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When Suicide Comes Home

My wife and I will attend a memorial service this weekend for a wife and mother who was a member of our local community.  This woman, whose name shall not be published, committed suicide.  As word about this spread, the reactions we had  – and the reactions of those around us –  were shock, sadness, and even despair.  I am still feeling an eerie mixture of emotions as I try to work through this horrible event.

It is hard to not feel somewhat responsible when someone that you know commits suicide.  The hardest questions to stomach are ones like the following: “Was I kind enough to this person?”, “Did I reach out to them in ways that I should have?”, “Did I CARE about them enough?”

The harder it is for you to answer these questions, the more of a human you are.  The more heart you have.  The more you are affected by the misfortunes of those around you, the more empathy you have.

The less the questions above come into your mind, the more jaded you have possibly become.  The jaded ones are in a lot more trouble (in the long run) than the former group.  One reason is what still remains true, that people evolve to their potential not as isolated beings but within a Community which cares about them.

It’s very likely that the Tanque Verde Community Eastside Tucson, Arizona community we live within should ask itself – as a collective- the following question: “How much did we care about the Fate of this woman?”  We all have a responsibility to participate in the evolution of others around us.  Yes, that can be exhausting as most feel it is hard enough to get through the day.  It is difficult in a world where we are increasingly taught that we should “mind our own business”.  It would appear that people are increasingly offended by even little things.  But when events like this occur, when someone kills them self in our midst, in our community, down the street, we are reminded that even if there is a risk in offending others, there can be a great benefit to reaching out to those who may be in distress.

We may even save a life.

I definitely wonder if I could have reached out more to this woman, wife, mother, and teacher.  I feel a significant degree of guilt that I knew this person and that I did not pick up on the fact that they were experiencing such profound dread but they decided to end their life.  My guilt comes and goes, but I think in some ways it has been ever present for several weeks since this occurred. As I talk to people in our community, I think the same thing has been occurring with them.

At its best, guilt should be a motivator to learn from a particular experience so that one learns and grows.  One of my favorite sayings is as follows: “The more difficult an experience it is, the more you will learn from it”.   To the members of our community, I ask you to deeply reflect on this truism.  Part of the healing of a community, family, marriage, person, child, comes from deep reflection and eventual acceptance of this statement.  Acceptance from this statement is hard-won, but the views one can have once they’ve ascended to this level of insight are amazing.

So what do we learn from this event where a woman with a seemingly full life killed herself?

First, what we need to be reminded of is it is not uncommon for humans to at least in an intellectual way think about the idea of suicide.  The prevalence rates of people who think about suicide are fairly high.  For example, credible statistics indicate that upwards of 30 -50 % of people at some point in their life at least think about the idea of suicide.

Second, there’s an irony to those who commit suicide that we all need to be aware of.  Sometimes it is those who are the most accomplished, and appear from the outside to be highly productive, who commit suicide.  This mother was a highly productive person who was musically gifted, was deeply passionate about taking care of her body, and was very kind and understanding to others in many ways.  The level of productivity of a person is not correlated with the level of their sense of fulfillment or level of meaning.  The bottom line is if you want to really check in with your child, your friend, your spouse, anyone really, maybe even yourself, is to ask this question: How much fulfilling meaning do they feel life has? If the answer is very little, then you should find a professional you can trust and talk with him about it.  Often those people who are the busiest have the most internal distress, because they spend the least amount of time or no time tending to their “Inner Being.”

One of the best exercises you can put yourself through during the holidays is to find a place you consider to be a sanctuary, and reflect on the needs inside of you that are not being met, and make a plan of how you will address them.  This is one way we can honor those who ended their lives.

Unfortunately, as I’ve written about in other blogs, there is still a powerful mythology that talking with a counselor or therapist means you are weak.   We still live in a culture where we want people to “man up” and not cry.  This empty, “Tough Guy” mythology is one of the most naïve mythologies I have ever encountered.  Having counseled numerous Special Forces and elite military people, as well as having studied what brings about human resilience in the worst conditions, the truth is courage is not the absence of anxiety, but the Mastery of it.

I think sometimes people commit suicide when they feel so alone and helpless that they see absolutely no way out.  They feel so unhappy, and yet culture convinces us that being happy is the ultimate goal and sign of success.

This brings me to the third key point.  The most common wish that people and parents report having about themselves or their kids is the following:  they want to be happy or their kids to be happy.  This message is contorted into the idea that you get happy by filling your life with THINGS or STATUS.  The more things you have, the happier life will be.  The devastating counterpoint to this is the fact that significant researchers shown that there is no correlation between how much money one has and how happy they are.

My ultimate goal is not to be happy, and that’s not my goal for my children.  My goal and the goal my wife and I have for our children is to learn something while we’re here for this short ride on the life roller coaster.  It is lethally dangerous to give anyone the message that the goal in life should be to be happy.  The ultimate goal should be to learn.  Oddly enough, if your goal is to learn, you will be even happier because you will accept the depression, pain, suffering, trauma, shock as things to learn from rather than threats to your happiness.  In fact, you might begin to realize that it is only through the worst experiences that you will learn the most.

As we research which people tend to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and why some people get it when they are exposed to, what we’re beginning to learn is the ability a person has to make meaning from traumatic events has something to do with how successful they can be with creating meaning from the trauma.  Can we create meaning from such a shocking event as a suicide?  Can we as a group of individuals, and as a community, create a meaning that can help us all involving the something better?

I know I can.  I can promise myself that I will talk with my kids about how no matter how lonely or depressing or meaningless life can feel, there is a meaning beyond the things and status, there is a meaning that comes simply from being there for others.  A meaning that comes from developing your talents and contributing to the future.        

For anyone reading this blog, especially anyone in our community, promise yourself that you will make your goal LEARNING, not happiness. The 80’S ROCK-N-ROLL band Rapid Eye Movement (R.E.M.) had a song called “shiny happy people” that was somewhat a mockery of the prevalence of the mythology of THE HAPPY PERSON.

As a clinical psychologist who sits with people every day, and who not only looks them in the eye but looks beyond their eyes and into who they are on the inside, what they are lying about, who they are pretending to be, what shortcomings they are trying to compensate for, etc., I have come to recognize that most people are much less happy than they want to admit.  They just do a good job of filling their life with things, schedules, duties – external expectations – rather than soberly facing their internal ambivalence.

I think that is why the holidays can be so depressing, because while the focus can become about all of things that must be done and all the events that we must attend, what we’re really looking for at the end of the year is to feel a sense of MEANING.  And yet so many things we do don’t have meaning, they are simply rituals that we follow.  They are motions we go through.

The one motion you can go through, to honor the mother who killed herself, is to look inward at yourself, and look outward at others around you, whom you care about, and promise yourself that you will do whatever you need to do in order to be a caretaker for your own sense of meaning, and to truly care about others who may be hurting.

You may just create a new Life.  Or, you may save one that is currently Dark and in trouble.

In honor of S.  So many of us will miss you!!!!!!.

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Meet Doctor Brunner

Dr. Thomas (Tom) Brunner is a Tucson based psychologist and published expert who has a 20 year track record of clinical excellence, scientific research, teaching, publications, awards and podcast interviews.  He is the senior author of a psychological measure adapted into 14 languages worldwide, and has written over 250 blogs, many of them have gone viral.  He is revolutionizing the field of career guidance with his fresh and trademarked approach that is spreading like wildfire. Sign up here to be notified of soon to be published book, Find Your Real Me: Career Guidance Making You Truly Free.