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5 Things Suicide Loss Survivors Should Know — from Someone Who’s Attempted by Sam Dylan Finch on March 8, 2019

5 Things Suicide Loss Survivors Should Know — from Someone Who’s Attempted

by Sam Dylan Finch on March 8, 2019

How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.

It was a late January afternoon in 2018, just two days after I had major surgery. Drifting in and out of a painkiller haze, I leaned over to check my phone. There on the screen, I saw a text message from my best friend’s mom: “Call 911.”

That marked the beginning of my endless free fall through grief. That night, my gorgeous friend, whose laughter could light up the darkest room, died in a hospital bed after attempting to take their own life.

A shock wave went through our entire community. And as loved ones struggled to understand what had happened, everyone around me kept asking the question: How could something like this happen?

That was a question I didn’t need to ask, though. Because nearly a decade ago, I, too, had attempted suicide.

But my experience on “both sides” became a blessing in disguise. When my loved ones asked me how a suicide attempt could happen, I was able to answer. And as I fielded their questions, I saw something beautiful happen: We both could heal and empathize with our friend just a little bit more.

While I can’t speak for every person who has struggled with suicidal thoughts, I’ve spoken to enough survivors to know there are commonalities in how we’ve felt about the experience.

I want to share what those commonalities are in the hopes that if you’ve survived a loss like this, you might be able to find some comfort in hearing from someone who’s been there.

I’d like to think that, if your loved one could reach you now, these are some of the things they would want you to know.

1. Suicide is more complex than a ‘decision’

People who attempt suicide aren’t always convinced it’s the only option. It’s more often that they have exhausted their emotional reserves to continue pursuing those options. It is, in many ways, the ultimate state of burnout.

That state of burnout doesn’t happen overnight, either.

In order to attempt suicide, a person has to be in the neurological state where they can override their own survival instincts. At that point, it’s an acute state — not totally unlike a heart attack or other medical crisis.

A person has to have reached a point when they feel their capacity for emotional pain has outweighed the amount of time they’re able to wait for relief, at the same moment when they have access to the means to end their life.

The thing I often tell loss survivors is that a suicide attempt isn’t unlike a “freak accident” — because a lot of little things have to align (in a really terrible way, yes) for suicide to happen.

The very fact that someone can progress that far is a much stronger reflection of the state of mental health in our country.

We didn’t fail, and neither did you. The system failed us all.

Our system almost always requires long periods of waiting (bringing people much closer to that acute state) and stigmatizes care that leads people holding out until the very last minute to get help, if ever, at a time when they really can’t afford to wait.

In other words? The time when someone in crisis has to expend the most energy in order to keep themselves alive — to ignore the intrusive thoughts, the impulses, and the outright despair — is often the time when they have the very least energy available to do so.

Which is all to say, suicide is a tragic outcome of extraordinary circumstances that, in reality, few of us have a lot of control over.

2. We’re often very, very conflicted

A lot of loss survivors look at their loved one’s suicide and ask me, “What if they didn’t want this?”

But it’s rarely that simple. It’s much more likely that they were conflicted, which is why being suicidal is such a confusing state to be in.

Imagine a scale being tipped back and forth until one side is finally outweighed by the other — a trigger, a moment of impulsivity, a window of opportunity that disrupts the precarious balance that allowed us to survive.

That back-and-forth is exhausting, and it muddles our judgment.

This quote helps capture this inner conflict: “We are not our thoughts — we’re the people listening to them.” Suicidal thoughts, once they snowball, can become an avalanche that drowns out the part of us that would otherwise choose differently.

It’s not that we aren’t conflicted, so much as the suicidal thoughts are so incredibly loud.

This is also why some of us (often unconsciously) sabotage our own attempts. We might choose a time or place when it’s possible that we’ll be discovered. We might drop hints about our mental state that are nearly undetectable to others. We might choose a method that isn’t reliable.

Even for those who meticulously planned and appeared very committed to killing themselves, they are — in a way — sabotaging themselves. The longer we take to plan, the more we leave open the possibility of an intervention or slipup.

We desperately want peace and ease, which is really the only thing we are sure of. A suicide attempt doesn’t reflect how we felt about our life, our potential, or about you — at least, not as much as it reflects our state of mind in the moment when we attempted.


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