Cawley: The pain of suicide hits close to home

Two weeks ago, I was surprised by a Facebook post from my cousin; police in Maine were looking for her suicidal father, my uncle on my mother’s side of the family, who had taken a gun into the woods.

By the time I saw the post, it had been up for an hour and there was a follow-up comment from my cousin that police had found him and he had killed himself.

I was still at work at the time, sitting at my desk on a Thursday evening writing for the following day’s newspaper and wrapping up my work week.

I didn’t know how to react. This was my mother’s brother, but I hadn’t seen or talked to him since I was a kid, maybe 11 years old or so. Although I didn’t know him well, I remembered him fondly.

I knew he was the brother my mom was closest to, so I sent her a message checking in on her, and she sent me a news article about the incident. Apparently, it had made the local newspaper, but thankfully, no names were used.

While sitting there trying to process, I mentioned what happened to a couple of co-workers sitting nearby, explaining that I hadn’t seen him in a long time, maybe trying to say I didn’t think I had the right to feel grief for a family member I had never taken the time to get to know.

Soon, other co-workers were coming up to me, offering support if I needed it, and asking if I had somewhere else I needed to be. I did — my mother was back home in Connecticut dealing with the loss — but instead I said, it’s not going to change anything if I get back two hours earlier.

So, time ticked on, I finished my work, packed and began my three-hour drive back to Connecticut. That night and the two days back home that followed, I learned a lot about my uncle from my mother, listening to her stories and looking at old pictures.

He’d been ill, both mentally (depression) and physically (chronic pain) for a long time beforehand. You see, although I had not talked to him or seen him, I had heard about him, even asked how he was doing.

A lot of times that’s how we deal with people we want to learn more about but don’t know how to reach out to. We ask others close to them how they’re doing or listen to stories about them when they’re brought up. But sometimes, the person involved doesn’t know this and doesn’t realize someone else cares.

Maybe in cases like this, if I, or other people in his life, had broken through that barrier of initial discomfort of reaching out, things may have gone differently.

All I could do was show up after the fact for him and his family. I spent part of this past weekend in Maine, attending his service on Friday and meeting some of my mother’s side of the family for the first time — my family too.

Of all my mother’s siblings — she’s one of seven children — I had only ever spent any substantial time with her sister, and met two of her brothers. So, Friday marked the first time I met two of her other brothers and some of my cousins.

I felt a little unsure about being there. I felt like I was imposing on their grief. But I wanted to learn more about my uncle and felt remorseful about being so absent from an entire side of my family.

That night, I learned more. I went with my mother to spend the evening at my uncle’s home with his wife, daughter, another uncle and cousins, eating dinner and getting a sense of their lives.  

Suicide is tragic. In this case, who knows if it could have been prevented?

My colleague, Bella DiGrazia, wrote about suicide earlier this week, saying the losses in her life left her asking “what if” questions — what if she had talked to them more or forced them to get help — but she had to learn how to stop blaming herself.

I can’t change what happened, nor can people who were more prominent in his life. But maybe what can be taken from it is reach out to people you care about, especially those who may be struggling.

Life can be hard, but it’s a lot easier when you have people who care about you and who make you feel like you matter.

If you or a person you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention lists a number of warning signs for suicide, including:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide, the AFSP recommends you take these steps:

  • Do not leave the person alone.
  • Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt.
  • Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).
  • Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.

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