When Milestones Are Overshadowed by Other Realities

On 2 February 2015 I published my first blog post, ‘Understanding Suicide.’ It took two short paragraphs to reveal the tragic loss of my son to suicide in 2011. I expressed the hope that in writing about it I might arrive at a better understanding of the factors that cause people to contemplate ending their life and how those left behind get on with living.

Writing about suicide can never be described as cathartic. There is no purging the pain of loss and the burden of responsibility to remember never goes away. 

Writing does make room for working things out and, as such, is a necessary discipline. The words on the page represent a conscious attempt to find meaning. There are moments of ‘seeing’ but more often it is intense struggle.

As writer Anne Lamott says,

“Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavour, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.”

Anne Lamott

28 May 2020 marks an important milestone, the occasion of my 200th blog post. It represents many hours of reading and reflecting and wrestling with an ‘inconvenient truth.’

Suicide is a reality that cannot be ignored. It is a mode of death that is disruptive and tumultuous for all who live on. It is not something you prepare for or ever imagine happening to someone you love.

Suicide should never be regarded a positive outcome. After all, life is not an expendable commodity. It is to be valued and respected, something worth fighting for.

There are several blog posts from the archives that I would like to reference for their relevance to our current crisis.

Who would have imagined that a tale of two tramps by a stunted tree would be the subject of my most popular blog post?

On 8 April 2016 I published ‘Waiting for Godot,’ a review of Samuel Beckett’s play of the same name. Written in 1953, the play is simplicity itself, two men on a barren road by a leafless tree waiting for something to ease their boredom. There are many contrary themes at work in this drama – loneliness and recognition; boredom and resolve; resignation and hope. Perhaps the title gives us a clue as to the central thought: ‘WAITING’

Much of life is taken up waiting for something to happen. We wait in line, we wait for an appointment, we wait for the children to come home, we wait for the working day to end, we wait to be noticed, we wait to be rewarded, we wait for love.

The pandemic has been an occasion to excel at waiting: waiting for information about the virus; waiting for government directives to control the spread of the virus; waiting to understand the risk of contracting the virus; waiting for monetary policies to ease the economic burden; waiting for essential items to appear on supermarket shelves; waiting to know when the lockdown will end; waiting for things to go back to normal, or for things to be never normal again.

Waiting is an inevitable part of life. It may not be enjoyable, but its value is not to be underestimated. Waiting time is not wasted time.

Waiting, especially in a lockdown, allows us to re-evaluate our lives, to rediscover our humanity, to reassess our values, to rekindle our passions, and to recalibrate the way we do life. It is in the monotony of daily living that we discover who we really are.

Waiting inspires gratitude. We can look back on all that was good in our life and celebrate the simple pleasures that enriched our daily existence. But our gratitude is not only focused on the past, it embraces the now. There is much about the present we can be grateful for. It has allowed us to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary. Best selling author and speaker Brene Brown encourages the practice of gratitude. She says,

“…practice gratitude to honour what is ordinary about our lives, because that is what is truly extraordinary.”

Brene Brown

On 25 May 2015 I wrote a blog post on the death of my budgerigar, ‘James Henry.’ It remains a favourite. James was a survivor, the last of his generation. It was his clear thinking that kept him safe when the aviary was breached by an aggressive dog. On another occasion he tasted freedom when he escaped from his cage, but again showed good sense in allowing himself to be caught. It seemed appropriate that I should witness his final moments when he fell from his perch and breathed his last.

James was special in another way. His life spanned the death of our son, Adam. He was there. He was a symbol of familiarity when everything else seemed foreign. His death brought that loss into sharper focus. I wrote,

“When parents lose a son or daughter, particularly to suicide, their world is turned upside down. The grief is intense, long-lasting, and complex.”

Bruce Rickard

The experience of living through a pandemic and surviving the death of a loved one to suicide is similar. There is loss and grief and uncertainty. Let us consider what COVID 19 and suicide have in common.  

(1) Origin: We do not know.

Uncertainty exists around the origins of the outbreak of COVID 19. We do know that it emerged in the city of Wuhan, Hubei Province,China, last year. Some reports trace the earliest cases back to a seafood and animal market. There is growing concern that China has not been transparent about the origins of the outbreak. It has become a contentious issue.

It was initially thought the coronavirus originated in bats. Although this has yet to be proven, scientists agree the virus started in animals. They are less certain how it spread to humans.

The cause of suicide is also unknown. It is impossible to know all the factors that lead a person to end their life.

For people grieving a suicide loss the why is important but also elusive. No answer is ever satisfactory. The information available is often inconclusive. We are left with a mystery.

In his book, ‘This Sunrise of Wonder, Michael Mayne, the then Dean of Westminster, writes of his father’s death. He says,

“I never knew my father. He must have known a lot about pain and anguish secretly borne, for one day in May he climbed the church tower in the village where he was rector, threw himself down, and was killed almost instantly. I was three.”

Michael Mayne

(2) Reach: Global.

COVID 19 has spread from Wuhan, China, to every continent on Earth except Antarctica. Authorities in 214 countries and territories have reported more than 5,515,000 novel coronavirus cases worldwide since China reported its first cases to the World Health Organization (WHO) in December.

Suicide is also a global phenomenon that does not discriminate. Suicide does not just occur in high-income countries. Most suicides occur in low- and middle-income countries. Whatever a nation’s political persuasion, it is powerless to eliminate suicide. Despite targeted suicide prevention campaigns suicide remains a stubborn adversary.

(3) Impact: Personal

COVID 19 has been a shared experience that has challenged us on many levels – our daily routines have been altered, our personal relationships tested, our economic security threatened, our health and wellbeing exposed. We have felt anxious, mourning our lost freedom. We have felt displaced, not knowing where or to whom we belong. We have felt vulnerable, uncertain about the future and what it might hold.

Suicide loss is also deeply personal. It erodes your confidence, threatens your sanity, and reshapes your identity.

Suicide loss imposes itself, intruding into every aspect of your life. You cannot escape it. You cannot regulate it. You cannot negotiate with it.

Suicide loss is ever present, influencing your thinking and meddling with your emotions. It is a companion for life.

Sometimes our milestones are overshadowed by other realities. Certainly COVID 19 has dominated our lives in recent months, literally taking up our air space.

Writing is a way of connecting, of sharing what is important. During the uncertainty of the COVID 19 pandemic I am grateful to have completed 200 blog posts and to have preserved a message of hope that can strengthen and sustain us.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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