When Suicide Hits Home
There are some moments in life that fundamentally alter everything. Forever. Some things, like September 11th, 2001, happen on a grand scale and impact everybody. Most people remember exactly where they were, what they were doing, maybe even what they were wearing the moment they witnessed one of the most devastating and terrifying acts of their lifetime. But still, sometimes things happen on a smaller, more personal level. And similarly, those moments remain with us; so real, so clear, as though it happened just a day ago. A pivotal, life-shattering snapshot of memory can remain forever frozen in time. And with it…a brokenness that never leaves, but lives on, and walks side by side with us for the rest of our lives.
Such was the case for me and many others- 10 years ago today, October 5th, 2008. I remember sitting on a black rolling chair at my parents house, hovering over a computer intently typing a research paper due for a grad-school class when I got the phone call. The words I heard hit like a front-end collision into a brick wall, a crushing steamroller of utter shock, confusion, and a sudden storm-surge of mental and emotional chaos. At first, it didn’t register at all. She killed herself? What do you mean? I don’t understand. I just saw her.
On October 5th, ten years ago, my friend lost her battle with depression. And even with all of my training, I didn’t see it coming. As a therapist, I am trained to screen for these types of things. Warning signs include making threats, directly or indirectly, having a plan and having access to a plan, getting affairs in order, etc. But I saw none of that. In fact, my friend seemed so full of life! Always cheerful. Always smiling. Always ready to encourage and uplift the sad in heart. So what happened?! That is the question that haunts.
In the months that followed, memories of my final conversations with her replayed like broken records through my mind. Things I missed. Things I should have pursued. Things I regretted. I remember a casual conversation in which she nonchalantly asked me if I thought people who commit suicide go to Hell. HOW DID I MISS THAT? I also remember when her best friend, my little sister, came to me and said, “I think she’s depressed, will you talk with her?” And then I remember sitting on an outdoor cement bench under an umbrella asking her if she was ok and if she wanted to see someone for counseling. I remember her telling me it was nothing; just school stuff and some boy that hurt her. WHY DIDN’T I PURSUE THAT MORE? And I will never forget when a group of us were going to the movies about a week or so before she died. I remember she was newly licensed to drive, and following me in her car. But I also remember we were running late and she was driving slow. It was a foggy evening and I was frustrated that she was driving so slow. I sped up and even though guilt washed over me, I brushed it off and said to myself “she’ll catch up, we need to get our tickets.” And to this very day, the one thing that plays itself in my mind more than any other moment- was watching her headlights disappear in the fog through my rear view mirror. WHY DID I LEAVE HER ALONE IN THE FOG? For a stupid movie? Those headlights still haunt my dreams; a symbol of a life lost and abandoned in the darkness.
As time wore on, I lived the saying “hindsight is 20-20.” In context, her question about suicide and about Hell took place during a small group meeting I was leading at church. Not a seemingly unusual question for the location and the situation; but it’s significance shone like the midday sun after she was gone. Our conversation on the cement bench, I later found out, she had written about in her journal, apparently wrestling with the idea of counseling, but ultimately deciding she did not have it in her. And the night that relentlessly travels with me has created in me a desperation to never again- leave anyone behind. Alone. In the fog.
In the years since that loss, I have dealt with countless teens and adults with suicidal thoughts or ideation; many with whom I’ve devised safety plans, identified coping skills, safe people to reach out to, and even Baker Acted (involuntarily hospitalized). I’ve broken confidentiality with more clients than I can even remember as I’ve seen the warning bells and red flags rise. I’ve argued with parents over whether or not a Baker Act was warranted; whether or not their child’s suicide threats were legitimate, or just a manipulative scam for attention. Have I saved any lives? I don’t know. But what I do know, is that the face of suicide is not always what you think. It is not always sad and gloomy. It is not always readily apparent. It does not always make the checklist. It is not always someone else’s problem. And once it happens, you can’t take anything back.
So please, take a moment today and every day to consider those around you. Notice the sad faces. Keep an eye on the happy faces. Hold those you love a little closer. Remind them that no matter what darkness they face in life, you are there for them. Let them know there is absolutely no shame in reaching out for help when life gets hard. Tell them that the darkness doesn’t last forever. The morning will come if they just hold on. Show them HOPE. True, Real, Living Hope. And never again assume that the smiling person who says they’re ok is really ok. Ask them if they are ok, and then after they respond, ask them again. We all put on a daily mask to hide the secret demons we’d rather fight alone. Don’t lose sight of their headlights. Forget the movie. If they slow down, slow down with them. If those lights are growing faint, stop the car. Turn around. And go back for them. Never leave them. Never leave them alone. Never leave them alone in the fog.
In tribute and loving memory of
Savannah Danielle Clark
***Last week I had the privilege of visiting with Savannah’s mother and heard her speak to a group of women. She shared a most profound moment of God’s Grace in the midst of this pain. As she was cleaning a random shelf in her home, she discovered an old dusty art project face-down on the shelf. As she lifted it up to see which of her children had left it there, she discovered it was the handprint of Savannah, dated October 5th, 1994. October 5th. Exactly fourteen years prior. In that moment, she experienced the unexplainable power of God’s supernatural Hand reaching down to her in love, offering her this treasure…telling her He knew back then what would happen, and that now Savannah is safe in His arms. We all carry regrets from back then- but we are comforted to know that God was and is still in control, and that in spite of the pain and devastation of this world-His love never fails. This is a verse that is especially meaningful to Jodi, Savannah’s mother:
Today, Jodi Clark leads a GriefShare ministry for those devasted by loss. She also started a ministry called “Streams in the Desert,” in which she gives away free material resources for those struggling.