If you’re suicidal, here is some perspective from a funeral director:
In the nearly 15 years I’ve been working in the funeral business, I’ve seen around 60 plus suicide victims. I’ve seen the hangings. I’ve seen the intentional ODs. The suicide cocktails. I’ve seen the carbon monoxide deal. I’ve seen the shotgun to the head (and, seriously, guys, don’t do it this way … no funeral director wants to show a shotgun face to your mother). There have been some creative ones as well, like slamming the car into tractor trailers (another bad idea), or listening to Nickelback for 48 hours on end (I kid).
Somewhat unlike police, coroners, or anyone else involved in the forensic side of death by suicide, funeral directors usually hear the personal story behind the suicide. Many times the family is still piecing together the puzzle of “why”, but they involve us in the puzzle. They tell us about the deceased’s life, what was going on, the hardships, the possible reasons. We’re in a unique position in that we not only see the physical result of the suicide, but we also hear the personal side as well.
The majority of suicides (I’d estimate 70% of the ones I’ve seen) are some type of “break-up suicide” (this can involve a romantic breakup that’s either your fault or your partner’s fault; a break-up having to do with a job [the firing kind]; or a sudden break-up of your identity).
Approximately 20% are from the exhaustive battle with mental illness.
The remaining 10% are those who are suffering from a physical illness and don’t want to continue with their pain (that 10 % is a demographic that I’ve addressed before … suffice it to say, if you’re terminal and you don’t want to prolong the inevitable, you should have the legal right to do so).
Most (certainly not all) break-up suicides are men … usually young men.
Let me speak to the men for a minute before I move on. Men struggle to cry at funerals. I’ve seen men get angry, but cry? Sometimes. And if they do, they try to hide it like something’s wrong with it. We’ve been taught that it’s not masculine to express our feelings unless those feelings are anger (and then it’s somehow okay). When we feel grief, or rejection, or worthlessness, depression, or real guilt we have absolutely little idea how to deal with it. I’m sorry that we live in a culture of toxic masculinity. But we do. And these emotions — as strong as they are now, and as impossible as they are right now — are apart of you as a human being, and they’re okay. Because as a human being, you’re capable of crying, of feeling worthless, of rejection, depression, and asking forgiveness, and coming out on the other side with your identity intact. If you’re feeling these things, you’re not “less of a man.” Because even though you may feel emasculated, your identity is NOT based on your penis, it’s based on your humanity.
Okay, let’s switch back to chatting with everyone thinking about “break-up suicide” (because this is a human problem, not just a man problem):
These are usually the messy ones. The one’s funeral directors hate from a technical basis. The shot-gun to the head kind. Often while drunk. Because for most of the “break-up suicides” your mind is feeling utterly overwhelmed and the emotions are so strong, so difficult that you don’t always think. You feel trapped. You feel like there’s no moving forward. No tomorrow. Because you feel like that one thing your identity was tied to … that thing that meant so much to you has either cheated on you, rejected you, or shit on you or vice versa.
I want to remind you of this: your life doesn’t exist in the vacuum of your relationship with your partner, or your work, or your perceived identity. There are options and there are other people who love you!!!
Even if you don’t see their love or feel it at this moment. YOU ARE LOVED. AND, if you really don’t think anyone loves you, I do. So there. But, you can’t come and live at my house unless you provide ample supplies of pizza and tacos.
You know all this. You know people love you. It’s probably the only thing that’s keeping you alive. It might be the reason you’ve stumbled upon this article about suicide written by a funeral director.
I’m not trying to add guilt, but let me recount my experience with those that are left behind:
I’ve held back a mother’s hair as she wept over the body of her son. I’ve grabbed a mother under her arms to keep her from falling. I’ve seen the blank stares of utter disbelief from children. I’ve watched a spouse crumble to his knees.
I’ve heard the cries:
“Why couldn’t I heal my baby’s heart?”
“Didn’t he know how much I loved him?”
“Why didn’t he just talk to me?”
“I’m so sorry … I didn’t know I hurt you this much!”
“I forgive you … it wasn’t this bad … it was never this bad!”
“Can I still call myself a ‘mother’?”
“If only it could be me instead.”
“What happened to daddy?”
“Get up, mommy. Get up.”
You get it. It hurts your parents, it hurts your kids, it hurts your partner. It even hurts your animals (do you have a plan for where your animal will go once it loses you?).
There’s a saying that goes something like this: “Suicide doesn’t end the pain, it just passes it on to someone else.” The saying isn’t entirely true (it’s unfair in some respects), but it certainly can be true.
Here’s what I’d say to you: IF YOU’VE JUST GONE THROUGH AN INTENSE BREAK-UP OF ANY KIND, AND YOU’RE THINKING ABOUT SUICIDE … TALK TO SOMEONE!!! Out of all the cries I’ve heard over “break-up suicides”, that’s the one I’ve heard the most: WHY DIDN’T HE/SHE JUST TALK TO ME? Talk to someone. They might be busy. Hell, they might be sleeping. But they’d rather talk to you now than weep over your body at my funeral home.
DEATH BY MENTAL ILLNESS
The second largest “suicide group” that I’ve dealt with at the funeral home are those who have experienced death by mental illness. I’m not a clinical psychologist, a clinical social worker, or a licensed professional counselor. I’m going to share my experiences with the families of those who have died from mental illness.
I have seen a couple of families who knew that their loved one’s mental illness was almost a terminal illness. They cast no shame towards their loved one. There was no condemnation. In fact, some of these families talk about how brave their loved one was. How she fought her mental illness for year and years and overcame so many obstacles. How she fought for them, for love. The suicide wasn’t a failure. She just recognized that enough is enough. And there was a degree of peace, knowing the fight was over.
You’re not giving up, you’ve probably just had enough.
You’re not stupid.
You’ve tried, and tried, and tried … more than is humanly possible. You have done your absolute best. You’ve fought as hard as you could for your loved ones.
You’re not selfish for wanting to end your pain.
You’re not a failure. You don’t call a kangaroo a failure if it can’t jump to the moon. If your pain is unstoppable, you’re not a failure for feeling it or responding to it.
Nobody grows up and has hopes and dreams of ending their life. We all want to live. We all want something wonderful in life: love, trust, friendship, commitment, dreams, hopes, pizza, tacos.
This isn’t something you want. It’s the lesser of two evils. Stopping your pain is better than letting it continue.
From the experiences I’ve had, there are two things that I think about you: you’re incredibly brave and incredibly selfless.
Can I offer some hope without shame? I’ve noticed something else about death by mental illness (which is a phrase I like better than the word “suicide”), most of these deaths tend to be in their mid-thirties to mid-fifties. Here’s my thought from that observation: there are some people who have made it through. Not because they were stronger, or more selfless. Not because “it got easier”. And maybe not because their lives got better (but I hope their lives did get better). Maybe they made it through that 20 plus years of mental illness hell because they found better companions for their journey. I don’t know. Really, I don’t. All I know is that I have no recollection of someone who died from mental illness in their sixties, seventies or eighties. And I’m hoping that the explanation for my observation is because it gets somewhat better.
HERE’S THE MAIN THING: No matter what your choice, do yourself a favor and find someone, anyone who listens and can hear you. You deserve to be heard. Your story needs to be told. Whether it’s a shrink or a random friend from decades ago that’s just a damn good listener. Tell your story before you go. Because I’ve heard those stories from your family and friends who shared about your fight. I need your story. You are the beauty of humanity.
If you like my writing, consider buying my 2017 Nautilus Book Award Gold Winner, Confession of a Funeral Director (click the image to go to the Amazon page):
***I didn’t write this. And after some research to find out WHO did write it, I was led here — a Reddit Suicide Prevention Megathread – although the author’s name isn’t cited. If you know who wrote it, let me know because I’d love to credit them.***
When you have depression it’s like it snows every day.
Some days it’s only a couple of inches. It’s a pain in the ass, but you still make it to work, the grocery store. Sure, maybe you skip the gym or your friend’s birthday party, but it IS still snowing and who knows how bad it might get tonight. Probably better to just head home. Your friend notices, but probably just thinks you are flaky now, or kind of an asshole.
Some days it snows a foot. You spend an hour shoveling out your driveway and are late to work. Your back and hands hurt from shoveling. You leave early because it’s really coming down out there. Your boss notices.
Some days it snows four feet. You shovel all morning but your street never gets plowed. You are not making it to work, or anywhere else for that matter. You are so sore and tired you just get back in bed. By the time you wake up, all your shoveling has filled back in with snow. Looks like your phone rang; people are wondering where you are. You don’t feel like calling them back, too tired from all the shoveling. Plus they don’t get this much snow at their house so they don’t understand why you’re still stuck at home. They just think you’re lazy or weak, although they rarely come out and say it.
Some weeks it’s a full-blown blizzard. When you open your door, it’s to a wall of snow. The power flickers, then goes out. It’s too cold to sit in the living room anymore, so you get back into bed with all your clothes on. The stove and microwave won’t work so you eat a cold Pop Tart and call that dinner. You haven’t taken a shower in three days, but how could you at this point? You’re too cold to do anything except sleep.
Sometimes people get snowed in for the winter. The cold seeps in. No communication in or out. The food runs out. What can you even do, tunnel out of a forty foot snow bank with your hands? How far away is help? Can you even get there in a blizzard? If you do, can they even help you at this point? Maybe it’s death to stay here, but it’s death to go out there too.
The thing is, when it snows all the time, you get worn all the way down. You get tired of being cold. You get tired of hurting all the time from shoveling, but if you don’t shovel on the light days, it builds up to something unmanageable on the heavy days. You resent the hell out of the snow, but it doesn’t care, it’s just a blind chemistry, an act of nature. It carries on regardless, unconcerned and unaware if it buries you or the whole world.
Also, the snow builds up in other areas, places you can’t shovel, sometimes places you can’t even see. Maybe it’s on the roof. Maybe it’s on the mountain behind the house. Sometimes, there’s an avalanche that blows the house right off its foundation and takes you with it. A veritable Act of God, nothing can be done. The neighbors say it’s a shame and they can’t understand it; he was doing so well with his shoveling.
I don’t know how it went down for Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade. It seems like they got hit by the avalanche, but it could’ve been the long, slow winter. Maybe they were keeping up with their shoveling. Maybe they weren’t. Sometimes, shoveling isn’t enough anyway. It’s hard to tell from the outside, but it’s important to understand what it’s like from the inside.
I firmly believe that understanding and compassion have to be the base of effective action. It’s important to understand what depression is, how it feels, what it’s like to live with it, so you can help people both on an individual basis and a policy basis. I’m not putting heavy shit out here to make your Friday morning suck. I know it feels gross to read it, and realistically it can be unpleasant to be around it, that’s why people pull away.
I don’t have a message for people with depression like “keep shoveling.” It’s asinine. Of course you’re going to keep shoveling the best you can, until you physically can’t, because who wants to freeze to death inside their own house? We know what the stakes are. My message is to everyone else. Grab a fucking shovel and help your neighbor. Slap a mini snow plow on the front of your truck and plow your neighborhood. Petition the city council to buy more salt trucks, so to speak.
Depression is blind chemistry and physics, like snow. And like the weather, it is a mindless process, powerful and unpredictable with great potential for harm. But like climate change, that doesn’t mean we are helpless. If we want to stop losing so many people to this disease, it will require action at every level.
Edit: Feel free to share this with anyone or anywhere you think it might help. We aren’t alone. Even when there’s warm bodies around when we are cold we still shiver. Offer a blanket.
We had a funeral last week for an elderly man who died under hospice care. The family requested that the hospice’s chaplain, Chaplain Gerry, make a visit to their dying loved one. Gerry stopped around a couple times and made such a positive impression on the now deceased and the family that they asked him to conduct the funeral service.
After the service was done, the chaplain rode me with me in the lead car in the funeral procession, which led to some pretty serious conversations about his job on our way to the cemetery for the interment service.
Hospice chaplains have a unique combination of training in both spirituality and bereavement care, a necessary combination to be sure. I graduated from seminary and I know too well that seminary training severely lacks in bereavement training. Seminary students come out of school with their heads filled to the brim with so much God knowledge that they are nearly incapable of sitting in the human silence of death.
But not hospice chaplains. These women and men know how to tame their seminary training, they know how to sit in silence, listen and their view of God is rarely one that leads to such horrible sayings as, “It was God’s will” or “God never makes mistakes.”
I was talking to the chaplain about bad platitudes people use around death and he quickly got very mad as he recalled something from very early on in his career.
“Caleb,” he said. “I remember the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”
“At the time, I was a new chaplain at Caln Hospital and I was also a new pastor of a small, local church. A lot going on all at once. Which is often what happens when you’re fresh out of seminary as a new pastor.”
“I got a phone call late one night and it was a member of our church calling me. She was just hysterical.”
“I was trying to get her to calm down so I could understand what she was saying. And finally, she caught her breath and she told me her son had just shot himself in the attic. He shot himself in the head. Dead.”
He continued, “I’d seen a number of suicides and suicide attempts at Caln Hospital, but I knew this boy.”
“About 10 minutes before the service started, the boy’s mother came to me crying. She said, ‘Gerry, I’ve been doing so good during the viewing and visitation’. Gerry specified that it was a huge viewing, full of “on-lookers” as he called them. “But,” she said, “someone just came up to me and told me that she’ll be praying for me because she can’t imagine what it must feel like to know he not only killed himself but now he’s in hell.”
“Is that true?” she pleaded with Gerry. “Is my boy really in hell?”
Gerry stopped telling the story momentarily to let it all sink in. “I gave her a huge hug, and I told her as confidently as I could, ‘He’s not in hell.’ But I was so pissed.”
I started to get angry too. So angry that I momentarily lost perspective as to what I was doing. When I get in these intense conversations with pastors while driving the lead car, sometimes I forget that I’m leading a line of 30 plus cars through the winding farm roads of Chester County. My anger translated to a heavy foot and before I knew it I had to slow down to let the hearse catch up.
I chimed in wanting to share my two cents. I have personally experienced suicidal ideation. And I knew that suicide usually happens when our pain trumps our hope. It happens when we feel like we’re causing more harm in the world than good. I suppose that there are some people who selfishly use suicide as vengeance, but for most people, it’s about pain. It’s about having one’s mind so clouded by pain, or sickness or mental illness that we feel like the best we can give the world is our absence from it.
Surely, I told Gerry, hell is the last place a loving God would send such a hurting person.
“The worst part is,” Gerry concluded, “is that all these years laters, that mother still calls me, asking me for reassurance. To this day, she can’t shake those words.”
Pulling the skull pieces from the wall
The brain matter spread over it all.
You didn’t intend it but your last grace
Is that at least you didn’t destroy your face.
Maybe those you left behind will view
The pieces I put back together of you
But that wholeness, security you broke
Have burned and scattered in the smoke
Of that gun you put between your jaws
When you blew that hole through the laws
Of life. A life you rendered as a tithe
To the world’s darkness and Death’s scythe.
I look at your head, disfigured and displaced
And I can’t know the darkness you faced.
Perhaps the disfigurement is your artistry
Opening up to us the inside we couldn’t see.
“I see it! I see it!!! I SEE IT!!!” I yell
As I look upon the art of your hell
Behold your magnum opus is your final scene
But I will work to ruin it and make you clean
Of the blood, the cracked skull and pin
Together your broken, frayed, discolored skin
I will restore and embalm your broken head
While we all wish you back from the dead.
Today’s guest post is written by Bridget Groh:
May 23, 2012.
I will never forget that day as long as I live. I can remember how the air smelled as I walked into my childhood home for the last time believing my mom was alive, I know exactly what I was wearing, what I did with my children that morning. That is probably the most defining moment in most of my family’s’ lives. For years leading up to that day, my immediate family had been a mash of turmoil. The woman who had been our pillar for my whole life came out of brain surgery for a bleed in her right frontal lobe in 2002 as an entirely different person.
Gone was my loving and doting mother, the kind and sensitive spirited woman who my father had married in 1980, the R.N. with a Master’s Degree who opened a brand new hospital as nursing manager. This accomplished woman slowly through ten years’ time became a shell of who she was and eventually morphed into a new person.
Watching someone you love struggle with mental illness is heart-wrenching. My best description of this is like “watching a storm at sea…it whirls and whips and flies….it can see the shore, but it cannot come in…it wants to go further away into the ocean and do less damage , but its tentacles keep it in position…just beyond grasp.” My mother whirled for 10 years. Each time she attempted suicide our family would all race to the hospital just as her stomach was pumped and the respirator was placed or the priest pronounced last rites…for the 5th time. My poor Catholic God-fearing mother who advocated for the medical community, for her whole life could not be “fixed.”
That is not to say we did not try. We tried like HELL! My father spent tens of thousands of dollars on rehabs: rehabs for alcohol abuse combined with brain injury, rehabs just for alcohol abuse, rehabs just for brain injury, and rehabs for mental illness. They all worked… for a little while. However, we as people do not have the tools to combat someone who is so smart they can talk their way out of psych wards due to heightened medical knowledge.
Someone who commits suicide does not see a way out. The best analogy I have heard regarding this is similar to describing someone in a skyscraper trapped in a burning building that jumps. I believe my mom saw no way out and she “jumped.” She knew things were not getting any better. Her behavior was all encompassing of my life, my father, my husband, her sisters…. I believe in my heart she thought there was no way out for her. I don’t know ,even today, if there was. I wish she were here so we could have tried.
Her last two weeks on Earth, she had just “cycled” into a good period. My sister and I plus my husband and kids spent a fabulous mother’s day with her at brunch. I am so grateful for that day and those memories. I consciously told myself to take pictures that day, I knew the end was coming…but I couldn’t bring myself to do so, I really did not want to believe she would not beat her demons. I wanted to take pictures in July at my son’s first birthday, and Halloween and Christmas….
So May 22, no one could reach my mom after 9pm. We now believe she committed suicide sometime in the night. It was cold and dark. She hated both things. The amount of self-hatred she had still overwhelms me. I took my children to the doctor the next morning. I went to lunch and had a good time with my girlfriend and her kids. On the way home, I knew someone needed to check her. I called my dad who I picked up (he had moved out by this point), he jumped in my car and I told him to just drop me and as soon as I found her, he could come back.
The house was locked up tight. I had to get in through the basement garage.
Inside, silence awaited me. I knew something was very wrong.
I checked her bed which was empty.
The living room had her diet coke on the coffee table with the TV on.
The dogs were out of food and water, which on her worst day was unlike her.
I went out to the back deck and found her…floating upside in my childhood family pool. After screaming and calling 911, everything becomes a blur. The operator tried to coax me to get her out of the pool, I knew there was nothing I could do at that point. No one who is living even a little bit floats like that. That is one image I will never, ever un-see. Obviously, anyone in the funeral profession knows that state police came and investigated and the medical examiner was called in. Her official autopsy report ruled her death as suicide by drowning.
We went through the motions and planned a funeral. I suppose I must have been there, I don’t really remember much. I read her eulogy. We had a gathering after with an Irish band playing. She would have loved it.
Through my whole life while my mom was living, I struggled to find my place in life. I went from degree to degree changing from nursing to teaching secondary education and finally to accounting, which is the field where I worked when she died. My mom was cremated, we did not bury her for six months after her death. At her cremains burial, I was chatting with the funeral director who was looking for someone to help balance his checkbook. I offered to help. That was two and half years ago. I’ll be done my degree in mortuary science in May and sit for my board in June. I like to look at the change in careers as my mother’s final gift. I know that I can help families during their times of heartache and sorrow because I can literally relate. I know the importance of having someone guide you and be supportive.
Since my mom’s death, our family has also banned together to create a non-profit organization “Brake the Silence” which is aimed to break the stigma of mental illness and prevent suicide. I will not let my mother‘s death be in vain. In life, she helped others. She will help others in death. Through her story, awareness is brought out.
It is easy to ignore mental illness; it is not as in your face as many other illnesses. Addiction is also easily ignored. But when you hear of the staggering numbers of suicides as direct results of both of these, you have to stop and think. Are we doing enough?
My mom’s legacy lives on through her girls and her grandsons. I don’t harbor any anger towards her. I just miss her.
And, as a final note, and her favorite song by Led Zeppelin says:
And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll.
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.
About the author: I, Bridget, am 31, married, with four little boys (10, 8, 5, & 3). I’ve lived in Central MA my whole life. I have a Bachelors Degree in history. I really thought I was going to teach high school. I am currently employed at a funeral home. I’ve been here for a little over two years. I am also in school through distance learning at the Commonwealth Institute of Funeral Service in Houston, Texas and I will be done in May! YAY! I love my job so far and I cannot wait to be fully licensed in June.