Originally Published: November 9, 2015 6:01 a.m.
A highly decorated police officer commits suicide. It stuns family, friends and colleagues. Sadly, he was living a double life. Some endings are harder than others. It has been more than one year since beloved comedian Robin Williams ended his own life and shocked the world. Perhaps his passing underscores the precarious and fragile nature of human existence. Suicide brings questions and regrets, parades them out front and center for all to see and experience, leaving each of us to ponder that one common question: "Why?" But perhaps the real headline that jumps out is how vulnerable people can be, that sometimes we simply do not know the suffering of a friend or family member. Depression, addiction, anxiety, and mental illness can ravage lives.
A colleague of mine had a son who returned from Iraq and then committed suicide. No note, no last goodbye, just a final violent act that started as a slow spiral of depression and self-loathing. A well-loved minister's son killed himself and the Christian community whispered, "how could this happen?" while others just said the "demons took over." No, there were no "demons." Let's be clear, depression is a serious condition that often leaves the victim feeling alone, isolated and unworthy of asking for help. The "human experience" of all manner of psychological suffering is an equal opportunity beast. Fame, fortune, intelligence, respect, love and admiration do not automatically shield a person from depression or hopelessness. And sadly, suicide is not usually about a person wanting to die, but rather no longer wanting to live in pain.
Suicide leaves us wanting answers. It is tempting to ask, "How could someone who has so much, die this way?" Best to avoid that question, since we never consider it when someone dies of cancer or a heart attack. A minister was quoted as saying that depression is like "walking into a dark room and not being able to find the light switch." And often the closest family members are also "in the dark" and simply not aware of the imminent danger.
My friend's daughter committed suicide over 20 years ago. For years, Joan tried to grasp the meaning of her daughter's final action, feeling the sting of guilt, while always wondering what she could have done differently. Joan says she barely lived through "tormented years" of sorrow. She said she started going to a support group that she never wanted to join, talked to strangers she never wanted to meet who somehow helped more than family, and eventually made the "long walk" back to a "new normal" and mended a broken heart. Healing takes time.
Humanity survives all types of tragedy because of our propensity to see the light. We keep holding on to hope, see the blue peeking through a gray sky, help one another and live our lives with the belief in a better tomorrow. It is that "human factor" that keeps us going, allows us to laugh, find joy in simple pleasures and keep the gloom of negativity in perspective. We don't save everyone, but we try. We want to help, yet sometimes do not know how. We believe in goodness and sometimes miss the threats around us. But we carry on.
I watch the animals around me, a testimony to the sorrow and joys of life. They go through the fear of separation, the pain of illness, the thrill of love, the heartbreak of loss, in much the same way we humans do. They are not so different from us, but they do not have the capacity to take their despair or torment to a final self-destructive act. So the cow who lost her baby calf at birth may cry out for weeks. The horse who feels the loss of his stall-mate and companion, may kick the barn, stop eating and pace the pasture. A raven whose lifelong partner died from a rancher's trap may sit atop the Cottonwoods cawing for his mate for months. And the tiniest oriole, with a torn wing, may tweet for days when left behind as the flock heads back to Costa Rica. Life and all its ups and downs are played out before our eyes in full display every single day in our own backyards.
My old horse, Pegasus, is thin and failing. His pasture buddies know he is not the same and make various attempts to help him out. Princess, my young mare, regularly nudges Pegasus outside the barn to get his exercise. Two ravens, probably the same ones who spent time hanging around my little mare, Sedona, during her final months of illness, are now frequently sitting on the gate to Pegasus's stall. They walk up and down the pipe fencing toward the barn, cawing and making a racket until he comes out to stand with them. It is a testimony to the power of encouragement.
A dark day happens when someone we love chooses to end their own life. In America, suicide is the No. 10 cause of death and on the rise among white middle-class people between the ages of 33 and 60. These are our friends, colleagues, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, parents and neighbors. They are us. We can only try to reach out, hold the ones we love, comfort those left behind and as a community of caring people, try to understand. We shouldn't be afraid to seek the help of trained professionals, clergy, support groups, physicians, counselors and hotlines. There is sun behind those clouds. Sometimes we just need to look up.
Judy Bluhm is a writer and a local Realtor. Have a comment or story? Email Judy at firstname.lastname@example.org.