In many ways the lyrics from The Fray’s hauntingly beautiful “How to Save a Life” has become synonymous with the myriad of emotions so many of us feel when we are left behind in the wake of a suicide loss…
And I would have stayed up with you all night had I known how to save a life
Trained as a journalist, a life-long communicator, words have been my salvation as I’ve sought to find a way to make sense of this one story; the suicide death of my 20 year old son Eric.
Words matter. Every. Single. Word.
As I write this blog, I want to make it clear I write for no one but my N =1, my mother’s broken heart. I am not a spokesperson, not an advocate. Today, I’m simply a survivor of suicide loss. And my words are reflective only of my own opinions. My own thoughts.
There is a strange phenomenon that occurs on the eve of the anniversary of Eric’s death – the night of August 3, I struggle to sleep. Somehow time and space no longer exist, and I find myself there before the last peaceful sleep I had. While he, tormented by the mental illness which had plagued him since puberty, alone in a quiet corner of my family farm in Saskatchewan, made the irreversible decision to end his pain and his life, I slept. And, each anniversary I go back there. Wishing with all my heart that if I had stayed up that night I could have somehow changed the trajectory of our history.
Don’t close your eyes Mom. Stay with me. Don’t close your eyes Eric. Stay with me.
But was it really as simple as that one night?
That’s where language comes into play for me. I believe in Suicide Intervention, and our efforts towards Suicide Prevention. But it’s the phrase Zero Suicide which I can’t quite right myself with. The language creates a paradox for survivors; our HOPE for Zero Suicide while encompassing the reality of the human experience which we’ve lived through.
On one of my daily visits to Eric in the Services Building at the Foothills Campus, where he was in the Young Adolescent Program, we went down to the cafeteria to get him his favourite menu item – sushi, and then for a walk. As we returned to the unit, past the elevators and to the stairs which I assumed we always took because of our family’s near obsession with fitness, and past the many hospital residents waiting with their wheelchairs, their IV poles, and other evidence of serious medical issues, Eric looked at me as he bounded up the stairs. “Do you know why I always take the stairs Mom? Because I can.”
Back then, despite the team of medical professionals we met with daily; doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and of course Eric and myself, it all seemed so simple in our naivety. That because his emotional injury, his mental health condition, was invisible, that somehow it was better, perhaps easier to live with and treat. We would “fix” Eric and go on with our lives. The riddle of his mind being a temporary inconvenience.
The reality is, from the first day his symptoms manifested, finding answers was like trying to catch snowflakes in a blizzard.
I kept trying to catch them. For six and a half years I tried.
And the ripple effect of that loss was monumental for not only us as family members, but many others whose lives had intersected with Eric’s even peripherally. We were – and at times still are – haunted by the woulda, coulda, shoulda’s. The things we could have done better or differently. The things that might have saved Eric’s life. The one thing that separates suicide loss for survivors from other types of loss, is that we universally attach to guilt.
Words phrased together like zero suicide, for me at least, feed into that guilt.
The differences between the phrases suicide prevention, suicide intervention, zero suicide and HOPE for zero suicide, are just five small words. But words matter. Every. Single. Word.
Suicide Prevention; let’s look far past the night before, the moment, to the underlying causes that have brought a person to this desperate low. Let’s peel the layers off of the onion with courage to be open and honest and tell whole stories, before the pain cripples the person who bears the weight of a hidden story.
Suicide Intervention; so often suicide is an impulsive act in a moment where other options don’t seem real or present. We absolutely need to equip our community with the skills and resources to make that difference in that moment.
Zero Suicide; I’m going to use Eric’s own words here. “Sometimes there are no winners or losers in a battle. Sometimes there is just no give from you nor your opponent. Then comes a time where you put your swords down and shake hands. Acknowledging that you fought with everything you had.”
The HOPE for Zero Suicide: And I would have stayed up with you all night had I known how to save a life
By the way. Whenever possible, I take the stairs.