Taking One’s Life

Lorna Breen was a vibrant woman who had dedicated her life to saving the lives of others. But on that day, her own sense of self led her to a moment of a profound decision.

Lorna decided to take her life. There are various ways to say this, to describe what happened.

She committed suicide.

She killed herself.

She did herself in.

As her physician father described it, she sucummed to the coronavirus.

The “what” happened at the end of April, in the infamous year of 2020. The “why” is always up for grabs. The reality of the results are clear.

Last week, I received several notes of contact following my writing about Lorna and the impending wave of mental health issues, a wake following the speeding pandemic through the waters of our common life. One note was from a high school friend who reminded me of the suicide of one of our close friends, a death that was a surprise to most folks, leaving us wondering what the hell happened. What had snapped in our talented and fun-loving friend?

Another note reminded me of a friend who had been very deliberate in her taking of her life in a graveyard, as her reflection on the nature of life itself led her to stand before the grave of her beloved, unwilling to carry on in the face of her loss. No real surprise here. But the pain for her friends remained even in the moment of understanding.

Others wrote notes to tell me of how suicide had touched their life in an indelible way, writing deeply into their hearts and minds.

I had originally thought to write the article to encourage people to go to a suicide prevention workshop by my friend, Lt. Col. Lou Koon. I used one of my favorite stories about my dad as an easy intro into a difficult subject. My “desired outcome” was to encourage people to tend to themselves and to the people around them as this wave of despair sweeps over our land in the time of pandemic. There is, in fact, a workshop coming up on Tuesday, May 12th, that I encourage you to register for by googling Armed Forces Mission. Lou tells me he posted an announcement on Facebook this morning. The training provides a good, basic way to train yourself to watch for signs of distress in yourself and others, and equips you with some action steps to try to help. In the time coming up in our country, this training may be priceless. I encourage you to consider investing the time.

Every time I bump up against suicide, a list appears in my brain, connected to my heart. The list is a group of folks that I have known, many I knew well, who have committed suicide. Many are members of my various parishes, or people in the communities I served. Some were friends, some were family. But I unconsciously rehearse the roll of those folks and the stories connected with them.

As some of you have read my work, you know that I experienced death early and intensely. Suicide loomed early on my morning horizon as an option that humans choose. In my world, it was not lambasted as an unpardonable offense against the Creator, but rather, talked about quietly, softly, the way Southerners do when they talk at all. It was handled more secretly, with a look, with a clearing of the throat, as if there were a phrase of truth stuck in your craw.

I learned my most important lesson early on in my clinical career, a lesson that I try not to forget, and a lesson I share with my students.

I had a patient I worked with when I was a doctoral student. He was an adolescent at a psych hospital connected with Emory. I had made real headway with him. Before I left for the weekend, he told me good bye, which seemed odd. Following my training cue to stay curious, I asked what he meant by “good bye”? I asked if he was thinking about hurting himself. He confided that he had decided to kill himself. After talking with him for a while, I informed him that I was going to have to report this, and it would result in the order of restrictive clothing, a straight jacket, and monitoring. He was furious with me and said he should never have trusted me. At that early point in my training, I was devastated by his disappointment in my action, wanting to be the best, most trustworthy therapist ever. It bothered me, deeply.

I left the hospital at 5 PM, and went to spend the evening with a nurse I was dating at the time. The next morning, I went to the hospital to check on him, and the nurses on the unit said they had been trying to reach me all night…..before I had a beeper! He had gotten up on his bed, with the jacket on, dove off, broke his neck, killing himself. It took me a while to process, but I came away with a clarity that if someone really wants to kill themselves, they will. All one can do is try to help them think it through, which I have done many times. But it is amazing how that event freed me from any misplaced sense of guilt or responsibility….after a lot of therapy myself. But it also impressed me with the need to ask the hard, uncomfortable questions to help the person test their reasoning and realize the consequences of those decisions.

Another memory always invade my psyche at the time of a suicide. It participates in the phenomena known as gallows humor, laughter used to assuage the sheer pain of death. Those of us who work in hospitals often use humor to get us through our dark nights, those tights spaces of pain, suffering, and death, three dimensions of life, all too well known in such human settings.

This moment of gallows humor was provided by an unlikely source in my mind at the time. It happened unexpectedly in a class in pastoral care, taught by the Dean of pastoral care in the Baptist world, Dr. Wayne Oates. The class oddly was meeting at night, on a cold Fall evening in Louisville, where the wind and chill pierce your inner being. After teaching a three hour class on suicide, he dismissed us. We were up from our seats, ready to flee the classroom, but then asked us to sit back down. He paused and said he was sure some of us were wondering, Wayne, have you ever considered suicide? And Dr. Oates answered his own rhetorical quesstion. “I have to admit, yes I have. Then your next question should be, Wayne, how would you do it?”  He paused, for an extended time as we twisted in the existential moment. Then he replied as he dramatically leaned out over the wooden lecturn, “I plan to laugh myself to death with all the bullshit I have to put up with around here.”

Humor has saved my life several times.

On that same windswept night, like The Gambler, he did pass along an Ace that I could keep. Dr. Oates hipped us to the reality that the cemetery is filled with people who really didn’t want to kill themselves but made a mistake. They didn’t know they were taking a lethal dose. They really meant to just alert those around them to their pain, their need. Those are the people I aim to help.

The reality of the effects of isolation are becoming clearer with each week. Some of us find ourselves reacting in defiance to the order that we shelter. There are some pretty crazy acting out of our need to display out independence from any government interference. I would ask you to think carefully, for yourself and others, as you exercise your God-given freedom. I would remind you that God also gave you a mind with which to think, and a heart to care for your neighbor.

For those of you isolating like me, there are a series of suggestions I would make to keep you healthy in this odd time: Move, Mindful, Meaning, Master, and Meet.

Move: The first aid in depression is movement, that is, getting your body moving. It can be as simple as a walk or as complex as a thorough workout. That expenditure of energy does all kinds of good things, physically as well as mentally and emotionally. MOVE!

Mindful: I have written several articles about the ways in which I practice mindfulness, using breathing with awareness. There are all kind of apps you can employ, like Calm and Headspace, but simple, mindful breathing makes a difference. It literally re-minds you.

Meaning: Reconnecting with your inner sense of purpose is empowering. Spending some time scratching at the “why” in your life can be transformational. Many of us lose that “inner fire” in the busyness of work and the grind of daily work. Finding that fire can feel like rebirth. One of my favorite things in my coaching is helping physicians, nurses, executives, lawyers, clergy, and teachers to rediscover that “why” that got them into their profession. This pandemic has accentuated the deep passion that may have had sediments of routine cover over and almost extinguish that flame. The gift of the pandemic may be to find that thread of meaning. Rediscover your WHY, the meaning of why you are here on this planet.

Master: Get creative and think of some area of life that you would like to discover. I have heard of people working on their guitar chops, their piano playing, or making a run at a foreign language. A Trappist monk friend who has been in training for this pandemic for over fifty years, is rereading one of my favorite pieces of writing, The Four Quartets. Tom says he’s reading it very slowly, chewing the cud of the words to get all the meaning. I have taken out a paint brush and tried to play at a skill that my mother, wife, and kids are gifted in. Not me. Humbling, but exciting to play with colors. Good for my soul!

Meet: Wait a minute. What about that social distancing? I am very serious about maintaining that distance physically, but I have used this time to reach out each day to people in my directory that I have lost contact with. Three fraternity brothers joined me on a Zoom call that was a blast. I called a priest colleague that I had not talked to in years. And your imagination and daring is the only limit. Make that call and reconnect by meeting through a variety of means.

Move, Mindful, Meaning, Master, Meet. Five M’s that will connect you to your life force that will keep you moving, get you on track to enjoy this wonderful life that we share.

If you find yourself struggling in this time, or know someone who needs some immediate help, you can call the national Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK or the Georgia Crisis line at 1-800-715-4225. There are trained people who care that can assist you in finding a way through this dark time.

My prayer as that we move through this odd time with a renewed spirit of connection and care. The pandemic is our common experience, throughout the world. The question for us as human beings is two-fold: How will be choose to deal with this reality? and What will we learn from this time? May we be surrounded with a sense of our community, family, local, nation, and global. Blessings.

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