The Cost of Not Understanding the Warning Signs of Suicide
Nobody wants to think about it, much less talk about it. But in the wake of the greatest tragedy of my life, I find myself compelled to. Suicide can be preventable if you know the signs, and more importantly, do something about them. Sadly, I and others didn’t know enough or do enough. And now we’re all paying the price.
A little over a year ago, my wife of 24 years committed suicide, seconds after taking the life of someone I loved dearly, a woman I had fallen in love with. It was, and still is, an unthinkable final act. Unthinkable, because I never once thought she was capable of executing such a horrifically violent thing. But on a daily basis, I have to remind myself, and confront the reality, that my wife was in such excruciating pain and felt so hopeless that she couldn’t fathom the idea of living another day on this earth. Weeks away from a possible divorce and struggling to reboot her career, the thought of being alone, of starting life over at 47 years old, was more than my wife could bear. She had emotional breakdowns. She got angry at me. But then, minutes later, she would be normal again, sometimes even eager to openly discuss an amicable end to our marriage.
I saw her erratic pattern of ups and downs as a normal part of the grieving process. My wife had suffered from depression for years. But on the brink of divorce, her often histrionic emotional breakdowns were caused by more than your everyday, run of the mill sadness or depression. I insisted that she see a psychiatrist and get the medication she needed. She did, and surprisingly, she was diagnosed with PTSD, a condition most commonly associated with the traumatic horrors experienced by soldiers in times of war. But as I have learned, it’s not uncommon for trauma from divorce and infidelity to cause post-traumatic stress disorder. She was so traumatized by the sudden losses in her life that her perceptions were impaired, her decision making was impaired, and her ability to conceptualize her future was impaired.
There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wish I would have taken the warning signs of her suicide more seriously and done more to prevent this awful tragedy that has affected the lives of so many. She repeatedly spoke of her having no life, of her having no future. I heard these comments as histrionic laments and empty threats. Yet they were her cries for me to recognize that she truly could not conceptualize a future, that she truly would prevent me from leaving her for my girlfriend. She was trying to tell me something. I was unable to hear it.
I thought the situation was under control. I missed the signs. Our marriage counselor missed the signs. Her divorce coach missed the signs. Her psychologist. Her psychiatrist. We all missed the signs.
My wife’s death at her own hands wasn’t my first experience with suicide. When I was just twelve years old, my parents received a late-night call from Ball State University hospital telling them that my oldest brother had consumed a poisonous cocktail of chemicals. He had been distraught after his girlfriend ended their relationship and he couldn’t imagine living another day. I had always looked up to my brother. But after his unsuccessful attempt to take his own life, I never saw him quite the same way. He wasn’t an indestructible superhero. He was human, as emotionally vulnerable as me or anyone else can be at times. He was away at college, so we didn’t see the warning signs. His roommate and friends knew he was upset, but they failed to recognize the warning signs of suicide.
Suffering from mental illness and depression since early childhood, my second oldest sister finally succumbed to her condition and ended her life, all alone in a hotel room. That was more than 20 years ago. The news was shocking to hear, but if I’m being honest, I don’t think that anyone in my family was all that surprised. My sister had always been painfully shy and struggled to be sociable at family events, often disappearing without a word to anyone and then isolating herself from friends and family for months, sometimes years. Yet despite not being surprised, we missed the signs.
Ten years later, my teenage nephew took his own life after an emotional breakup with his girlfriend. He had also struggled to find direction in his life, experimenting with drugs and often in trouble with the law. My sister and her family had missed the signs.
Seeing these family tragedies unfold, my own wife often became worried that I was at risk of mental illness and a possible suicide. It was after all, “in the family” she would say. Not once had I ever considered that she was the one at risk. Focused on statistical probabilities and “risk factors” in my family, we missed the signs with her.
Today, more than a year after my girlfriend’s murder and my wife’s suicide, I still grieve for them both, struggling some days to even function with any normalcy. As the months and years pass, I know I will continue to face some of the darkest, most painful days of my life, understanding first-hand how someone could not want to see tomorrow. Yet I do see a tomorrow. I do perceive a way out of the darkness. And I do know that the pain of grief may never pass, but it will transform. My wife, my brother, my sister, my nephew, could not perceive such hope.
More than simply knowing the signs, I have felt them in my core. But I refuse to give into them. Instead I have made it one of my life’s missions to share my story and encourage others to not only understand the signs of suicide, but to do something about it.
Over 40,000 people each year die by suicide. It is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States among all people over the age of ten. However, suicide is a preventable death. In fact, 80-90% of people who seek treatment for depression are successfully treated with therapy and medication.
In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss some proactive steps you can take if you suspect that a family member, a friend or someone you know might be at risk of suicide.
If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, get help as soon as possible. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Those deaf or hard of hearing can contact the Lifeline via TTY at 1-800-799-4889.
Learn more about the risk factors and warning signs for suicide from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention