Sitting at our family’s fourth generation dining room table, my brother and I talked.
More like I talked. I thought he listened.
My grandmother gave me the table for my first real house, the one I shared with my first husband. My marriage ended and I moved home to live in my parents’ basement. So when my brother and I moved in together, it was a step to independence for both of us and the table came along too. We shared dinners at that dining room table—at holidays as kids and 30 years later as roommates. We lived together for about six months.
In summer 2011, he started drinking again.
Months before this conversation at the table where we had with a giant bowl of popcorn between us, my family and I had asked him to move out of the house my son and I were sharing with him. I told him I couldn’t live with him while he was drinking. Honestly, even while sober, living with him sucked the air out of the house and drained me.
I recommended he get a hobby. Suggested he could keep an old motorcycle to tinker on in my backyard. He loved engines and figuring things out and getting greasy. More than anything he loved helping others. Suggestion after suggestion, I never stopped and opened space for him to tell me how he felt and why.
I fought my urge to send him job offerings, invite him to stay for a night, cook him a meal, tell him I could make it better. Not that I never did those things, but I started to realize it was hurting me and not helping him. I didn’t want to lose myself in him, in his problems.
And, I didn’t.
I lost him.
Another thing I didn’t do was look into the best way to talk to someone with depression and suicidal thoughts. Now, over five years after his death and having spent time in the field of mental health through my work at Family Service, I have a better understanding of his life-long depression. Of how differently the world looked to him than it does to me. Of how impossible it was for him to look at the bright side. And, of how what he needed more than anything was for someone to stop offering advice and just listen, just be with him.
At the time of our dining room conversation, he had attempted suicide once—when a friend found him and rushed him to the hospital where he lay in a serotonin induced coma for three days. He overdosed on his own prescription depression medication.
About six months after that, he checked himself into the hospital because he was thinking about suicide again. That was two months before he ultimately took his own life in March 2012.
I thought I could relate to my brother’s situation. Apart from picking up the pieces for him, I thought the least I could do was empathize and share what worked for me.
My failed marriage brought a lot of pain and loss, and landed me in bankruptcy with a foreclosed home. I remember the fear of the creditors’ calls. I remember hating the mailbox and avoiding the look in others’ eyes. I remember blaming myself. I thought by sharing these things, I could give him hope. I wanted to give him my hope. He never found it.
He found more misery, more pain than I can imagine. He feared more than creditors and the impressions of others. He feared failure. He feared himself.
I used to say he had to find a way to be happy with himself and to find something to wake up for everyday. That must have scared him more than anything.
Being empathetic is on the best practices list of how to talk to someone who might consider suicide. So is saying something like “"When you want to give up, tell yourself you will hold off for just one more day, hour, minute—whatever you can manage."
Offering advice is a surefire way to shut down communication and entangle your own sense of values and worth in another’s struggle.
In recognition of Suicide Awareness Month, I want to share my experience trying to communicate with my brother. I’m hoping someone can find direction for a conversation they need to have with a friend or loved one.
The bottom line for me, in retrospect, is first and foremost don’t stay silent. Start the conversation and make yourself available. Best case scenario, if the person starts talking, then that’s the time to go quiet and listen with no judgement.
According to Metanoia.org, when talking to a suicidal person
Be yourself. Let the person know you care, that he/she is not alone. The right words are often unimportant. If you are concerned, your voice and manner will show it.
Listen. Let the suicidal person unload despair, ventilate anger. No matter how negative the conversation seems, the fact that it exists is a positive sign.
Be empathetic, non-judgmental, patient, calm, accepting. Your friend or family member is doing the right thing by talking about his/her feelings.
Offer hope. Reassure the person that help is available and that the suicidal feelings are temporary. Let the person know that his or her life is important to you.
Take the person seriously. If the person says things like, “I’m so depressed, I can’t go on,” ask the question: “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” You are not putting ideas in their head, you are showing that you are concerned, that you take them seriously, and that it’s OK for them to share their pain with you.
Argue with the suicidal person. Avoid saying things like: "You have so much to live for," "Your suicide will hurt your family," or “Look on the bright side.”
Act shocked, lecture on the value of life, or say that suicide is wrong.
Promise confidentiality. Refuse to be sworn to secrecy. A life is at stake and you may need to speak to a mental health professional in order to keep the suicidal person safe. If you promise to keep your discussions secret, you may have to break your word.
Offer ways to fix their problems, or give advice, or make them feel like they have to justify their suicidal feelings. It is not about how bad the problem is, but how badly it’s hurting your friend or loved one.
Blame yourself. You can’t “fix” someone’s depression. Your loved one’s happiness or lack thereof, is not your responsibility.
On the last day of my brother’s life, I didn’t see him or speak to him.
Perhaps he thought he knew what I would say—be positive, David, things will get better if you just believe in you.
Perhaps he had read my body language and unspoken inferences too many times—you’re not welcome here, David, you have too many problems and you’re bringing me down.
Perhaps he just couldn’t look me in the face because he knew how much I loved him.
He used the key I never asked him to return, and picked up the mail I never asked him to stop having delivered. He took his life that day, and though I know there is nothing I could do or say to change his actions, I am glad that there were boundaries I didn’t set, that there were places he could come into my life. I kept myself in, without completely shutting him out.
So, I will continue to remember him sitting at that table—the eccentric teenager in a chilly West Virginia dining room over butter rolls and honey ham, or the grave man years later sharing popcorn and misery.