This morning I saw that it’s National Suicide Prevention Week (September 9-15) and in the interest of transparency, I admit I wasn’t even aware. I have little idea what is going on in the world of late. I have withdrawn from most of the activities that previously comprised my life – working, socializing, having my hair and nails done, watching live TV (especially the news), grocery shopping and cooking, reading fiction, even looking at Facebook – to just be. I’ve been avoiding all of it like a turtle hiding in her shell waiting for a never-arriving safe moment to reemerge. And that is not said self-deprecatorily because I am growing new fibers to heal my heart and soul from the gravest of traumas and this is what feels best for me right now.
It has given me a lot of time to think about what makes our organization, Mckenna’s Grace, different than the unfortunately many other suicide prevention charities. Of course, we have the Grace App in development which is unique to what is already on the market. But I feel a need to also focus heavily on the suicide awareness piece.
I’ve thought a lot about everything that went wrong for Mckenna the night of April 3rd. She actually did reach out to a few friends that night and even a few more in the days before taking her life, but nobody understood how serious her feelings were or especially that she might be at risk for acting on those feelings.
I am not sure she was even aware she was at risk for suicide that night. This is not a “judgement” or attack against anyone because even her father and I did not believe she was capable of doing such a thing, but factually, of those friends with whom she shared her feelings, none called for help when she was most unable to help herself. So in my mind, that is the problem that our organization and others like it need to be addressing. We can change how we communicate about the darkest of feelings and how we respond to them.
What would keep a friend from physically knocking on the door and checking on someone they knew to be struggling? Or why would one ignore an existentially provocative text message conveying fatigue with life in general? What would keep a friend from anonymously calling to send help to someone who might need it? We have to understand the answers to these questions before we can address the problem.
Recently I personally experienced why that may be happening through an encounter with a young man in the throes of a severe depressive episode complicated by addiction. Although he did not share an immediate plan to harm himself, he did say that he was tired of living and did not feel joy in life anymore; that he would welcome not awakening one morning. I know this to be a form of “passive suicidal ideation” and told him as much. We talked about my daughter’s death, which he already knew of, and I listened and tried to be there for him in a way that might have helped her. I learned he had recently stopped taking all his medications all at once, and I became more concerned. I insisted he must have a conversation with his doctor as soon as possible and to follow the medical advice given. He left a while later, but he didn’t stray far from my thoughts for the rest of the day.
Later that evening around 8:00, he sent me a text and asked if he could sleep on our couch as he feared being alone. I told him of course and that I was in for the night so he could come up at any time. After a couple of hours I sent him a text and asked when he was planning to arrive because I was getting ready to go to bed. He didn’t respond. Another hour went by and I texted again. Still no response. I called him and my call went to voicemail after several rings. I was worried now, so I went to his door and knocked loudly; no one answered. I returned to my apartment and reread our texts to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood. Nope, I hadn’t misunderstood. I called again and left a voice message telling him how worried I was given our earlier conversation and that he needed to let me know he was okay. I also sent another text. I went downstairs once again and knocked even louder on his door. Nothing.
By now it was around 11:30 pm and I made the decision to call for help even though a neighbor told me that sometimes this young man makes plans and just disappears and doesn’t respond – and that he was probably fine. Probably fine. Isn’t that what everyone had thought about my Mckenna? Obviously this sort of thing had happened before according to his neighbor, yet no one was concerned. I made the call anyway, to potentially spare another mother my pain. The police came, and sure enough, he was just asleep – and absolutely livid that I had called for help. He said he had just changed his mind and didn’t think it important to let me know. I believe he is still angry as I have not heard from him since.
Given all that I have been through the last five months, I was terribly upset; but I am grateful for this experience because I learned why people don’t call for help. Primarily, they don’t want to piss anyone off who may not really need help and secondly, young people talk so frequently about harming themselves or dying that it’s become part of the culture. Nobody expects anyone to take such talk seriously. Sharing stories of cutting, or other forms of self-harm, or fantasizing about suicide or dying are as common as sharing opinions about the latest Netflix series. It is part of the millennial culture and I think a big part of the problem.
I want to say it repeatedly and loudly. It is not normal to feel like hurting yourself. Cutting is not a normal way to deal with unwanted emotions. Using substances or engaging in risky behaviors primarily to escape intolerable feelings is not normal. And everyone needs to stop acting like it is. If someone is exhibiting these symptoms, we need to be brave enough and care enough to risk making an unnecessary call or having an awkward conversation. So what if we make someone mad for caring about them? It’s unlikely you would ever know if your call saved a life anyway, because someone who is in such distress is not apt to call you after the police leave and thank you for sending help. It’s embarrassing because we are such an “outward” judging society and nobody wants to be viewed in an unflattering light. It’s that stigma about mental illness again. Because let’s look at it another way. Suppose you called for help because you were concerned someone had fallen, or had a heart attack or stroke. The response would likely be quite different.
In looking through my daughter’s phone, I saw that a friend sent a text to Mckenna right around the time we believe she took her life. The friend simply sent a message asking if Mckenna was in her room that night, probably because she usually left her door open, and then a quick follow-up text apologizing for bothering her. Of course Mckenna did not respond. I want people, especially college students, to bother each other. Put the phone down and knock on the door of a struggling friend. Be in each other’s physical presence. Communicate accurately and honestly about what you are feeling and intending. Yes, everyone experiences dark moments, but the beauty of community is that everyone does not experience them at the same time. And you can help each other out of them.
If someone asks if you have ever tried to kill/cut/harm yourself, do not leave them alone. If someone is reading or talking about poems that relate to suicide or death, ask the awkward question about why they have been reading such. If someone says they aren’t going to be here anymore when you want to get together to talk, please do not ask if they are okay and believe them if they say, “I’m fine.” Stay with them or make sure someone else does. If someone says they are feeling weird and need to talk, drop what you are doing and get to them or get someone else to them. If someone sends a message that they need a hug, go to them, hug them, and find out why they feel that way. When Mckenna was worried about a fellow student, she didn’t leave them alone. She made them sleep on her floor or futon, or she slept on theirs but she did not leave them alone or believe them if they said they were okay. I think it’s because she knew firsthand that often they were not.
I realize this is what I want Mckenna’s Grace to bring about with its focus on suicide prevention. First, changing the culture of communicating in a glib or non-serious manner about dying or hurting oneself; and second, being brave enough to act when someone is making one of these disguised cries for help, because that is what it is. If we can change the way we talk about suicide and get help each and every time there is even a potential for harm, non-serious “wolf cries” will stop. And just maybe we can save lives.
We need a campaign. How about #doyoucareenough or #DYCE for short? Do you care enough to roll the “dyce?” And risk placing an unnecessary call for help and possibly angering a friend? Do you care enough to save a life?
Consider promoting this campaign on your social media profiles and let’s shine a spotlight into the darkness. #doyoucareenough
Wow, this is real and painfully raw and exactly what needs to be heard across the world.
I will share this and praying that through your beautiful girls death others will recognize the importance of being there, walking them through the dark hours and knowing there are other ways. I hurt for you, I wish it were a dream and not a living nightmare. I do know God can use our pain for a greater purpose and you are doing that.
“We can change how we communicate about the darkest of feelings and how we respond to them.“
THIS IS SO IMPORTANT. Thank you so much for recognizing this. As someone who has dealt with debilitating anxiety and panic disorder (and with the depression that goes with it) since I was a teenager, I personally feel the shame that often comes along with mental health issues… Yet, as a counselor, I also know that this shame isn’t valid at all, however it keeps me (and many of my friends, colleagues, and patients) from being vulnerable and talking about it. There is room for growth on both sides of the fence: in individuals reaching out to safe people, and also in how people respond to such conversations though they may not have experience or understand.
I’m so sorry for your loss, Cynthia. I am so so sorry. You and your family are in my prayers.
I want to encourage you in your endeavors to help people who are struggling. What you are doing with the app and in raising awareness WILL change things. There can never be enough “safe spaces” in this world, and this organization is certainly one of them.
Too often in college (and honestly throughout middle school and high school) I heard others nonchalantly comment how they were going to “kill themselves.” For me this isn’t a joke and should not be treated as such and I really think you pinpointed the exact issue that “It is not normal to feel like hurting yourself,” and we should NOT allow culture to normalize this or to glorify it. Additionally, I think our culture has shaped our mindset on the passive suicidal thoughts you mentioned. Somehow we assert that these are of lesser importance or severity, while, in my experience, these thoughts have been more likely to quietly escalate. So thank you so much for this post because it is a great reminder for me and a huge wake up call for society. I will be sharing it with others and making sure to be more alert to the passive comments made. My heart is with you. Thank you, thank you because this blog post is vastly important.
In speaking some time about this with Mike A, I have no words to express my sadness for you, except that you and the family are in my thoughts and prayers. I see and hear you.
Through your sharing your grief, pain, thoughts and personal story, you will save lives. You may not know, yet you will. Thank you for opening up to save others.
Thank you Cynthia for sharing this.
I have in the last year lost a few friends to suicide, and there were so many questions left unanswered for the families they left behind only to wonder, and most felt and still feel anger.
What do you say to someone who’s been left behind?
My best childhood friends husband shot himself just 2 years ago in March.
They had been married for 20 plus years, two beautiful grown daughters and a grandson on the way.
Financially stable, no known health problems.
His wife Robin found him in the garage of the home that they had built 20 some years ago. Their first home.
Her mind runs wild with wonder, anger, frustration, sadness, and feels guilty to find joy when something manages to make her smile again.
The night of his funeral, I stayed with her at their home.
I remember using their bathroom to take a shower, and my heart ached for her…everything that belonged to Danny was just like he had left it. His shampoo, his shaving cream, his razor, and on his dresser, his wallet, pocket change, and on her bed folded up next to her pillow was the laundered sweatshirt he was wearing when he ended his life.
That night, we sat in the living room curled up on the sofa and talked until the sun came up the next morning.
Mostly she talked, and all I could really do was listen.
And the only thing I could say was that she would probably feel as though she was on the roller coaster ride of her life.
Good days, bad days…mostly bad for a while.
I told her to allow herself to feel whatever it was she was feeling in that moment.
If she woke up and felt like laying in bed all day, she needed to do it .
If she woke up and felt like going to a movie, go.
If she woke up and felt great, not to feel guilty.
If people asked how she was , be honest.
I also told her that those same people would probably tell her that in time things would heal, and she’d feel better as time passed.
I told her that I did not really believe in saying that to someone. In fact I want to smack people in the face when I hear them say it.
I don’t think it gets better when you lose a spouse, a child or a friend especially to suicide because in many cases, there is no closure.
She didn’t know why, and she probably never will.
Danny didn’t leave a note.
Danny was a 52 year old man, he was her high school love, and the kindest, most sincere person you could ever meet.
It wasn’t like him to do such a thing …. to leave her like this, to leave his girls.
They were an incredibly close knit family, and he loved them so much.
I pray each day for Robin to find and feel some sort of peace.
Maybe to just find an ounce of acceptance and trust in that Danny knew exactly what he was doing, but was in a place that he couldn’t separate the pain and desperation in what he was feeling to tell someone, to tell her.
People think it’s a cowardly act…to kill yourself.
I don’t think it’s that at all.
I’m terrified to do something that would hurt myself, maybe even chicken ?
The strength it must take to follow through, the courage…
I don’t know what it is, but it’s something very powerful and overwhelming, and I don’t think that “they” can help it.
So your message telling people to be more in touch and present with our friends signals, their signs is so important.
I am and will be sure to share this link with Robin and her girls, and all of my friends on social media.
Please know that there isn’t a day that goes by, where we don’t think about McKenna. And there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think about you, and put myself in your place.
I honestly don’t know how I would cope, how I would live without Quinn. It’s something that I worry about all of the time.
Thank you for forging ahead and creating and building something that will save lives , even if it’s one life. It matters.
Cynthia, I know I don’t know either you or Mike well at all, nor can I even imagine what you must be going through. I am still here if you ever need anything, however. I really admire your efforts to cut through the stigmas and lack of communication that surround people in need reaching out. I love how you showed empathy and understanding towards those who feel that they might be “bothering someone” by showing compassion and concern. And I am deeply sorry that the young man you rightly tried to help did not even consider how it must have felt from your perspective. Although I only ever had very casual conversation with your wonderful daughter, I still feel her loss deeply in my own way. I offer my most sincere support, admiration, and respect to you and Mike in these trying times.
Hello Cynthia ,
Not sure you remember me from FHS dance -our daughters danced together . I think and pray for you and mike often over the past 3 years .
I’m really not sure how I just came across this article you wrote a few years ago but I think somehow your name came across my Instagram as maybe me knowing you and I clicked on it and saw your website on your organisation and that’s how I came across it.
So I just read your wonderful written article about McKenna’s story. It was very touching and moving in so many ways. As Suicide is becoming more and more prevalent and there needs to be more awareness brought amongst people.
When I got done reading it I realized today is April 3rd and it was April 3rd – 3 years ago when McKenna passed and thought that’s why I came across it as God wanted me to pray extra hard for y’all today as it’s I’m sure a very very painful day for you. So I’m praying and thinking extra hard for you today. 💕
I’m sharing this wonderful article also on my social platforms as it’s so good and encouraging and helpful for high school and college students, young adults -really everyone to take all warning signs of possible suicide seriously and to really go and check on friends n family.
Much Love and tight hugs to you!