This weekend, I spent time with the younger sister of my childhood friend, Heather. I was 22 years old, living in Whitehorse in the Yukon when I learned that Heather had committed suicide. I had just finished university and was feeling a little lost in life. I was leaving Waterloo, an ex-boyfriend, and all of the friends I had made through university to make a life for myself. I drove 3600 miles across the country with the friend of a friend and was sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment until I found a job and my own apartment. That is where I was when I got the a call from my life-long friend, Cathy, telling me that Heather, at the age of 21, had killed herself.
I had known Heather since I was eight. We grew up together on the same street in Mississauga. She, Cathy and I spent our tweenie and early teen-aged years together; the years of doing nothing together; pool-hopping, movie watching, bike riding days; innocent lazy days. Heather was beautiful with dark green eyes and long, straight, black hair; the spitting image of her younger sister. She was serious, hard-working, concerned about the injustices in the world, and fun. She had a tight family; two sisters, a brother, a stay-at-home mom, an artistic grand-mother, and a father who practiced law for a living. She swam lengths in her pool every day. She played the piano. She worked hard at school. She won the heart of the boy I had a crush on. So what went wrong?
I remember seeing her at Christmas in our first year at university. She had changed. When we talked, she sounded overwhelmed by the work at school. She went on how there was never enough time to do everything that needed to be done. I remember feeling the same way about school at the time, but there was a higher level of anxiety associated with it for her. I remember thinking that she was not doing well, but I tucked the concern away, went back to school in Waterloo, and did not look back. Not until the phone call from Cathy three years later.
After her death, I remember my Dad saying, “What problem could a 21-year old have that was so big that she had to kill herself?” He was thinking that suicide would be related to a material issue such as job loss or the failure of a marriage. For me, at 22, looking for a job, a place to live, and a new community of friends, there was no question about why someone would commit suicide. For me, the question was more like, “How do we carry on when we’re in pain; when we feel alone; when we wonder if we will ever feel like we belong?”
I have lost three other friends to suicide over the years; one teen, a single woman in her twenties, and a man in his thirties with a family. Each time I have been shocked. I never thought of any of them as candidates for suicide. Each time I have been struck by the incredible waste because, in my mind, each one had so much to offer and so much to live for. But I have experienced depression at a few points in my life; I have gone through periods where it was a struggle each day to get up and hold hope that life would get better. So I can imagine what could drive someone to commit suicide.
But how do we prevent it? How do we reach people when they are feeling depressed or suicidal? How much of it is physiological and how much of it is preventable by those who love the person? I don’t know the answer to these questions. But I do my best to listen attentively to people who are in pain; to let them know that they are not alone with their feelings. I do this because I know how it feels to be in that place. I do it because I wish I had done more for Heather.
- Black Suicide: The Truth Behind The Stigma (blackdoctor.org)
- Suicide (campuswriting.com)
- 10 Signs You at Risk for Suicide (socyberty.com)
- Suicide prevention to top aboriginal youth meeting (cbc.ca)