The Aftermath

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Every day, 22 fellow veterans, our brothers and sisters, commit suicide. Maybe you’re thinking of being one of those 22. If you are, this is for you. There’s something I want you to know. Now, understand, this isn’t a touchy-feely plea for you to reach out for help. I’m not going to remind you of all the good things you have to live for. I’m not even going to give you a list of all the resources out there to help you. You’ve seen all that before, and if you’re still considering ending your own life, you’ve rejected it. I’m to be straight, even painfully blunt with you.  This will probably come as a slap in the face. I hope so. I’m praying this, if nothing else, will get through to you. If you take that out, if you kill yourself, your last act will also be the most self-centered, selfish act you ever commit. 

Since leaving the military, I’ve joined the ranks of health care professionals; I’m a nurse. What I’m telling you doesn’t come from textbooks. It doesn’t even come from professional experience. It comes from experience that is far more personal. You see, in 1997, my ex-wife committed suicide. “Betty” (not her real name) was a veteran too. For a couple of years, her life had been spinning out of control. In the last six months, this spin accelerated to a level she decided she could no longer tolerate. There is a piece of me that hates her, will never forgive her for her selfish decision. You see, no matter what she thought (or what you think), there were people who loved and cared about her (just as there are people who love and care about you), and her decision to end her life hurt them, and even now, almost 20 years later, they are suffering the consequences of her selfishness.

The fallout begins often even before the person actually dies. In Betty’s case, I was the first notified, and they reached me while they were still struggling to keep her alive in the ICU. At the time, I was an ICU nurse and all it took for me was one look to know Betty wasn’t going to last the night. I had to notify Betty’s parents halfway across the country. Believe me, that was a tough call. Even harder was telling our kids. They’d come to live with me. I had to sit them down and let them know their mother was dying, and see the incredible pain on their faces when they comprehended what I was telling them. I could tell you about the rest of the night, taking two teenagers barely in high school to their mother’s hospital room so they could say goodbye and watch their mother die. Seeing the pain on their faces, knowing their mother had decided to take herself out of their lives. But dying isn’t the worst.  You need to know what follows.

Whatever you are feeling, whatever you think of yourself or what you believe others think of you, when you take your own life, you are placing an emotional burden on everyone around you. In the case of a death not from suicide, there is sorrow, there is grief, but over time that grief subsides and leaves the survivors with loving memories; suicide is far more complex. You are saddling your parents, your siblings, your spouse, and worst, your children, with a burden of sorrow and guilt that only those who have experienced the suicide of a loved one can know. Even those who aren’t family, but are close to you, will feel that burden. There are years, often a lifetime of guilt and regret that no other death can bring.

My ex-in laws dealt with terrible guilt, most of which was displaced as anger. They carried an enormous guilt over Betty’s death. The truth is, that wasn’t their burden to carry, but like all parents of suicide they had to deal with “what if.”. I’m sure you’ve heard how hard it is for a parent to bury a child. Imagine how hard it must be for a parent to bury a child who took their own life. On top of all the grief, there’s an ever-present feeling that somehow, you failed as a parent. What if you’d been a better parent, what if you’d paid more attention, what if…  In the end, the parents are going to believe in some corner of their mind that had they only done better, their child would still be alive. That’s not just for Betty’s parents, that’s true for all parents of suicides. Yours too.

The children of a suicide also carry that undeserved burden. In our case, the kids had come to live with me about two months before their mother killed herself. I reassured them almost every day that it wasn’t their fault. I pointed out that she had made several suicide attempts in the years before she was finally successful, most of those while they still lived with her. None of that mattered, and if you have children, it won’t matter to them. They will replay every bad thing they ever did in their mind, and convince themselves that they are somehow to blame for your death. Once again, it’s the “what if” mind fuck they will live with every day. “What if I’d been a better kid, what if I’d been more obedient, what if I’d been more attentive…”  They’ll blame themselves for doing things every kid ever born has done and all of the reassurances in the world won’t make a bit of differences. It will affect them for the rest of their lives.

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Both my kids dealt with these demons each in their own ways and those ways have not always been constructive. My son went through a marriage that ended in divorce; he became addicted to gambling. My daughter suffers with extremely low self-esteem which has led to a string of relationships with lazy, mentally and physically abusive boyfriends. Both have dealt, are continuing to deal with these demons and are on the road to recovery. Remember, we are almost 20 years down the road from my ex-wife’s suicide. That’s 20 years of pain, regret and self-destructive behavior. Both suffer from depression. Both worry me beyond words. Statistically, children of parents who commit suicide are far more likely to commit suicide themselves. My daughter told me the biggest factor that prevented her from doing so on her darkest days was the first-hand knowledge of what parental suicide does to children. She just couldn’t bring herself to do that to her kids.

As for me, while I’ve suffered but I’ve suffered the least. At the time of her death we had already been divorced for over a year. I was getting on with my life and with her history, as a nurse, I knew what was coming and had done my best to prepare myself for it. I’ve tried to live my life in such a way as to demonstrate to our children that you can move past it but I have demons to deal with as well. I question myself to this day; Did I do it right? Did the way I lived help my kids to understand that they weren’t to blame, and that they could move on and be happy? Am I responsible for how difficult their lives have been? I have to face the fact that I will go to my grave not really ever knowing the answers to these questions.

My point is this: no matter what you think, no matter how dark things seem, no matter how poor your relationship is with others, killing yourself won’t improve anyone’s life. Ever. Suicide only affects the person committing suicide for a very short period of time, and then it’s all over. The repercussions on those in that person’s orbit last literally a lifetime, and those repercussions are horrifying. Suicide is the ultimate act of selfishness. I know, I’ve lived through it. I know first-hand why mental health professionals say that suicide is the most selfish act anyone can ever commit. You do that; you are flipping the bird at everyone who loves you… who you love. 

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I don’t know what brought you to this point but I do know this. Whatever it was, you lived through it. You had the mental and physical toughness to see it through. If you could live through the event, you can live through the memories of the event. Reach out. Talk to other veterans and be honest about what you are feeling. Seek professional help and don’t take no for an answer. The VA sucks, we ALL know that. But 20 years of dealing with them I have learned that if you kick up enough fuss, they’ll do something. Get the DAV on your side, they have professional counselors to help you through the red tape. Whatever you do, remember this, if you kill yourself, you are causing the greatest pain and harm to all the people you least want to hurt. Is that really the legacy you want to leave behind?

Written By: Anonymous