Many years ago, a colleague of mine and long-time employee of the agency where I worked jumped to his death from the 13th floor of our office building. It was mid-day. The office complex straddled a highway; there was traffic below and office workers coming and going on the sidewalks. The impact of his body was so powerful that the people working in the lower floors could feel it, and every bone in Bob’s body was shattered. A man with the build of a longshoreman, Bob was flattened like road kill.
At the time I was, in addition to being a policy analyst, a volunteer employee assistance coordinator. As such, I was trained to give confidential guidance to coworkers in need of help. I did not counsel them; I helped them find the resources they needed.
During the weeks following Bob’s suicide, I helped arrange grief counseling sessions for my fellow workers. Trained crisis counselors from a nearby hospital trauma unit led the sessions, during which those close to Bob and those who had witnessed his death were encouraged to talk about how the experience affected them. Bob’s closest friends and colleagues were plagued with nightmares, unable to silence their frightening thoughts, and consumed with guilt about what they might have done to help or save him. At the crisis sessions these otherwise reticent men -- buttoned-up lawyers, accountants, engineers -- sobbed openly, confessed to their feelings of inadequacy, and struggled to come to terms with what they believed to be their lapse in responsibility because they were unable to help Bob. At the same time, by hearing each other share stories of their recent contacts with Bob, we all learned that many knew that he was suffering, that his closest friends had begged him to get help, and that he had promised that he would but didn’t. One especially loyal friend had researched psychotherapists and coached Bob while he made an appointment, one that he failed to keep. He was determined to carry out his plan and to succeed.
His plan: He had a plan. As I later learned during more in-depth training on suicide prevention, the sirens should go off when someone reveals that he or she has a plan and the means to carry it out. When someone shares this information, even if they beg that it be kept confidential, do not keep it confidential. Sadly, many suicides are so determined that they will keep their plan to themselves. They’ve made up their mind, their mood lightens as one’s mood tends to upon making a big decision, and all that remains for them to do is to wait for preparation to meet opportunity.
The other day, after David and I learned of Deborah Digges suicide, we counted on our fingers the number of writer-suicides in recent years. David asked on Facebook why so many poets are taking their lives. Someone responded that poets are no more likely to commit suicide than firefighters or Finns. While that may be true, it shouldn’t stop the discussion of this tragedy among poets, for those are our friends and colleagues and the life of the poet is what we know. Maybe we owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to learn more about suicide, just as we learn about heart disease and alcoholism. How do we observe each other with compassion and express our concern when someone close seems to be in a downward spiral?
Many of you who read this blog are teachers as well. What should you tell your students? Is this a conversation for the classroom? What should we do?