by Terri Winder
Oddly enough, the weather reflected the news I received last Saturday afternoon. “Terri, if you haven’t heard, give me a call,” the text from my cousin read. Then she added, “Sharon died last night.”
I stood at the window, staring out at the heavy dark clouds huddling close to the earth. At the moment there was rain mixed with snow, and I caught a glimpse of lightning before thunder slowly reverberated around me. The entire world appeared gray and somber. I looked at the text once more; it had come an hour earlier. After reading it again, I pressed the call symbol.
“Is this a good time to talk?” I asked my cousin when she answered, and then I just listened as she recounted the details of Sharon’s death, beginning with, “She took her own life.”
I slumped to the floor as I processed that piece of news and then, before I was ready for more, I heard something about marital struggles, over the counter meds, letters to her three children and her parents, instructions for cremation and no funeral service.
Sharon is also a cousin, younger than me by eight years. Born to wonderful parents and a close, loving family, she was bright and beautiful and talented. And now she is gone, without giving anyone the opportunity to say, “Please don’t leave us--we need you!”
“It’s becoming epidemic,” I remarked when my cousin finished, unwilling to believe what she had told me. Her words had been halting, emotional. My words were flat, analytical. Initially, I refused to think of Sharon’s family, to imagine how they felt. “It used to be uncommon, but now I know so many people who have been touched by suicide.”
I said the word that no one wants to use, no one wants to even think about. Irrevocable and ghastly unfair, suicide is death at its ugliest. It robs everyone, especially those left behind.
“Why do you think it is becoming more common?” my cousin asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied slowly, mentally reviewing the names and faces of people I knew who had chosen death over a pain-filled life, starting with my older brother and including a failed attempt by my youngest son. “The desire to live is such a strong instinct, it is difficult to imagine what thought process overrides it. The reasons are probably as varied as the individuals.”
However, later, as I thought about it, I realized that all of the people I know who have taken this forbidden route were people who seemed to care deeply about others, people who perhaps expected too much of themselves. They were gentle souls who could no longer bear either their own perceived failings or the injustices of this world. Still, it is inherently wrong to reject the gift of life.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, at least 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder – and their final earthly act is usually brought on by a personal or mental health crisis. While this percentage may be more conjecture than science, there are cold statistics that one cannot argue:
According to the most recently available reports, suicide has been on the rise over the past 14 years.
It is currently the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, taking more lives than automobile accidents, one every 12.5 minutes. Perhaps surprisingly, the highest rate is among people aged 45-54, the group my cousin fit in. Tragically, it is the leading cause of death for those ages 10-17, and the second leading cause of death for those 18-24.
Men are four times as likely as women to commit suicide though women are more likely to attempt it. It is most common among the white population, followed by American Indians. Blacks, Hispanics and Pacific Islanders are a third as likely as whites to take their own lives.
In 2013, 41,149 people died by their own hand. Data indicates that during that same time, more than a million people in the United States made an attempt.
Utah is part of what is known as the “Suicide Belt”, which includes all of the Intermountain states. In 2012, Wyoming had the highest rate of suicide in the nation at 29.6 per 100,000 population. Utah was fifth with 21 per 100,000.
In the state of Utah, as of 2013, out of 28 counties, Grand County had the highest rate of suicide at 35.11, followed closely by Carbon County. San Juan was 20th with 15.52. The national average was 12.6.
Besides mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety, other suggested factors include environmental stresses such as unemployment and/or financial problems, troubled familial relationships, bullying, seasonal affective disorder, and even a low population density coupled with inadequate mental health facilities.
There are those who blame drugs or the availability of firearms. In Utah, there are also those who blame the Mormon culture for either creating unhappiness for those not of the dominant faith or a feeling of guilt or inadequacy for those who are.
However, this has been countered by the fact that states with the highest suicide rates claim Southern Baptists as their most common religion. Studies have shown that a person practicing their religion is less likely to turn to suicide, regardless of their denomination.
According to multiple studies – conducted in South Korea, Taiwan, Canada and Utah – there seems to be a link between nitrogen dioxide and suicide rates: the higher the altitude, the higher the rates; the more pollution, the more suicides. Or, in other words, at high altitudes the brain goes through metabolic changes; most people adapt but others seem to be affected.
There is also reportedly a peak in deaths in springtime, followed by a lesser peak in the fall, so some scientists hypothesize a connection to allergies and the immune system.
Whether any of this is causation, rather than correlation, has yet to be established.
And, honestly, it could be argued that knowing the reason does nothing to lessen the pain, but still, that is the first question most of us ask when we are told someone has taken their own life: Why? What can be so bad that life is no longer worth living?
After I got off the phone, Saturday, I went and pulled a family history book from the bookshelf and opened it to Sharon’s chapter. There were many pictures of her growing up years; I was in two of them. I read what she had written about her life. I read what her mother and siblings had written about her. There is no doubt she was loved and cherished. She was happy for much of her life.
As I let the reality of her act sink in I prayed she could be granted the peace she was seeking. I prayed her family could feel the strength and comfort they so desperately needed.
After my brother died, my father observed what I have found to be true: at first, every waking minute is consumed by thoughts of one’s loss, then it gradually lessens to once an hour, then once a day, then--perhaps over a year’s time--to once a week or month.
You may feel like you are handling it as well as can be expected but then you are caught off-guard by a comment or a memory and then the process of grieving is set back again.
When my son talked about suicide, I wasn’t sure how to respond. I tearfully told him I had lived through it once with my brother and I didn’t think I could live through it again. After his attempt, we had him admitted to Lifeline, a youth treatment center. I was consumed with guilt and desperate to know what I could have done differently.
His counselor interrupted me during a session, as I was talking about the what if’s and if only’s. “Terri,” he said, “who loves your son more than you – more than you can possibly imagine?”
I was brought up short as he answered his own question. “His Father in Heaven does. And if he has allowed his son to go through these experiences, it must be for a reason--there must be things he needs to learn for his eternal salvation.”
I don’t know if that thought helps anyone else as much as it helped me. I spent so much time trying to make everything all better I had forgotten that I wasn’t in control. And since that time, remembering who is has made all the difference.