“I’ve never had a thought like this in my life. I’m scared. Does this mean I am suicidal?”
I was on the phone talking with a trusted pastor friend and counselor … and I was truly terrified. I had always said that I didn’t understand how anyone could consider taking action to end their own life. I had always said that I couldn’t cause my own death because it would inflict so much pain on those who loved me. I had always said I could never hurt myself with the intent of dying because I was too much of a coward who feared pain.
But here I was on the phone talking with a counselor about suicide and all because of a scary thought that had suddenly played out in my mind just a little over a year after the deaths of my thirty-seven year old wife and my two year old adopted daughter. I had vividly seen how I could very easily take action that would kill me making my two surviving children orphans.
The thought which scared me came during a routine commute home from the office. I was bone tired driving in the typical, frustrating Dallas-Fort Worth traffic after a stressful day at work headed to home where I faced the stressful and daunting responsibilities of being a single father to a teenage son and a pre-teen daughter. I just wanted to get home quickly and it wasn’t happening fast enough. I felt like the stress and the pressure was never going to end. When would it stop? Lord, please make it stop.
Suddenly I pictured myself swerving the car to the right, pushing down hard on the accelerator and plowing into the concrete pillars holding up an overpass. It seemed like the answer to my current prayer. No longer would I face the pressures of work, fatherhood and grief. No longer would I have to endure the painful emotional struggles of missing my wife and daughter. That thought of driving into concrete seemed like the answer to all my current “problems.”
But just as suddenly as the thought of causing my own death played out in my mind, my brain recoiled in fear. I had just thought about doing what I had always believed would be an impossible thought for me. I had just pictured in my mind the act of suicide.
“Does this mean I am suicidal?” I asked my friend over the phone.
“Larry, the thought itself doesn’t have to mean you are actively suicidal,” my friend said calmly. “Do you want to take your own life?”
“Well…no,” I said. “I just wanted the grief…I just wanted all of this to stop!” I said. “I would never intentionally kill myself. I wouldn’t do that to my children and people who care about me. I could never do what I believe would be against God’s will for me.”
My counselor friend went on to explain to me:
- Thoughts of death and dying are not unusual for mourners after the loss of a loved one. What people do with those thoughts can indicate if the mourner is actively suicidal or not.
- Feelings of missing the loved one who has died and wanting to be with them are not unusual in the grief experience. Grief is loving and missing the physical presence of the person who has died. Yearning for the physical presence of the person who died and wanting to be with them are not in and of themselves signs of active suicidality. What the mourner does with those thoughts and feelings such as wanting to kill themselves to be with their loved one makes the mourner actively suicidal.
- Wanting the painful emotions and experience of grief to subside or end is not unusual for mourners especially when the feelings of grief become overwhelming. No one wants to continue to feel the painful emotions or endure the experiences of grief no matter how healthy or unhealthy their grief may be. Mourners do not typically wants to hurt more. Mourners look forward to a time when grief and its pain will decrease or subside.
- Good counselors take very seriously any thoughts of ending one’s life. Counselors will try to determine if the person is actively suicidal by asking if the person wants to hurt themselves or cause their death, if they have a plan to do so and if they have the means to carry out the plan. They will then work in every way possible to make sure the client is safe and is receiving the help and support that they need.
Before the phone call ended, my friend assured me that my thoughts of death and my wishes to be out of pain were natural feelings experienced by many mourners. He did warn me that if the thoughts became pervasive and turned into thoughts of taking action that I needed to call the local suicide prevention hotline and then to update him on the situation.
Thank goodness for the wise advice and counsel of my friend. Because of that phone call I knew that what I had experienced was natural for a young widower and newly bereaved single parent.
Thank goodness that I had the thought to reach out to someone who could help me. Because I did, I never worried again that wanting to be in heaven with my wife and daughter and wanting the pain to stop automatically made me suicidal. Thankfully I never had thoughts like that again.
If you are grieving and experiencing thoughts of your own death, reach out to an informed friend or counselor as soon as possible. Make sure you take care of yourself, remain safe and get the help you need in your grief. The line between wanting to be with your loved one and being actively suicidal can be thin sometimes. Call and ask for help, support and information as soon as possible. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the number of your local crisis or suicide prevention hotline. Also call friends and family members who can be supportive of you during this difficult time.
If your grief experience is overwhelming, it may be time to seek the help of a qualified professional. You should never struggle with grief all alone or without the support you need.
The grief survival guide is also available in Spanish as “El Amor Nunica Muere: Aceptando el Dolor con Esperanza y Promesa” on Amazon.com.
Larry is the director of GriefWorks, a free grief support program for children and their families in Dallas TX http://grief-works.org.
FOR INFORMATION ON SCHEDULING COUNSELING SERVICES WITH LARRY BARBER Click here.