When my dad ended his life, it felt like I arrived somewhere I had always been headed. I was 13 years old when I first saw the signs. I was 15 when he was hospitalized for his first attempt — his life thereafter owed to the vulnerable courage he demonstrated by calling 9-1-1 on himself. I was 26 when, after a long recovery, he spiraled downward again. 27 when we intervened and got him to go back to therapy. And then, I was 28 when I stood in front of his house last year — just before Thanksgiving — and learned that his life had ended. That our brave fight was over.
I am one of all too many who knows this kind of pain. But, I can honestly say that starting a conversation and raising awareness for suicide prevention has been a powerful experience. To feel yourself linking arms with millions of loving strangers — holding the same candle of hope — is more moving than words can express. When it comes to stigmatized illnesses, removing the shame is paramount for sufferers and survivors alike. If we’re able to expose an otherwise silent, hidden wound, it gives us a fighting chance, right?
But… what about the wounds that are no longer hidden or silent? What about the mental illness of a loved one that does become brave enough to speak out loud? The depression that gathers the courage to show itself without embarrassment? That stands in front of you and makes itself plainly seen? That asks for help, and yet still doesn’t seem to budge despite everyone’s best efforts? Raising awareness and ending the stigma — right now — is more than half the battle. But if we get to the point when shame is no longer the issue (which I pray that we do), we’ll need to then ask ourselves:
“What next? What do we do with those non-silent wounds that put themselves out-in-the-open and still don’t seem to heal?”
That’s the next critical question we need to answer in the fight to prevent suicide. And I know it, because that’s the question I asked myself about my dad’s depression. His was the kind that wasn’t shy or quiet. His was the kind that allowed itself to be talked about and worked at — tirelessly, and for years. But eventually, his depression refused our help. It quit therapy, said it would like to try recovering in his way, and requested our respect. With unspoken words, it made us fear what could lay ahead, while simultaneously rendering any emergency response a needless overreaction.
Six months later, after arriving at the day we desperately tried to prevent (him most of all), I often found myself wishing I’d had psychic powers — ones that would have allowed me to know where and when to intervene. And I would have in a heartbeat. I would have dialed 9-1-1 (on his behalf, this time) if I had needed to. I would have withstood the heartbreak of seeing my father taken to the hospital against his will. I would have dealt with his denial, and the resulting upset from others. I would have even allowed my dad to disown me for the rest of his life if it came to it. I really, really would have.
…And I am deeply ashamed to admit it.
Why? Because in going against his will — instead of working in a more loving way with him to try to change it, I would have disregarded the highest of all human values: Compassion.
Com·pas·sion – Literally: feeling — or suffering — together. The word compassion reminds us that it is with one another (com-) that we exercise empathy (-passion).
In those final months, compassion was the thing that we shamefully kept quiet. It wasn’t the wound of depression that we hid, but the heart of the matter itself. And it’s our hearts that we need to use — both as a society and as individuals — when dealing with an illness that we have trouble wrapping our minds around. In addition to a better understanding of the issue, there are a lot of things we need more of in the fight against suicide: effective medicine and healthcare, diversified options for therapy and other treatments. But on a human level, compassion is a critical part of the answer to the “What do we do next” question — the one that comes after raising awareness. So, I’ll say it one more time: Compassion.
And I’ll also say this: In lieu of having those psychic powers, If I could go back in time and change anything, and I really mean anything, it would be to use my heart to put some empathic pressure on that wound we felt together. It would be to share the above photo with him again; to look him in the eyes with genuine care, and to remind him that I would always be right there alongside him. And it would be to say these words once more, in this lifetime:
“No matter what, please know that I love you forever.”
Because maybe — past the stigma, past the fear and shame we were able to break down between us — that kind of radical compassion could have been our saving grace.
Dana Mich wedding reception photo by Cory Borgman.