Sometimes you meet people in your life who are genuine, warm, and just impactful from the moment you sit down at a table with them. Linda is one of those people, and even through a loss many of us cannot fathom, she has remained a light in the world.
Linda lost her son to suicide three years ago, and she bravely shares her story, one not easy to write or relive, but an important one to raise awareness.
National Suicide Prevention Week is a good thing, but for a mother who’s lost an adult son to suicide, the issue of “prevention” is somewhat daunting. My husband and I did as much as we could to prevent our son’s death, but, obviously, all the doctors, counselors, and medications, and all our words and love and support weren’t enough.
I wonder if Robin Williams’ mother, or his wife wonder if they could have prevented his suicide. Like Williams, my son Derek masked his depression well. At his funeral, his friends talked about how funny, kind, courteous and respectful he was, how his laughter could fill a room, how they enjoyed his company. They wished they would have known he was struggling. They wished they would have called him, or tried to cheer him up. In other words, they wondered if they could have prevented his death. I don’t know that they could have. As his mother, I go around and around and around with this myself, and I have no definite answers.
The first Christmas after his death was especially heart-wrenching. I had bought an ornament for each of my three children every year since they were babies to decorate their own tree when they left home. What was I supposed to do with Derek’s ornaments? I couldn’t bear to look at them. We scaled back on holiday decorating, and got a live tree, a black hill spruce, in Derek’s honor, to plant in the spring.
The little spruce looked beautiful in our front yard. I was so pleased. In two years, it was healthy and had lots of new growth. We decided we’d move the tree to my daughter’s property in this fall, where there’s plenty of acreage for it to grow magnificent, tall and full.
Mid July, we went out of town. When we returned a week later, the tree had brown needles and brittle branches, as if parched. I was shocked. How could this have happened? That month, I diligently watered it every day, but it continued to drop needles, and every day, as I watched its decline, I felt worse. I had neglected Derek’s memorial tree. I had failed to take care of it properly, and now it was dying. The metaphor was obvious. It seemed almost fitting that the tree would die under my care.
By chance, my husband happened upon an article in the newspaper about a spruce decline throughout Michigan. The needle cast and branch dieback that began seven years ago is now an epidemic, and this year’s weather made them especially vulnerable to canker diseases. The article stated fungicides are generally ineffective. All you can do is remove the infected branches and hope for the best.
I ran out to look at our son’s spruce and saw blue fungus on the trunk. It has a disease. I hadn’t neglected it after all. There wasn’t anything I could have done to prevent it from succumbing. Nature had taught me a lesson.
Derek fought with depression for many years. We took him to counselors and doctors. We hired tutors in school when he struggled. On the other hand, he had plenty of friends, he played hockey, and enjoyedsocializing, so I hoped that his pessimism and the short-tempered side we often saw at home would somehow resolve itself. Maybe it was wishful thinking.
He joined the Navy, and we were hopeful it might help turn things around, but ultimately I believe it hurt him. He served during the United States’ first invasion of Afghanistan, working on the search and rescue helicopters on a nuclear warship. When he came home, he was angry and disillusioned, and found adjusting to civilian life difficult, but refused to talk about his experience in the military. No matter what his father and I said, he was convinced the future held nothing for him.
Eventually he found work he seemed to enjoy. He was looking for a condominium when he was laid off. It devastated him. His anger and depression roared back. He talked about giving up. One of his good friends had killed himself a few years prior, and another was murdered in Chicago; Derek told me things happen in threes, and sometimes he felt he was next. I listened to him, told him I understood, and at the same time, I begged him to seek help. I often talked about my own experience with depression, and how therapy and medication changed my life. I told Derek he could get better, too.
One afternoon, I found him removing all his photos from our photo albums. In a panic, I ran outside and called a suicide hotline, and they told me to call 911. It seemed so drastic. I said, “Isn’t there another way?” The person on the phone asked me, “If he leaves your house, what do you think might happen?” My heart was pounding with fear. I called his father at work, and then 911.
He spent three days in the hospital. He understood our concerns, but he was furious with us, and ashamed and humiliated. He started medication and saw a counselor, however, and things improved. I thought if only he had a good job with a future. If only this, if only that…
HIs father pulled some strings and got him a promising new job out of state that we hoped would give him a new outlook. He even found a doctor he liked. We breathed a big sigh of relief. But his happiness was short lived. He stopped taking his medications, and then, to our shock, quit his job. I can’t tell you how disheartened and frustrated I was.
He called me almost daily to talk about mythology, philosophy, and his search for enlightenment, his desire to travel. He also talked about suicide. I urged him to get help, but he wanted to find his own path. As lucid as he often sounded, I sensed he was also growing distraught. A counselor advised my husband and meto take him to a hospital for an evaluation, whether he wanted to go or not. I knew he would hate us for it, I even feared we’d have to call the police, but in my heart I knewwe had to do this. On our three hour drive to Ohio, I felt good about our decision. We were taking action. We were doing the right thing.
We were twelve hours too late. He had strangled himself with a scarf and duct tape.
On some level, I believe, had we gotten to him in time and forced him into a hospital, there was no guarantee that he’d stick with the program once he was released. Is that wishful thinking, a way to rationalize what happened? Like the black hill spruce, it’s a sad truth when you can’t prevent what seems inevitable. I’m glad he’s no longer in pain, and, believe me, I know how deep and encompassing it can be, but I miss him terribly. In October, he will have been gone three years. Each passing year makes his absence all the more real, and thus more painful, if that makes any sense. When you lose someone you love to suicide, your life is changed.
Yet, for every life that depression snatches away from us, countless others are saved by intervention. We have to keep talking. We have to keep trying. We have to work for more awareness, and march in rallies, as my husband and I have done. Prevention may sound unattainable to those who’ve lost a loved once, but we can’t let suicide become epidemic. We have to fight for better mental health care and insurance coverage, and reach out to others caught in the web of psychic pain. Lives depend on it.
You can follow Linda Sienkiewicz on her blog: http://lindaksienkiewicz.com/