About every 15 minutes, someone in the U.S. dies by suicide. It is estimated that each suicide intimately affects at least six other people. ideastream's David C. Barnett became one of those, a little over a year ago, with the loss of his brother Frank. It sent him on a personal and journalistic journey to examine the lives of those who are “left behind” --- to grapple with feelings of guilt, stigma and the frustration of unanswered questions.
Frank had been missing for a day, so it was something of a relief when I got a call to come downtown where, I was told, he’d had a…”medical emergency”
I was met by a policeman as I parked next to a downtown Cleveland office building. As he escorted me to the front door, he paused to ask:
“So, are you from the coroner's office?”
Suddenly, it felt like I was in a dream. We walked into the building and everything seemed like it was in slow motion… as I moved past the staring people…ducked under the police tape…and met a man who told me Frank had hung himself in a nearby storage closet.
That was my introduction to suicide. Up until then, I'd never known anyone who had lost a loved one in that way. The next few weeks were a blur. After drifting through the details of a memorial service…a cremation…and endless legal paperwork…I started searching out others who had gone through this same experience.
It was a similar to the impulse I'd heard from war veterans --- they could only talk to other vets about what they'd been through. People touched by suicide seemed to tell similar stories.
LOREE VICK: I thought people who would commit suicide --- and I don't use the word "commit" anymore --- were weak. I didn't think that "normal" people would ever die by suicide.
JASON WALLACE: It was something that happened to other people, and not something I'd think would happen to my family.
BETH McGUIRE: Shocked. Didn't understand. Why would someone do that? Must be something wrong. All of those typical responses.
Beth McGuire, Jason Wallace, and Loree Vick have all been left behind by family members who killed themselves. In McGuire's case, she lost her grandmother to suicide. It was the start of a journey that led her to become a grief counselor at the Robertson Bereavement Center in Medina County. McGuire comes to this work with some personal scars.
BETH McGUIRE: I learned the hard way --- the school of hard knocks --- about grief and loss. I think our family did everything wrong.
She says it's common for families to fumble their way through such a traumatic event. No ‘suicide survivors” are ever really prepared --- even when there are signs. Loree Vick wasn’t. The former TV news anchor lost her husband John in 2005. She says his life headed into a downward spiral after losing his job, and he felt tremendous guilt, because he was supposed to be the provider for his wife and children. When he could no longer do that, his behavior became erratic.
LOREE VICK: He would check himself into a motel, because he had to be alone, undistracted, and sort things out. But, he would be so tortured, he would call me at night every few minutes.
And she would end up driving to the motel, where she would reassure him and convince him to come home. This became a cycle that repeated itself numerous times until, early one morning, the police came to her front door.
LOREE VICK: And they said, "We're sorry to tell you that your husband has died." And that's how I found out.
LOREE VICK: One of the first things I remembered was I knew exactly what I could have done to make it not happen, because I had done it so many times. I could have gone to the motel and talked him into coming home. And he wouldn't have died that night.
Bereavement specialist Beth McGuire says those are known as “rescue fantasies”.
BETH McGUIRE: Post death, you have these fantasies that you could have saved them, you could have rescued them, you could have gone down a different path.
LOREE VICK: But, if it hadn't been that night, it would have been another night. I know that in my head; my heart sometimes still has to catch up to it.
Research indicates there are any number of reasons a person mighty choose to end their life, among them: to escape physical suffering; the loss of a loved one; or financial ruin. Statistics reveal that suicide is often associated with a mental illness. Jason Wallace of Akron says his family was blind-sided the first time his teenaged niece Alexandra tried to kill herself. She succeeded the second time.
JASON WALLACE: It came out of nowhere. She was very popular, very bright, had a lot of friends. You would think she wouldn't have anything to be upset about. When we discovered that she was suffering from depression, her parents immediately got her into a treatment facility, and she was seeing a psychiatrist, and was also taking some medication, so it didn't make any sense why this happened.
There have been great strides in understanding how the brain works, and many medications have been developed to counteract certain malfunctions. McGuire says that each person brings a slightly different twist to their illness. Many don't even want to admit there is an illness to begin with.
BETH McGUIRE: And then sometimes people, don't take their medication, because they don't like the way that it makes them feel.
My brother Frank was never diagnosed with a mental illness, but in retrospect, there were growing indications that something wasn't right, but I didn't see the bigger picture. He had a quick temper, and he became increasingly irritable as his fruitless search for a job dragged on, after having been laid off three years before. Occasionally, there were angry outbursts at the slightest provocation.
LOREE VICK: The tragedy is that there is hope for people suffering depression to get the right kind of care. It is so preventable. But, we've got to get past the stigma, we've got to get these people to help.
After Frank died, I had to negotiate the reactions of friends and work colleagues --- which ranged from hugs to averted eyes. Loree Vick says, to this day, people don't know what to say to her. Grief counselor Beth McGuire says those are very common responses.
BETH McGUIRE: It's very hard to wrap our heads around the fact that someone intentionally took their life. And if it can happen to you, oh my gosh, it could happen in my family too. And that's scary.
LOREE VICK: What hurts me is when I sense the feeling that they considered John weak or not normal or that he could have helped himself. And I want to scream out that he couldn't help himself. This was an illness; he had a chemical imbalance; he had a brain disease --- just like somebody has diabetes or heart disease. He didn't choose for this to happen.
LOREE VICK: No one should ever have to suffer in silence, as my John did. And no one should ever have to be left behind --- as I was, as my children were --- to wonder: "Why?"
Some of the people that my brother left behind gathered in a Rocky Mountain park, last summer, to scatter his ashes. It was raining as each person grabbed a handful and sent Frank flying into the foggy sky. As we walked back to the car, I gazed at the sandy remains of his former self that clung to me, like the unanswered questions swirling around in my head, and the regret softly pulsing in my heart.
MUSIC: Krishna Das from Sri Hanuman Chaleesa
Calling out to hungry hearts
Everywhere through endless time
You who wander
You who thirst
I offer you this heart of mine
Calling out to hungry spirits
Everywhere through endless time
Calling out to hungry hearts
All the lost and the left behind.