From the outside, everything looked perfect for the family. The 32-year-old husband and his 28-year-old wife had three beautiful little girls. They had a nice house in an affluent suburb of Mobile, Ala. He was a well-paid management employee at a manufacturing plant. They seemed to have everything.
And then everything changed about a week ago.
Early one morning, he took his two older daughters — 7 years old and 4 years old — to a dental appointment and then took them to school. He came home, where his wife was taking care of the 8-month-old.
He got something to drink. He ate something. He told his wife he loved her. And then he left the room.
Moments later, his wife heard a gunshot. She ran to a bedroom and discovered her dead husband. He had gone into a closet and shot himself.
I heard this story Monday afternoon from a distraught man who I ran into as I waited for something at a hardware store. When he came in, he told a clerk his business, but he seemed somber.
The clerk obviously knew him and asked how his daughters were doing. One of his adult daughters was fine, he said, but the other was having a rough time.
And then he told us the story. It hurt him to talk about it, but it seemed as though he needed to talk, too.
The man doesn’t know why his son-in-law killed himself. He just knows that the younger man had been struggling with depression. It’s not clear whether it was situational depression or something more fundamental. At a birthday party for the 4-year-old daughter just days before the suicide, the man had been “out of it,” as though he had lost his interest in living.
The man’s story took me back to a period about six or seven years ago when someone I used to know was struggling with depression and threatening suicide. For more than a year, I was her long-distance support. It was a complicated relationship with someone I once loved.
There were many nights when we talked for hours. She would call because she wanted to die and I was the only one she talked with about it. Sometimes she even know what she was planning to do. But we would talk for hours — until the demons were held at bay enough for her conscious mind to take control once again.
I tried to understand what she was feeling and why she wanted to die. It wasn’t just a matter of feeling she had nothing to live for. She was in immense pain that she couldn’t explain. She just wanted the pain to stop — and she believed death was the only thing that would give her permanent relief.
I once wrote about the last time she and I ever talked. She had gone to a bridge where she planned to kill herself, but she started worrying about how I would take her death. She started texting me and we eventually talked on the phone for most of the night.
We haven’t spoken since that night six years ago, but she’s still alive and well. I hope she’s happier.
There was a time when I would have called suicide a very selfish thing. From the outside — with no understanding of what the inner pain does — I can see how others would still think that.
The man who killed himself last week left a 28-year-old wife with three tiny young girls who now have no father. I don’t believe I could ever do that, but I’ve come to understand that psychological issues can be severe enough that a person loses control of his or her rational decision-making.
As much as the pain of suicide hurts those left behind, it’s ultimately no more selfish than the same person who dies of a physical ailment. Nobody has control of whether he’s struck by cancer or some other fatal disease — and nobody has any control of whether he’s going to come under the control of a monstrous depression that causes so much inner pain that death seems like the only way out.
A lot of people suffer terribly from serious depression, but not enough people take it seriously. On the outside, nothing appears wrong. But on the inside, everything is wrong. It only makes matters worse when unthinking people say, “Well, there’s nothing really wrong with you, is there?”
It seems to me that humans have a built-in suicide switch of some sort. Most people never see that, because they have enough reasons to live that the switch remains hidden. But when people lose their reasons for living — and when there’s enough pain inside — it seems that it’s very easy for us to become self-destructive.
We don’t need to shame those who kill themselves or those who suffer from depression. We need to love them and try to understand them and hold onto them tightly. They might not always appreciate the love when they’re going through the valley of suicidal thoughts, but my experience is that they eventually appreciate that someone is trying to save them.
I have no solutions and I don’t pretend to be an expert. I just know that we humans are prone to self-destruction that we never see coming until it’s too late.
I hate it for those who suffer. I hate it for those who lose the battle. And I really hate it for the people who are left behind in pain when they leave.