by Christy Heitger-Ewing
If I had one wish for the world, it would be that more people would open themselves up to vulnerability. I say this because I truly believe that if we all allowed ourselves to be more authentic, the world would be a better place. Vulnerability is the key to developing and maintaining meaningful relationships, so in order to forge those bonds, we have to be real with others and also get real with ourselves.
Thousands of people suffer daily with clinical depression and struggle to get help because they don’t feel safe being real. They are paralyzed to speak up and share their true feelings for fear of being ignored or misunderstood. Perhaps they’re afraid their feelings will be ridiculed, minimized, or discarded. As a result, every day there are those who give up the fight and take their own lives because they cannot bear to endure such intense inner turmoil.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), each year more than 800,000 people die by suicide; this roughly corresponds to one death every 40 seconds (http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/suicideprevent/en/). The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) lists suicide as the tenth leading cause of death in the country (www.afsp.com). In the interest of “keeping it real,” I’ll admit that I gave little thought to the subject of suicide until it profoundly affected my life.
My mom was a happy, playful, fun-loving woman. She cared about people in such a genuine way, and she exuded a sweet innocence that drew people to her. I can’t begin to describe her infectious positive spirit, which is what made her such an outstanding wife, mother, and grandmother. Last year, however, the fierce grip of clinical depression took hold of my mom, and it drained all happiness, confidence, and joy from her soul. I know she desperately wanted to feel better, but the words wouldn’t come. Ultimately, she was so tormented that she took her own life.
In the days and weeks following Mom’s death, I had a big decision to make. Would I lie about the suicide? Would I share half-truths about her death? (Sure, her heart, lungs, and kidneys all failed her, but there was a specific reason her organs gave out.) Would I just stay quiet and keep my mangled, messed-up feelings stuffed deep inside me to fester and poison my soul?
None of those options appealed to me. So when people asked how she died, I answered them honestly. I chose this authentic approach not only because I’m a terrible liar but also because I didn’t see the point in lying to family, friends, and neighbors when I was in desperate need of care, compassion, and comfort. I figured that people who knew the truth would have a better understanding for why I was an emotional wreck for so long after Mom’s death, and quite candidly, why I would never be the same again.
I’m glad I chose this path because full disclosure has allowed family, friends, and even total strangers to be better equipped to help me heal. It also has kept some from blurting out phrases that sting such as, “It must have been her time” or “This was God’s will.”
There was another big reason I felt compelled to be forthright. I can’t stand the social stigma that is associated with mental illness and suicide. It bothers me greatly how voices hush and rooms clear at the mere mention of the “S” word.
I get that there is no good way to lose a loved one to death. But what helps mourners through the loss is being free to discuss it. And options are limited with suicide. I don’t think it’s fair that if my mother had passed away due to cancer, a heart attack, a stroke, or any other physical ailment, I could discuss it openly without fear of backlash. But because I lost my mom to suicide, I’m left to feel shameful, guilt-ridden, and afraid that I’ll be ostracized from members of my own family because I dare to speak the truth. I understand that suicide is an uncomfortable subject to broach. However, it’s vital that we do discuss it given its prevalence here in the United States and around the world.
Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead says, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” I like the sound of that. “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it,” says Brown. “Only when we are brave enough to explore darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
Early in my grief journey, I struggled to breathe, to move, to focus, and to function. In an effort to find my footing, I gravitated toward the AFSP and registered for June 14’s Annual Out of Darkness Walk that will be held in Seattle. It’s an event in which survivors of suicide gather to walk 18 miles throughout the course of one night to elevate awareness about clinical depression and suicide prevention. The walk sounds like a wonderful way to both foster support and also to witness, firsthand, noticeable healing despite unimaginable loss.
Again, cards on the table: I wish I wasn’t in the position to be an advocate for suicide prevention. Instead, I wish my mom, with her sweet voice, kind smile, and open arms, was here for me to love, hug, and treasure. But since I am here and she is not, I will crusade for those who are struggling. I will do my best to instill hope in others. And I will walk throughout the night with others who are hurting because I wholeheartedly believe that vulnerability brings insight, healing, strength, and peace.
“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen,” says Brown. So that’s what I’m going to do on June 14 and in the days, weeks, months, and years to come. I’ll show up. I’ll speak up. And I’ll open up my heart because that’s how my amazing mom taught me to live.
To learn more about the AFSP and the Out of Darkness Walks, visit www.afsp.org.
Note: This article was first published on the Huffington Post on June 4, 2014.