Nothing could have prepared me for the day I was told my husband completed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train.
Through the shock of it all, I knew that my husband Bill had exhibited warning signs in the months—even years—preceding his suicide.
He was reckless and volatile; he abused substances and spoke frequently of death and dying. These, I’ve come to learn, were textbook warning signs for suicide. In the aftermath of his death, I’ve made it my personal mission to educate adults and teens on the risk factors and warning signs for suicide.
But here’s the thing. Suicide doesn’t always happen like the textbooks say. Sometimes the act comes from seemingly out of the blue, without warning or signal. When this happens, this incomprehensible act becomes even more perplexing.
Today, about 123 people will complete suicide in the United States (according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention). Their families will be left to “solve” the puzzle of their loved one’s death. Some will find answers; most probably won’t.
Although it’s easy—even normal—to overlook the warning signs for suicide (as I did with my husband), facing the fact that it could happen in the void of warning signs can be a terrifying idea. Why some people complete suicide without warning can be inexplicable, or could be due to a number of factors.
It’s possible for a person to overcompensate for inner turmoil with a (very convincing) façade of happiness and success. To this person, the appearance of happiness outweighs the shame that might be associated with admitting to or exhibiting weakness, addiction, mental health issues, or countless other possible issues.
Some complete suicide without warning for the very reason their life appears to be “perfect.” Perfectionism can be the force that drives someone to complete suicide. While “perfectionism” in the everyday sense is not usually problematic, for some, it can be completely crippling. These are the perfectionists who can’t deal with failure. They’re inflexible due to other, deep-seated issues. When failure occurs, or the anxiety and stress associated with being “perfect” gets to be too overwhelming, suicide might feel like a viable option.
It’s also possible for suicide to be a completely impulsive act.
A New York Times article describes a 27-year-old man who, as a recent graduate with dual degrees was set to marry his fiancé in a few weeks. Within the span of few hours, he purchased a gun and shot himself—without any warning to his family or fiancé. Unfortunately, impulsive suicide is a very real phenomenon.
According to the Alliance of Hope, males and adolescents are much more likely to complete an impulsive suicide—a suicide without prior thought or planning. Those suffering from mental illness are also much more likely to complete suicide impulsively.
As discouraging as this sounds, we are not helpless. Yes, it’s impossible to control a loved one’s thoughts and actions. But we still have the capability to watch, listen, and act. In my book, R U OK? Teen Depression and Suicide, I encourage readers to ask the question, “R U OK?” to friends and peers in order to open a dialogue of trust that could ultimately save a life. Recognizing warning signs for suicide is vital, but in the absence of signs, we only have love. Creating trusting relationships with our children, spouses, peers, and other loved ones is the only chance we have to prevent the unthinkable.
Processing the Grief
As a grief counselor, and as someone who has lived through a loved one’s suicide, I understand the need to understand the “why” behind death. This is particularly true with suicide, as the act itself is incomprehensible to so many of us.
Why did he do it? How long had she been planning it? What could I have done to change the outcome? When suicide happens without warning signs, these questions likely become unanswerable.
Focusing on the “whys” of suicide is not only a lesson in futility, it can also be psychologically damaging to those experiencing the grief. During my grief counseling sessions, I urge my clients instead to focus on the “hows.” How can I honor his life? How can I keep her memory alive? How would he want me to feel right now? How can I help others who might be in the same situation? The “hows” facilitate productive, positive action, while the “whys” breed frustration, anger, and depression.
For the unimaginable, answers are often impossible. But what’s not impossible is our ability to learn, heal, and grow—whether we’re processing grief or considering suicide ourselves.
There is always help, there is always love, and there’s always time to start over.
Author: Kristi Hugstad
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy & Social Editor: Nicole Cameron