“I didn’t get invited to Julie’s party… I’m such a loser.”
“I missed the bus… nothing ever goes my way.”
“My science teacher wants to see me… I must be in trouble.”
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These are the thoughts of a high school student named James. You wouldn’t know it from his thoughts, but James is actually pretty popular and gets decent grades. Unfortunately, in the face of adversity, James makes a common error; he falls into what I like to call “thought holes.” Thought holes, or cognitive distortions, are skewed perceptions of reality. They are negative interpretations of a situation based on poor assumptions. For James, thought holes cause intense emotional distress.
Here’s the thing, all kids blow things out of proportion or jump to conclusions at times, but consistently distorting reality is not innocuous. Studies show self-defeating thoughts (i.e., “I’m a loser”) can trigger self-defeating emotions (i.e., pain, anxiety, malaise) that, in turn, cause self-defeating actions (i.e., acting out, skipping school). Left unchecked, this tendency can also lead to more severe conditions, such as depression and anxiety.
Fortunately, in a few steps, we can teach teens how to fill in their thought holes. It’s time to ditch the idea of positive thinking and introduce the tool of accurate thinking. The lesson begins with an understanding of what causes inaccurate thinking in the first place.
We Create Our Own (Often Distorted) Reality
One person walks down a busy street and notices graffiti on the wall, dirt on the pavement and a couple fighting. Another person walks down the same street and notices a refreshing breeze, an ice cream cart and a smile from a stranger. We each absorb select scenes in our environment through which we interpret a situation. In essence, we create our own reality by that to which we give attention.
Why don’t we just interpret situations based on all of the information? It’s not possible; there are simply too many stimuli to process. In fact, the subconscious mind can absorb 12 million bits of information through the five senses in a mere second. Data is then filtered down so that the conscious mind focuses on only 7 to 40 bits. This is a mental shortcut.
Shortcuts keep us sane by preventing sensory overload. Shortcuts help us judge situations quickly. Shortcuts also, however, leave us vulnerable to errors in perception. Because we perceive reality based on a tiny sliver of information, if that information is unbalanced (e.g., ignores the positive and focuses on the negative), we are left with a skewed perception of reality, or a thought hole.
Eight Common Thought Holes
Not only are we susceptible to errors in thinking, but we also tend to make the same errors over and over again. Seminal work by psychologist Aaron Beck, often referred to as the father of cognitive therapy, and his former student, David Burns, uncovered several common thought holes as seen below.
- Jumping to conclusions: judging a situation based on assumptions as opposed to definitive facts
- Mental filtering: paying attention to the negative details in a situation while ignoring the positive
- Magnifying: magnifying negative aspects in a situation
- Minimizing: minimizing positive aspects in a situation
- Personalizing: assuming the blame for problems even when you are not primarily responsible
- Externalizing: pushing the blame for problems onto others even when you are primarily responsible
- Overgeneralizing: concluding that one bad incident will lead to a repeated pattern of defeat
- Emotional reasoning: assuming your negative emotions translate into reality, or confusing feelings with facts
Going from Distorted Thinking to Accurate Thinking
Once teens understand why they fall into thought holes and that several common ones exist, they are ready to start filling them in by trying a method we developed in the GoZen! anxiety relief program called the 3Cs:
- Check for common thought holes
- Collect evidence to paint an accurate picture
- Challenge the original thoughts
Let’s run through the 3Cs using James as an example. James was recently asked by his science teacher to chat after class. He immediately thought, “I must be in trouble,” and began to feel distressed. Using the 3Cs, James should first check to see if he had fallen into one of the common thought holes. Based on the list above, it seems he jumped to a conclusion.
James’s next step is to collect as much data or evidence as possible to create a more accurate picture of the situation. His evidence may look something like the following statements:
“I usually get good grades in science class.”
“Teachers sometimes ask you to chat after class when something is wrong.”
“I’ve never been in trouble before.”
“The science teacher didn’t seem upset when he asked me to chat.”
With all the evidence at hand, James can now challenge his original thought. The best (and most entertaining) way to do this is for James to have a debate with himself. On one side is the James who believes he is in big trouble with his science teacher; on the other side is the James who believes that nothing is really wrong. James could use the evidence he collected to duke it out with himself! In the end, this type of self-disputation increases accurate thinking and improves emotional well-being.
Let’s teach our teens that thoughts, even distorted ones, affect their emotional well-being. Let’s teach them to forget positive thinking and try accurate thinking instead. Above all, let’s teach our teens that they have the power to choose their thoughts.
As the pioneering psychologist and philosopher, William James, once said, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
For more unique anxiety relief techniques for tweens and teens, visitwww.gozen.com
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A new study could be the key to creating a blood test that can screen people for suicide risk. Such a test, experts say, could improve treatment in hospitals, clinics or even help military leaders assess which active-duty members and veterans are most at risk of suicide.
The military is battling a suicide problem; at least 22 veterans commit suicide every day, according to a 2014 study conducted by the Department of Veteran Affairs, while male vets under 30 are three times more likely to commit suicide than their age group in the general population.
“What we envision, potentially, is using this test in psychiatric emergency rooms. For example, it could dictate closeness of monitoring and treatment options, and drive potentially more fast acting treatment in someone who is really high risk,” said lead author Zachary Kaminsky, Ph.D. of Johns Hopkins Medicine in a phone interview with The Huffington Post. “In the military, if you were able to identify vulnerable individuals [with a blood test], you may, for example, ask them to turn in firearms when they come back from active duty, or limit access to lethal means.”
The new research reveals a genetic mutation that may be able to predict suicide risk with a minimum of 80 percent accuracy. The study, published July 30 on the website of The American Journal of Psychiatry, found that alterations to the gene SKA2 — which helps regulate the brain’s response to stress hormones — was more common in people who had committed suicide.
Currently suicidality can only be assessed clinically: People at risk of attempting suicide can exhibit warning signs like talking or writing about a desire to commit suicide or trying to access firearms or pills. Other risk factors for suicide include a previous suicide attempt, a family history of attempted or completed suicide and various mental disorders.
But often, medical professionals don’t have access to that kind of information, which is why the need for a blood test is so urgent, said Dr. Alexander Niculescu, III, an associate professor of psychiatry and medical neuroscience at the Indiana University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study.
“People don’t always tell others when they are suicidal, especially if they do not want to be hospitalized,” said Niculescu.
In the first part of his study, Kaminsky examined the brain tissue of different groups of people who had died from suicide. He found that in some groups, lower levels of SKA2 were associated with people who had committed suicide. In others, a mutation that changed the way the SKA2 gene worked was also associated with people who had killed themselves.
Both findings are significant, because if the SKA2 gene isn’t functioning properly, the body isn’t able to suppress the release of cortisol, a stress hormone, throughout the brain.
Kaminsky then confirmed the results with blood samples from three different, ongoing studies. He designed a test to see if he could predict which of the participants had had either suicidal thoughts or attempts in the past. The test was able to predict participants’ history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts with at least 80 percent accuracy.
Among those with the most severe risk of suicide, Kaminsky was able to predict attempts or suicidal thoughts with 90 percent accuracy. Among the youngest participants, Kaminsky was able to predict past suicidal attempts with 96 percent accuracy.
“We have found a gene that we think could be really important for consistently identifying a range of behaviors from suicidal thoughts to attempts to completions,” Kaminsky said in a press release. “We need to study this in a larger sample but we believe that we might be able to monitor the blood to identify those at risk of suicide.”
The study discloses that Kaminsky, along with co-author Holly Wilcox, Ph.D. holds a patent to “evaluate risk of suicidal behavior” using the SKA2 gene. Another researcher on the study, Dr. Jennifer Payne, received legal consulting fees from Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Johnson and Johnson, as well as research support from Corcept Therapeutics.
Niculescu has also been on the hunt to find biomarkers linked with suicide risk, and he called Kaminsky’s study a “great” corroboration of what Niculescu and other research groups have discovered in the field. Such corroboration across different research departments, said Niculescu, is key to eventually developing a blood test for suicide risk.
“I am glad to see that their top finding, SKA2, was shown in their study to interact with our top finding from last year, SAT1,” wrote Niculescu in an email to HuffPost. “We have taken a look at SKA2 in our datasets, and see that indeed it is decreased in expression in the blood of suicide victims, consistent with what Dr. Kaminsky and colleagues are reporting.”
“I think that in the future, like in other areas of medicine, a combination of clinical data and blood tests will ensure sensitivity and specificity in predicting who is at risk, and avoiding this preventable tragedy that is suicide,” said Niculescu.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
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Lately, I’ve been wondering if there’s a difference between depression and “a slump.” After losing someone to suicide, I think it’s natural to become hyper-vigilant to ensure we don’t miss any warning signs from others. I am finding it hard to strike a balance between being mindful and being overly concerned about someone’s behavior. I mean, how can you really know? I also don’t want to become super-annoying to people if I repeatedly check in with them when they are just having a bad day. When thinking about my dad and the “symptoms” he may have had before taking his life, I would have characterized them as “a slump.” To me, that meant he wasn’t quite acting like himself for a short period of time – I’m talking a few weeks. He seemed to mope around a bit and didn’t jump at the chance to do some of his usual activities or hobbies. When talking with him about what was driving his worries and trying to understand them, he always seemed appreciative of the “thoughtfulness” and said things like, “you have a good point” when we suggested that they didn’t seem big enough to warrant the way they seemed to be weighing on him. In hindsight, the irrational nature of his worries could have been a sign. And, maybe the downplaying of them only made him feel worse, guilty or “crazy.” Knowing that he was an otherwise happy-go-lucky guy and the life of the party, it seemed natural that he would pop out of this in due time.
When I think of depression, I think of the way individuals are depicted in medication commercials. They stare solemnly out the window, sometimes with tears in their eyes. They hide in bed with the covers over their head while the rest of the family is carrying on as usual outside. They seem to be inconsolable and might even block out people who try to talk to them. Does this create an unrealistic set of expectations in our minds? I feel like this is what I would be looking for in order to diagnose that someone is in more than just a slump (in my non-expert opinion).
I even tried to Google depression vs. slump and was met with dozens of articles bearing headlines like:
- “How to snap out of depression”
- “How to get out of a slump in 12 steps”
- “9 ways to get out of a slump and make a comeback”
- “Depressive slumps and how to break them”
There was nothing from the major expert suicide or mental wellness resources within the first few pages of my web results. To me, this indicates that there is widespread confusion over what constitutes depression and when to be concerned about a loved one. They make it sound like a depressive slump is something you can evict by reading an article or dusting yourself off. I would argue that individuals with true depression are buried so deep in their feelings of helplessness, pain and despair that there is literally nothing that could break them of this outside of suicide or intensive therapy. Surely no article or the simple tips within would have made a difference. I just think there is a major lack of awareness over the symptoms and what to do if you think someone may be experiencing depression. The Anxiety and Depression Association of Americaoutlines the following symptoms of depression. As I read them, I do begin to distinguish a difference between the severity of depression and a slump. I feel like I can now check the box on many of these points and say that my dad was, in fact, displaying them. I just never would have had this insight before. I also noticed they didn’t put a timeframe on the symptoms. Again, I thought a few weeks were no big deal, but clearly that could be all it takes.
Symptoms of Depression
- Persistent sad, anxious or “empty” mood
- Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities, including sex
- Decreased energy, fatigue, feeling “slowed down”
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
- Insomnia, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Low appetite and weight loss or overeating and weight gain
- Thoughts of death or suicide, suicide attempts
- Restlessness, irritability
- Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders and pain for which no other cause can be diagnosed.
Tips for Beating a Slump
On the other side of the spectrum, some of the 9 ways to break from a slump included “looking your situation in the eye and making peace with it,” and “lift up others and help them get what they want out of life.” To me, these do sound more like tips that could help someone who might be in a funk, feeling bored or otherwise not facing a mental illness like clinical depression. In looking at the depression symptoms above, I’m guessing it’s unlikely that an individual who resonates with this article would display many to any of those symptoms.
It’s human nature to experience peaks and valleys in life. I think I can say that I have experienced both a slump and minor depression in my life. Having depression doesn’t mean you are automatically destined for suicide. People who are proactive with recognizing they need help and seeking expert assistance in the form of medication and ongoing counseling or hospitalization do have a good chance of recovering. I have always erred on that side. I think the issue is that we need to educate more people about the symptoms and treatment available so that it’s easier to distinguish depression vs. a slump. It might make it easier for all of us to know when to be mindful or hyper-vigilant – not only with loved ones but with ourselves.
Image from emptysuitcases.com
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At 2:38 p.m. on September 9, 2013, Jeremy Fowler posted a picture of his family wearing bicycle helmets while standing in front of the split-rail fence of a horse corral in nowhere New Hampshire. The reflection of their washed out skin bespoke the 2.0 megapixels of Jeremy’s flip phone camera. It was a strange image to arrive on my Facebook newsfeed, a pixilated tribute to Jeremy’s father who died 48 hours earlier. It was Jeremy’s last photograph with all of family members present, a gesture of quixotic solemnity in a medium where the earnest so often do not belong.
He accompanied the picture with this status: “Yesterday my dad unexpectedly went to be with the Lord, we’re glad that he’s in a far better place than we are but we will miss him so much, plz pray for our family during this difficult time!” To date, the post has received 62 likes and 33 comments from some of his 459 friends. Most have said things like, “God be with y’all!!! We have and will continue to pray.”
Death, typically such a huge taboo, was now a subject fit for Facebook, with all its abbreviated spellings and exclamation marks.
Commentary abounds on social media’s capacity to foster narcissism and encourage an individual to drift into a digital world where the touch of computer keys is the closest thing to human interaction. These predictable arguments inevitably end in macho injunctions to “get outside!” and “experience the world!” and “meet your neighbors!”
While this commentary goes on, the rest of the world is happy to take a dip in the pool with old Narcissus, living online in the realm of the self.
But then a friend posts that his dad died.
Suddenly, an online space typically reserved for jokes and self-promotion is soaked in the earnest rhetoric of condolence and spirituality as people request prayers and thoughts. The transition feels strange and almost inappropriate. The easy snark and sarcasm that dominates comment-section discussion is replaced by promises of remembrance, but only for a moment, as presumably, the well-wishers then return to their regularly scheduled social media programming.
The experience of watching this all unfold can be agonizing, akin to watching your parents cry for the first time. We experience the same bizarre realization that weakness and vulnerability are real and present things in people’s lives, and our capacity to respond is often limited to helpless sentences, misspelled words, and exclamation marks. We are left to write, “It is going to be okay” to someone who just lost their father. We press plastic keys down and up in a rhythmic manner as sharp letters line up before us in perfect rows. This is how we have come to talk about grief. This is how we comfort Jeremy, a college sophomore and old friend who is now fatherless.
But somehow, it helps.
“Social media can act as a social buffer or catalyst for people’s pain and loneliness. It is a cry for warmth and sympathy in an otherwise superficial and narcissistic environment,” explained Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at the University of London. “People’s sympathy and ‘likes’ are genuine, not least because they recognize that the person is genuinely looking for support and help rather than the usual admiration or status approval.”
An individual’s orientation towards social media changes radically when tragedy enters the picture, altering his use of the medium by distracting his attention from his own image. This functions as an inversion of the norm.
“The key is that in critical moments people switch from ‘acting good’ (portraying an unrealistically successful digital persona) and seeking status to ‘being down’ and seeking warmth and affiliation,” Chamorro-Premuzic said. Users begin to acknowledge the greater community as something more than an affirmation indicated by a digital thumb. Focus shifts from a desire for an endorsement to a desire for support. Tragedy invites us to lay aside the “I” of social media and embrace the “we.”
At stake is the way in which we communicate about the most critical elements of human life, and if someone is comforted by the 33 likes they receive for the pixelated photo commemorating their late father, it deserves our attention.
Even so, there is some question as to whether this shift is merely a new way of expressing an old sentiment. While tragedy may well change the way we use a particular site, media psychologist Jerri Hogg thinks that social media may not have significantly changed the way that we grieve. Hogg describes social media as “just the new current tool that connects us with friends and family,” rather than a new behavior. “Is it good? Is it bad?” she asked. “No, I think it is just different. The primary drivers for the behavior haven’t changed. We need to adjust to the new normal.”
Facebook has even anticipated this shift, offering detailed instructions on how a loved one’s page can be memorialized.
Yet while the experience of grief clearly changes the way we use social media, the possibility lingers that social media may also influence and mediate the nature of grief itself. Professor Garry Hare, program director for media psychology at Fielding Graduate University, argued toward this end. He praised social media for its work in “fomenting the grieving process…it sets it within the context of a community that comes together and says you are not alone. And that helps.” He suggested that social media has actually ameliorated the individual’s capacity to comfort the grieving, offering a framework conducive to the expression of sympathy.
“In the old days, you had to go knock on your neighbor’s door when something was wrong,” he said. “But not very many of us did it because we didn’t know what to say. We were just not equipped. You could send them soup. You can send them a note. Now, the distance provided by social media is extraordinarily safer and that doesn’t make it less meaningful.”
Hare underscored this message by pointing to the Facebook page dedicated to finding those lost in Hotel Montana during the Haiti Earthquake in January 2010. Hundreds of people were pronounced missing from this four-star resort upon its collapse, and this page became a central means for communication in the aftermath directly following the incident.
The Seattle Times reported that the site began in Long Island when “Caitlin Fuentes, a 26-year-old teacher, her sister Lizzy and her brother Matt heard about the quake on the news. They Googled the hotel and found nothing other than sites taking reservations. So they created a group page for the Montana on Facebook and posted the name of their uncle. Within minutes, the page was flooded with the names of those missing inside the hotel.”
As information tumbled in, the site transitioned from a source of information to a source of comfort. Open prayers, invitations to vigils, and quiet eulogies invited visitors to participate in the grief of those who lost loved ones. Under an album labeled “Forever in our hearts” you can still find the portraits of 10 of those lost in the earthquake. Above the faces of these children and adults you will find the same wistful label, “May you fly with the angels.”
In all of this, you are hard pressed to find a single person “trolling” the site with the sort of misanthropic vitriol so infamous on social media discussion boards. Where anonymous dialogue usually fosters a sort of vile and inhuman debate, the site’s current moderator, Bob Allen, commented on being staggered “that with 15,000 people on this page, you could count the number of problems on one hand.”
The comments that accompany these images are eclectic, the messages varying from “God bless you all!!!!!” to “I am so so sorry :(” And though we may wonder why someone would use an exclamation point or a sad face emoticon when reflecting on this tragedy, there is something awful and brutally humanizing about it all. You get the sense that this is what tragedy looks like and this is how our hearts actually respond.
Hare pointed out that “Facebook gives people the opportunity to be honest … you are allowed to admit that you don’t know what to say. When your friend publishes a picture of his father that just passed away you can’t know how to respond. We only know that we’re ill-equipped to say much of anything, even when we want to. Social media helps us to speak honestly … and that’s very powerful.”
Ultimately, Hare suggested that sites like Facebook may fundamentally alter the way in which we grieve, “In theory, the newspaper can cover a tragedy and you could write a letter to the editor or comment on the website, but in almost all cases its going through an editor. Someone is actually editing our emotional reactions to something. We’re learning that that this isn’t a very good use of time…the more editors there are the less real communication will take place. When something does happen that is a tragedy people know where they can go for an unedited reaction. And that is new in the world of communication.”
It’s a little ironic that social media would lend itself to telling the truth about tragedy. We’re talking about a medium where the self is editable, and here we choose to use it to give voice to weakness. It may be awkward and a little embarrassing, but it also might just be the most truthful depiction of ourselves.
Hotel Montana’s Facebook site was defined by this brand of honesty. When Bob Allen recalls its effect, he tells the story of the one message that has lingered on his office phone ever since the tragedy. It is a phone call from the widow of one of those who was lost. “And I will not erase it,” he told me. “It’s just a simple phone call, her checking in to see how I’m doing. This woman who just lost her husband, checking in on me.”
To this day, Allen has not met that widow. He has not met a single one of the thousands of people with whom he communicated during this tragedy. Yet he will tell you that he loves them through Facebook. He will also tell you that he has felt their love.
Jeremy once told me the same thing.
A MOTHER’S GRIEF. . 16 September 2014 at 13:47
You ask me how I’m feeling,
but do you really want to know?
The moment I try telling you …
You say you have to go
How can I tell you,
what it’s been like for me
I am haunted, I am broken
By things that you don’t see
You ask me how I’m holding up,
but do you really care?
The second I try to speak my heart,
You start squirming in your chair.
Because I am so lonely,
you see, no one comes around,
I’ll take the words I want to say
And quietly choke them down.
Everyone avoids me now,
Because they don’t know what to say
They tell me I’ll be there for you,
then turn and walk away.
Call me if you need me,
that’s what everybody said,
But how can I call you and scream
into the phone,
My God, my child is dead?
No one will let me
say the words I need to say
Why does a mothers grief
scare everyone away?
I am tired of pretending
as my heart pounds in my chest,
I say things to make you comfortable,
but my soul finds no rest.
How can I tell you things
that are too sad to be told,
of the helplessness of holding a child
who in your arms grows cold?
Maybe you can tell me,
How should one behave,
who’s had to follow their child’s casket,
watched it perched above a grave?
You cannot imagine
what it was like for me that day
to place a final kiss upon that box,
and have to turn and walk away.
If you really love me,
and I believe you do,
if you really want to help me,
here is what I need from you.
Sit down beside me,
reach out and take my hand,
Say “My friend, I’ve come to listen,
I want to understand.”
Just hold my hand and listen
that’s all you need to do,
And if by chance I shed a tear,
it’s alright if you do too.
~~ AUTHOR UNKOWN~~
A MOTHER’S GRIEF.
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Please note that this article originally published in early 2012.
On June 25, 2011 Comfort Zone Camp, in partnership with the Samaritans and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, provided a specialized one-day program for kids and teens who had suffered the loss of a parent, sibling, or primary caregiver to suicide. Twenty-five brave campers showed up bright and early at the Shore Country Day School in Beverly not knowing exactly what to expect. Many did not want to be there, and most were apprehensive.
Grief after a suicide is very complicated and messy. After any loss, adults and children need to be in a safe and gentle environment to feel and to express the tough emotions. Healing requires the permission to tell your story and for the ability to integrate the loss into your life. Suicide makes it almost impossible to find a kind, supportive place. The story often seems too horrific to tell and it is difficult to make any sense of what happened. I often think it would seem just as logical to a family if you told them that their loved one moved to Mars; suicide goes against how we are wired. It is not something we can comprehend.
When a person dies by suicide, there is no chance to anticipate or prepare. Many times people had no clue that their loved one was even struggling. It often blindsides them, leaving them completely off balance. After someone dies by suicide, I see a huge rock fall from the sky destroying the home and community of all the people touched by this death, and not only do these people need to rebuild but first they need to chip away the rock before they can even start to recover.
Suicide deaths are traumatic and are many times violent making it hard to tell others. Survivors do not want others to judge their loved ones or question their relationship with the person. They can become very protective. Also often not everyone knows that the person died by suicide, so it can all be very secretive and confusing.
After a suicide, the survivors are left with many unanswered questions, important pieces of the puzzle missing. They desperately to create a narrative that will explain why the person took her life. They become private investigators leaving no stone unturned, studying phone bills and their loved one’s behaviors, and interviewing anyone who had contact with their loved one to no avail. There is never a satisfying answer that solves the unknowing. Survivors relive events leading up to the death. The “what if’s” haunt them. They live with the “would haves, should haves, and could haves” causing much anxiety and guilt.
Survivors begin to doubt themselves. If this person could take his life without me knowing, who else do I know who is suicidal? Why didn’t she think she could come and talk to me and let me know what was going on, wasn’t I a good friend? Parent? Daughter? Brother? This can bring on feelings of anger. Didn’t this person know how loved she was?
There is also can be a great deal of shame when someone you love dies by suicide. People in the community hear rumors, make assumptions and judge not only the person who died but the people who loved that person. Suicide deaths are often very public and most people do not understand most people who take their own lives suffer from diagnosable mental illness. People do not take their lives because they had one bad day or because they had a weak moment. It does not happen because someone breaks up with them or they lost a job. People who die by suicide don’t want to die they just need the pain to stop.
For both adults and children who have lost a loved one to suicide, it is important they find a space where they feel safe and supported. They need room to investigate and ask the hard questions, slowly at their own pace, realizing that the answers they stumble upon will never be enough. Survivors of suicide need to learn more about mental illness and unlearn the myths that surround suicide. It can help tremendously if they know that this grief holds some different responses and feelings than other losses. To hear, that they are not the only ones reliving the events that lead up to their loved ones death, questioning what they did and what they did not do, and slowly come to a place of acceptance. An acceptance that allows them to trust they did the very best they could and that love is not part of the equation. The person they lost was loved and loved them, the disease just won.
Adults and children who lost someone to suicide need to find ways to remember the whole person. The way someone dies should not define his or her life. It is a part of their story but it is far from the whole story. And the thing that most survivors say is the most helpful in their healing is to be around other survivors. This community of support allows them to remember their loved one, talk about the complex emotions, be in a safe environment where they can ask the tough questions, and see that they are not alone.
Days like Saturday, June 25, 2011 are so vital and so incredibly powerful. For children and teens to be at a one day camp, in the same room with other children who also lost someone to suicide, was an amazing gift. The ripple effects will continue allowing each camper new opportunities to trust and to heal. No one was judging them, caring adults and peers were not afraid to ask them about their feelings and experiences, and they were allow to celebrate the life of the loved one, not get stuck in how that person died. It normalized the death and it gave them a voice, and sense of community and hope. One camper’s evaluation says it best, “This is the best I’ve felt since my father’s death – Thank You.”
The one day camp was so powerful and so effective that a second camp has been scheduled for March 2012. As long as children and teens face suicide losses, they will need this kind of safe place to share, heal, and grow.
If you ever feel that you are in danger of harming yourself, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255). The hotline is staffed with caring individuals 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Special thanks to Kim Kates, Director of Grief Support Services for Samaritans. Samaritans’ goal is to reduce the risk of suicide and increase awareness about suicide prevention throughout the Greater Boston and MetroWest areas. For more information, please visit www.samaritanshope.org or call one of their 24 hour helplines at (617) 247-0220 or (508) 875-4500.
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Recently, my world was turned upside down. My 19-year-old son succumbed to the illness of depression and took his own life. As many have said previously, this pain is something no parent should have to endure. There are no words to express the depth of the guilt, anger, sadness, and sorrow that is felt by a parent when their child dies so young, especially one who was surrounded by as much love and faced a future with as much promise as my son, Lucas.
There are no words that can console me. Any death is a sad and difficult thing for the family members of the departed, but it’s also difficult for the family and friends who support them. Each tries to find the words that may help their own grieving and assist in alleviating the torment of those left behind, yet words often fail.
The Inadequacy of Words
The inadequacy of words that console is exacerbated when a child takes his or her own life. It’s a loss that adds the additional burdens of unbearable remorse and unanswered questions to already grieving parents; the general ambiguity heightens the pain and prolongs the grieving process.
Yet, we fall back on words. We tell the survivors to be strong, to remember the good times, and to keep the faith. We search out the platitudes and phrases that were shared with us when we lost a loved one or that we read on a sympathy card. We try our best.
Unfortunately — and especially in the case of a suicide — words fail. Perhaps they should not be shared at all. Despite the best intentions of those offering these words, words often serve to worsen the pain felt by those grieving.
Below I’d like to share a few of the words and phrases that have failed to comfort me in the wake of my loss.
Words That Fail
1. “How are you doing?”
There’s only one answer to that question: “I’m terrible, thanks for asking.” However, what I say is “I’m doing OK,” or “I’m as well as can be under the circumstances.” In reality, I’m saying that only for your benefit. What I want to say is: “I’m devastated.” “I’m sleepless and exhausted.” “My pain is so deep I can’t bear to see the daylight.”
Instead of asking how I’m doing, give me a quiet hug. Tell me you’re praying for me, or share a story of how my son touched your life in a positive way.
2. “Be strong.” “Be strong for…”
One of the more common advice shared when people came to pay their respects was “be strong.” If being strong means that I should not grieve, pretend that my heart was not just ripped out of my chest, and that I shouldn’t not show any emotion, well that’s just not possible. When your child commits suicide, pausing your grief is akin to trying to hold back a tsunami with an umbrella. It’s impossible, and in the rare case that the person has the fortitude to try, it’s not healthy. It only serves to prolong the agony.
Likewise, don’t tell any surviving young siblings to be strong for their parents. They are children; it’s we who should be strong for them. Instead of telling me, my wife or my daughter to be strong, please be strong for us. Be there with a hug, a shoulder to lean on, or just be there by our side quietly for as long as we need.
3. “The holidays will be tough.”
We lost our son in mid-October and so it’s natural to think of the upcoming holidays. I’ve been warned that this coming Christmas will be very tough and several people have suggested we should get away for a vacation. Yes, birthdays and holidays will undoubtedly be tough, but why terrorize me in advance of the event? I don’t know how I’m going to feel during that time. It might be OK; I may take solace in my faith, at my church, or among family as we recount the contributions my son made to this world during his short time with us.
Again, it’s better to simply be there. Instead of warning me of the impending dread, during the holidays please just take time to join me for a coffee, share a story, and lend a shoulder if I need it.
4. “I’m in so much pain for you.”
Few suffer in isolation. The pain felt by parents of a deceased child is shared by their parents, their siblings, and their friends. Our family is incredibly fortunate to have a very large network of people who truly love us and our son so the pain is shared by many.
The challenge is to not let your pain or your sorrow as a friend become a burden on the grieving parents of the child. They should be not be required to console you, to hold you up as you faint, or to be strong so you can manage your grief.
Knowing that many people are suffering right along with us is both a blessing and a curse. We feel the love and it certainly helps; we’re truly blessed to be surrounded by so many caring people. On the other hand, we cannot grieve ourselves if we’re busy consoling others.
Why I’m Sharing This
I hope that my intentions are clear in writing this article. I do not wish to criticize anyone who has shared their love with us or who has attempted to console us. We see and feel the love and are truly grateful.
I’m sharing this list of lessons learned by a father grieving the loss of his son with the utmost respect, in the hopes that it will help you better support those who may be grieving in your life. Your presence is immeasurably more powerful than your words in such times.
Have a story about depression that you’d like to share? Emailstrongertogether@huffingtonpost.com, or give us a call at (860) 348-3376, and you can record your story in your own words. Please be sure to include your name and phone number.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Follow Sam Fiorella on Twitter: www.twitter.com/samfiorella
In 2003, I lost a beloved and revered mentor. Much like with Robin Williams, information was initially scarce: all I knew at first was that he had died the night before. A few hours later, I crossed paths with a friend and we immediately started talking about what we had just found out. I shook my head and mumbled, “I just wish I knew how he died.”
My friend stared at me and said, “Abby, he killed himself.”
There were some things I did right in the wake of his suicide. I went to his memorial service and I cried on the shoulders of those who were supportive and I distanced myself from those who weren’t. I wrote poetry and I scribbled in my diary to process the unprocessable. I found little ways to keep his memory alive. I spent hours talking with friends about our favorite memories, his funniest jokes, his most brilliant moments. There’s a sound wave of an American Top 40 Long Distance Dedication floating somewhere out there in the universe, with Casey Kasem’s voice reading my letter about saying good-bye far too soon.
And there were some things I did horribly wrong. I was hurt and I was angry and I didn’t understand depression and I was quick to do what Fox News and others have been doing in light of Robin Williams’ passing: I questioned the act separate from the disease and I labeled it all the things you should never label suicide. In 2003, I had wished for a time machine so I could go back to before his suicide and remind him just how many people loved him and looked up to him. In 2014, I wish for a time machine so I could go back to when I was waiting in line at the wake and thinking “selfish,” over and over and over again to myself and educate 16-year-old me on what depression really is.
We have a saying whenever someone’s life ends due to cancer. We say that they’ve “lost their battle” with cancer. The phrase can be problematic, I’ll be the first to admit: it can potentially put an unfair onus on the patient, as if they succumbed to the disease because they didn’t work hard enough. But we never look at them with disdain, never shake our heads and go, “What a coward. They died due to their cancer.”
Perhaps its time we start seeing depression in the same light as cancer. There will always be differences; the nuances in treatments and behaviors will always vary depending on the disease, the person, the circumstances, everything. Nothing in life is ever that black and white. But maybe people would better understand such a misunderstood illness if we stopped viewing it as the “crazy person” problem and started viewing it on a more medical level, the same way we view cancer.
Because it can strike without warning. It can strike at all levels and with varying degrees of severity. It doesn’t matter how good or bad your life is, how easy or hard you have it, what you’ve done or not done to maintain your health. It’s something that doesn’t just go away with positive thinking. It’s something that might never go away. It’s something that can go into remission, only to resurface years later. And it can end lives.
But, most importantly, it’s something that needs to be treated, and treated without judgment on the moral character of the patient. It is something that requires an intricate network of support and love, but with an understanding that support and love alone is not enough to stop the disease. It is something that we cannot blame the patient or ourselves for, because no one deserves it and no one brings it on themselves.
It breaks my heart every time a life is lost due to depression. Just like it breaks my heart that people can tell their doctors their family history of physical health issues, but remain silent on any potential history of mental health issues – either because they are ashamed to admit that they have “crazy” people in their family, they are ashamed to admit that they might be genetically predisposed to be “crazy” as well, or because such information is kept hidden and unspoken, like the worst of family secrets.
Had I known more about how depression works when I was 16, I might’ve been able to grieve in healthier way. It is not cowardly when depression wins out and that person takes their life. But it certainly is tragic. Maybe we can stop viewing suicide as a “way out” of anything and start viewing it as a sign that someone lost their battle with depression. And maybe people who are uninformed about disorders of the brain can drop the ignorant words and phrases and open up a proper dialogue about mental health.