We Americans have our time-tested ways of getting to know each other. Besides ourselves and our occupations, one of the questions sure to get an answer is, “How many children do you have?” Normally, such an inquiry invites mild braggadocio about appearances and accomplishments, as perhaps it should.
But for each of us who has lost a child, the question poses a dilemma, at least in my experience. Shortly after my oldest son, Lee, died, a friend counseled the best way to respond is to say, “I have two living and one in heaven.” Simple but profound.
I’ve enjoyed watching people’s reactions, ranging from awkward silence to that ulimate follow up question: “Well, how did he die?” a highly personal inquiry that provides me with a precious moment of grief release.
“Lee suffered from depression,” I tell them. True enough, and only one person has had the temerity to ask how he killed himself. What the heck, such a bold question deserves a bold response. “He hanged himself.”
To those who didn’t know him, Lee is now a statistic, one of an alarming number of young people who decide, for whatever reason, that life is too difficult to live. Our family was busy shepherding Lee through the wasteland of a broken relationship when he decided, in the middle of cleaning house, to call it quits. He was 24—an aspiring biologist with plans for grad school and working in the environment.
The ide of keeping my child’s suicide quiet is not for me. If any good is to come from Lee’s life and death, I tell myself, it will be warning others about the insidious disease of depression, the forms it takes, and how it masks its effects.
Lee had a tatoo burned on the underside of one forearm that simply said, “Give.” The world, he felt, was consumed with receiving and knew woefully little about giving the things that really mattered in life—kindness, love, a sympathetic ear. You see, Lee knew how to give, he just didn’t know how to receive those qualities from others. The disease ensured that.
In a notebook of his thoughts found after his death, Lee writes that at one time he knew God intended something great for him. “I lived without fear of death, because my life had purpose,” he stated. Years later, the bullet train of depression hit him head on, leaving him, as he writes, “with a sense of living a dream without waking. I’m lonely, so I will be alone. I’m tired, so I will always be lazy. I’m different, so I will always struggle to associate with others.” The notebook proves that Lee struggled with depression for years but performed his masquerade so well that none saw how deeply he suffered.
The suicide of a loved one changes the survivors’ lives forever. There are answers, but no answer for the biggest question of all: “Why?”
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