The bond was unbreakable … then and now. The four made for a close-knit, loving family. Despite the awareness of dad’s excruciating pain, neither adult sibling could have anticipated the events of a day now forever marked as one of the worst. Suicide, after all, is what happens to other people and other families. It doesn’t happen to us.
The natural, dominant response for Sonya in the days, weeks, months, and years to follow was anger. Until last September, anger at her “daddy” for leaving so abruptly, so suddenly, so horribly overshadowed much of what Sonya remembered. I mean, how could a loving dad allow, in this case, physical pain to permanently remove him from the lives of those he loved most? Even now, it is almost impossible to comprehend. Anger, as most of us know, can be a monstrous emotion. This kind of anger defines what I believe is the worst kind of anger – an unquenchable thirst for understanding, for explanation, for some degree of closure that will never come. Anger in those left behind often thrashes the heart, soul, and mind to the point of making life almost unbearable. Yes, there is room for love and fond memories in the midst of it all, but anger creates a stifling existence from which it is hard to break free.
Fast-forward to this past fall, Sept. 15, to be exact, when my wife’s 48-year-old brother left three letters for his wife to find as he drove away from his home for what would be the last time. The next 12 or so hours were some of the worst hours one could imagine. With an idea of where Monty was headed, first responders searched throughout the night to find a son, husband, and brother. There was no searching in 2009 nor was there a time when a mom, daughter, and son had to wonder where their dad went. No fear, no debilitating worry of the unknown, no dependence on first responders. This time, however, was different … much different.
This time, a son who had, along with his mother and sister, already experienced life-changing, heart-wrenching anguish 12 years earlier was about to cause the same again himself. Ironically, and much like his dad, Monty’s hope had finally evaporated as overwhelming physical pain took a toll he could no longer bear. From his perspective, death had become more appealing than living. His letters reflect the mental, emotional process of what real hopelessness means. Written by a hand that no doubt shook with great fear, Monty expressed enormous guilt for what he about to do. He shared his sadness, his perceived plight in life, and his love for those in whose hearts he would inject deep, abiding sorrow. He was leaving for good and wanted to be sure the lives soon to be torn apart again had, at least, something of an answer as to why. Those letters – one to his wife, one to his mother, and one to Sonya – were intended to lighten a burden only God and a close, personal support team can help carry. It is a cross to bear that never gets lighter but that does rest a bit more comfortable as life moves forward. Although only 5’3” and barely 115 pounds, Sonya is not only the strongest person I know, she is the bravest, most resilient, too.
Suicide is ugly. By way of statistics, according to the CDC, suicide is the 12th leading cause of death in the United States; 45,979 Americans died by suicide in 2020; about 125 Americans die by suicide every day; there is one suicide death in the U.S. every 11.5 minutes; suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-old Americans; the highest suicide rates (per 100,000) in the U.S. are among white males (25.4), followed by Native American/Alaska Natives (14.6), and Black males (12.6); there is one suicide death for every estimated 25 suicide attempts; there are about 1,149,475 annual attempts in the U.S. (using 25:1 ratio) or one attempt every 27.5 seconds.
Suicide is often defined as a permanent solution for a temporary problem. It isn’t what those contemplating suicide need to hear, but it’s true. Embedded in that oft-use description though is what I’ve come to realize is the real reason – hopelessness. Imagine believing you have no hope in life and you’ll get a sense of why death seems better than life. That’s why you and I need to make sure that those we encounter every day are reminded of hope. Better yet, the hope found in the promises of God.
Since my wife is reading this today, I ask for your indulgence as I remind her by telling you that God has amazing things in store for her life. She is now one of his special, unique vessels through which people impacted by suicide will find life a bit easier to navigate. Despite the steep price, Sonya is well-equipped to change the course of life for people among us who may be losing grip on their last thread of hope. She is a beautiful vessel, one ordained by experience and has, in ways only God can enable, a usable understanding of what it means to lose two of the most important people in her life to suicide. I, along with so many others, believe in Sonya and am excited to watch as she uses her experiences to save others.
How? By helping them choose life.
If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7. 1-800-273-8255.