Our community was recently shaken by the terrible loss of LGBTQ Liason for the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office, Dante Austin who was only 27 years old when he died by suicide on June 7, 2019.
Dante’s death has undoubtedly affected many people in a multitude of ways, and certainly it has led to questions for many: Why would he (or others like him) do something so extreme? Wasn’t there another option? What if he asked for help?
One of the most difficult aspects of being survived by someone who has taken their own life is the journey toward acceptance that these questions can never truly be answered; however, there are some important things to know about death by suicide that can and will assist in the healing process.
First, the notion that “suicide is selfish” is just not true. While it is completely acceptable and even expected that the mourning process may involve periods of anger at your loved one for taking their own life and therefore causing you so much pain, it is crucial to understand that, as hard as it is to accept, their decision was not about you. A good way to ensure that feelings of anger are transient, not permanent, is to work to understand that someone who is pushed to the point of committing suicide is dealing with feelings of severe hopelessness so overwhelming that nothing else matters anymore. The pain is all consuming and cannot be dulled by logic, the notion of getting help or even by the thought of all the people who would be affected. It’s a kind of hopelessness that transcends the types of thoughts that might be obvious to me or you. While there may be thoughts such as, “My parents would be devastated if I took my life,” the emotional pain associated with simply staying alive supersedes any of these rational thoughts relating to loved ones.
It is also incredibly important to understand that, even if it means tossing this idea around in your head day after day after day until you start to believe it, you did not fail your loved one by not seeing the warning signs. Even for mental health professionals it is not always possible to recognize someone who is weeks or even days away from attempting or committing suicide. For some, the idea of taking their own life has existed as a viable option or backup plan for a very long period of time and thus is very much integrated into who they are — meaning that it’s an idea they are comfortable with. Often, when we are comfortable with something we don’t feel the need to discuss it or allude to it. It just is. What this also indicates is that the actual decision to enact the long-established “backup plan” may have been made just hours or minutes before actually committing the act and it would have been impossible to detect warning signs in the days or weeks prior.
There is no denying that questions will remain when someone dies by suicide. This is true both for loved ones and for the researchers and mental health professionals that study suicidality in an effort to reduce its prevalence. What we do know is that normalizing this very conversation can save lives. Mental health education that includes the discussion of suicide should be happening in classrooms starting as early as middle school. If kids lack education around these subjects, they are much more likely to be ashamed of difficult emotional experiences and, over time, that pain and shame can morph into the type of thinking that can lead to suicidal thinking or behavior down the road.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thinking, help is available starting with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. There is no time like the present to get help or to help someone else. Life is just too precious not to.
Rest in Power, Dante Austin.