Suicide Part III continued:
Discovering hope, Finding meaning by helping others after loss
The previous article discussed the story of Mary Anne Gotheridge and the staggering reality of losing her brother, father and mother to suicide.
The domino effect created in her family is not an anomaly. It happens. One can lead to another and to another. As discussed in the first part of this series, the psychological implications of surviving someone who dies by suicide are great. The guilt weighs heavy.
She explained that humans are usually good at handling one crisis at a time – a lost job or relationship, for example. It’s when problems start stacking, by her estimates, it’s when three catastrophic events occur that most people begin to drown in dark thoughts.
For example: Mourning a loss leads to alcoholism which leads to a lost job.
Or for younger people: A failing grade, a break-up, a fight with a parent.
Defining an event as catastrophic is entirely up to the person and relative to their mental state at that time.
To someone who is more emotionally fragile it could be a fender bender, a fight with their spouse, and not getting their expected raise at work.
For the better part of a decade, Gotheridge felt fundamentally alone. Her psychiatrist put her on medication to reboot serotonin production in her brain and suggested a suicide survivors support group. That is when her life really began to shift – when she started to feel hope again.
“Of-course I was scared to death [to go to a support group] everyone else there was shocked, too. There were over 50 of us there. We thought we were all alone,” she said.
Some members of the group brought their children who struggled with the trauma of loss in various ways: some acted out; some were painfully silent.
Gotheridge asked if she could start an art project with the children. She brought shoe boxes, magazines, newspapers, scissors and glue to introduce the kids to a concept called “Me boxes”.
The outsides of the boxes represented what they let their families, friends and school teachers see; the insides of the boxes represented their inner worlds – aspects of their loss which they didn’t let anyone see.
They labored on their projects for a month and it was fully revealed to her how damaged these children were and how hesitant they were to discuss their pain in families which had already sustained loss of such a magnitude.
“Oh my god, the heaviness those little kids were carrying around with them because of suicide… they see their parents struggling and they don’t want to create any more upset,” she said.
Gotheridge went into social work to try to help people – to try to foster some meaning from her incredible loss. What she discovered was a broken system – so broken that one of her clients –who was a suicidal mother of five whose husband died when she was pregnant – couldn’t receive any help until after she shot herself with a shotgun. This was despite Gotheridge’s repeated and desperate pleas for assistance and warning that she would try to end her life.
“I’ve learned that I can’t save the world; I can’t save anybody, but if somebody comes across my path, then I’m there,” she said.
That included repeated late-night phone conversations with a friend who lost his wife to suicide and left him with children to raise. The night is the worst, Gotheridge explained. They emphasized in the support group the importance of exchanging information with a few people for when the dark waters rise.
“If you need to call me at 2 a.m. – you call me. You’re just in that deep dark ocean by yourself at night. You need to call somebody to connect,” she explained. “Even if you’re having those crazy ass feelings, you know that you have someone on the other side who loves you and cares for you.”
She said it’s important to ask the tough questions – ¬ to reach out – then they know that someone is paying attention and wants to help.
“If you’re concerned about someone, bring it up. Let them talk about it and their feelings on it,” she said. “You know from reading, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning,’ we cannot give another person the will to live. When I would call my friend every night and he would say I’m still here and we would talk a little bit, I would say, ‘Okay, I’ll call you tomorrow.’” We did that for a couple of weeks. When he said, ‘I’m tired and I just want to go home.’ I had an honest reaction, I started crying and said, ‘I’m really going to miss you.’”
When a person is in the depth of despair, they can’t feel anymore, she explained.
“He had to find his own will to live – and he did – he got through it,” she said.
More recently a neighbor told Gotheridge in passing that she figured she’d just kill herself. Gotheridge discussed it with another neighbor who said, “Call the police for a wellness check!” She did and made sure her report was anonymous. The next day her neighbor hugged her and said, “Thank you. I know it was you who called.”
“You never get over it, but you learn to get through it and eventually you learn to turn around and put your hand out for the person behind you,” she said