March 5 has come and gone again for me. Good. I needed it to go away. Because it was the day my brother went away. Forever.
My wife and I stopped at a fast food place along I-5 in Washington that day in 2005 as I headed to a business meeting in Portland, just after starting a new job.
The cell phone rang. It was my mother in Pittsburgh, where my 47-year-old little brother — whom I partially raised — also lived.
“I don’t know where Kevin is,” she cried. “He doesn’t answer the phone.” Shuddering, I somehow knew why.
Just a few nights earlier, I was on the phone with him from my Seattle home.
I had just paid for his latest antidepressant drugs because he was unemployed and in debt. I pleaded with him to get back on the pills right away and give them two weeks for the brain chemicals to kick in.
We had been down this road before. Two previous suicide attempts, a visit to his psychiatrist together, and two scary stays in a Pittsburgh hospital psych ward, where I once found him curled up in a fetal position and talking like a child. He had squandered three jobs in just a few months because of his anger, worsening depression, and self-image. That number prompted me to think of what I had learned about suicide: The third attempt is usually the lethal one.
He quietly said, “Wayne, I am in a deep hole and I can’t get out.”
“Kevin, just give it two weeks,” I begged.
We finished the call with no firm resolution. Three thousand miles away and in a new job, I couldn’t just drop everything and fly east. I am sorry I didn’t, but it may have been too late anyway. I had been working in the Washington, DC, area the first two times he tried to die.
I raced toward the turnpike to the rescue. This time I could only pray he would listen to reason.
Meanwhile, my mother’s and my repeated calls to his home went unanswered. She would not go in there, so two relatives did. They found nothing. The police got involved but could only treat it as a missing person case, even after finding his abandoned car parked on a street near a Pittsburgh bridge.
But still no trace, and March came and went with that haunting feeling of loss with no closure.
As fears heightened, the inevitable call came from the police. Kevin’s badly decomposed body had washed up near a barge on the Ohio River. His dental records proved a match.
My mother and I finally went to his home, north of the city. I turned up a scribbled note he had left behind: “I am going to walk into the Allegheny River and end my life.”
All we could do was cry and begin to pick up the pieces of his life.
I write all this to remind everyone about suicide, its causes and contagion. It is insidious. People with suicidal ideas become isolated, often changing their behavior, often becoming remarkably adept at masking their true feelings when asked if they are OK.
Suicide allows them to finally relieve the relentless pain they feel. They find the means; they develop a plan; they carry it out, not able to think of the damage left behind for family and friends.
Since then, as a trained peer counselor, I have been fortunate enough to help a few family members cope after losing a loved one.
The situation has now worsened. We see COVID-19 and hear mental health experts warning that related isolation, depression, unemployment, loss, heartbreak, and substance abuse are fueling a rise in suicide. In August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the results of a nationwide survey conducted during the last week in June: More than 40 percent of those who responded reported symptoms of anxiety or depression or increased substance use, in addition to other struggles. More than 10 percent said they had seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days, compared with just over 4 percent who responded similarly in 2018.
Don’t Wait for the Worst to Happen
It is critical for families and friends to look out for each other. Are there signs of behavioral changes, diminished communication, isolation, depression, or anger? Are they throwing out or giving away clothes, favorite books, or treasured souvenirs?
The point is: Don’t wait for the worst to happen. Intervene. Make sure pills are locked away and that no guns are in the house. Ask the question, “Are you thinking of suicide?”
Not easy to ask, I know, but the consequences are much harder. At the same time, they need to hear that others need them, love them, and would miss them so much if they left. And, that the world would NOT be better off without them, despite what they think.
A University of Washington group which has pioneered suicide awareness and prevention in the state has developed a LEARN strategy when working with those who have significant suicidal thoughts:
L stands for LISTEN.
E stands for EMPATHIZE.
A stands for ASKING that difficult question.
R stands for REMOVING any means, if necessary.
N stands for NEXT LEVEL OF CARE
That N means dialing 911 for immediate, emergency danger, or the National Suicide Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Counselors there answer questions 24/7, offering compassion and important resources.
Those can be lifesaving connections to avoid a terrible call no one ever wants to get — or a tragic anniversary of loss and grief no one can ever escape.