And so it begins, my second Suicide Prevention Awareness Month as a survivor of suicide loss. Sometimes I try to think back to the days before losing my dad to suicide and I wonder if I had any awareness that such a month existed. And if I was aware of it, whether through social media, or something I read in a passing article, what did I think? How much attention did I pay to the statistics, the stories, the human cost behind the headlines? I wonder if there were any headlines at all?
The truth is, I don’t remember. I’ve long been someone who stood in support of greater mental health awareness. My own daughter struggled terribly with anxiety for years and years, and through therapy and medication found her way to a better place. There was never shame. I know others in my circle who’ve dealt with a variety of mental illnesses, and I’ve never seen it as something to be ashamed of. But suicide? I’m sure I looked at it with a heart full of sympathy, but I am also fairly certain that I never, ever thought that it would touch my world or someone I love. I was wrong. I was dead wrong.
I woke up this morning with a heavy heart. Something about the start of this month triggered me and I couldn’t quite explain why. I wave the flag of suicide prevention & awareness almost every day. Sometimes it’s through my own words, other times through lobbying, raising money or simply sharing insightful & important articles with my peers and on social media. I tell my story often and with great openness. I’m not ashamed of how my father died, but I am determined to bring meaning to his loss. And yet today felt heavier for some reason. I know those days come and sixteen months later, I know they will also pass.
Still, I had errands to run, so I put on my Be The Voice #StopSuicide T-shirt from The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and I went out to the stores. The shirt has at times led to some meaningful conversations. Recently I wore it into Pet Smart and the woman behind the counter read it, and asked me to tell her what it meant & what group it helped to support. I told her about my own loss and the work of AFSP & she told me that suicide had touched the lives of people she cared about as well. She thanked me for having the courage to share my story and for my efforts to raise awareness about this deeply personal tragedy. “You’re making a difference” she told me. I thanked her, paid for my items then got into my car, where the tears quickly followed. It’s not easy to be so vulnerable when standing face to face with a stranger. It’s far easier to open up from behind a computer screen.
Today brought me to Costco. It was pretty quiet there, I did my shop, paid and stood waiting to have the gentleman at the door check the receipt against the items in my cart. He looked at my shirt and read it out loud. “Be the voice. Stop Suicide.” And then he followed it with, “You know that it’s the voices that lead people to suicide.” Nobody was behind me, there was no rush out the door, and vulnerable as I felt today, I took a deep breath and answered him. “Actually sir, its mental illness that leads to suicide. The voices that tell people that there is no hope left, that their loved ones would be better off without them and that death is truly the only way to end their pain, those voices are lies that depression, anxiety and other illnesses of the mind trick them into believing.” He looked at me, looked behind me and saw that there was still nobody else waiting. “You’re right young lady. Do you mind my asking why you wear that shirt?” Another deep breath, another gulping back of tears and I answered, “Because 16 months ago my father died by suicide. I am his voice now. And I want his death to have meaning. I want to try to save lives in his memory. And sometimes that starts with a simple conversation that helps build awareness. Conversations like the one that you and I are having.”
By now there was a line. He looked me in the eye and expressed condolences for my loss. I thanked him, barely holding back the tears that seemed to determined to flow today. I started to head out when he said “I’m sure you make your daddy proud young lady.” Unable to speak any further, I nodded my appreciation, hid behind my sunglasses and walked as quickly as I could to my car. And then, when I was safely hidden away from that public space, I cried.
No, it’s not always easy to wave the flag of suicide prevention and awareness. Sometimes I need to turn away from it to tend to my own healing & spirit. And some days I take a more passive approach. I put on a shirt, I walk out the door and I open myself up to stares, to questions and sometimes to conversations like the one I had today. And one human being at a time, I hope that I am making a difference. I hope that I am honoring my father’s story and that his voice can be heard each time that I share it.