This piece was originally featured here on Medium. We’re sharing it, with the author’s permission, to honor Ben’s story and to highlight International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day on Saturday, November 21. For resources, please visit AFSP’s site.
July 27, 2019, began as an unremarkable summer day. It was a day for visiting with my mother and doing some chores around her house, a day for walking her dogs, a day for idle conversation and shopping for my youngest son’s freshman dorm room. It was a late afternoon for a hilarious dinner with my sons. My mother spent the entire time commenting on the “atmosphere,” by which she meant the cute waitresses that she thought Ben, the oldest, should ask out on dates. The rest of us laughed to the point of tears as she offered to ask for their phone numbers on his behalf.
It was also the evening that Ben, who left only after a long hug and a “love you” and a plan to get sushi the next day, died by suicide.
It became the night that I sat in the parking lot of a funeral home, physically unable to leave until I’d seen my son. It was a night of begging everyone — the funeral director, the officer at the scene, the State Medical Examiner’s dispatcher — to please let me see my son because I couldn’t begin to accept it until I’d seen him and could confirm to myself that it really was him, because we were planning sushi and how could he be deceased?
It was the night that I was horribly rude and a complete bully to an innocent woman on the phone, telling her in the iciest of voices to “ask your faceless bureaucrat boss how she would feel if she wasn’t allowed to see her dead son whom she’d just had dinner with a few hours ago? You ask her that, and then you tell her that I’m not leaving this fucking parking lot until I see my son, no matter how long that is, or until they take a grieving mother away in handcuffs. Did you get all that?”
It is now the date that is forever etched in my brain as The Night Ben Died. Subtitles include The Night My Children Lost a Brother, or The Night My Heart Shattered Completely, or The Night I Lost My Son to Suicide and Said So Right In the Obituary (and Everyone Had a Judgment About It), or The Night My Son Died by Suicide and the Questions Started.
The questions. The questions — from friends, family, and the occasional nosy acquaintance who should mind their own business — felt endless. Some of them were spontaneous and well-meaning; others were intrusive; others came as statements, barely masking the curiosity beneath. Some of them had a tinge of judgment, either about Ben or about us after we published the cause of death in the paper. “Did you have any signs?” “Was he depressed?” “Wow, I never would have guessed.” “Were you aware he was struggling?” “He seemed so happy.” “We’re so shocked by this. It must have been such a shock to you, too.”
Many of the questions and statements about not knowing, about being surprised, condense into one underlying question. Although every family may be uniquely unhappy according to Tolstoy, every family who’s lost someone to suicide struggles with that same essential question. It’s the question we most want answered, even though the answer could be devastating. That question is “Why?” Why did Ben’s life end that way? Didn’t he know we will feel his loss forever? Why didn’t he say something? Didn’t he know he was loved? Why didn’t he ask for help? Why?
We could replace Ben’s name with the name of anyone lost to suicide, and the question remains the same. It haunts us. It’s a unique source of pain that only those who’ve lost someone to suicide experience. Accidents, illness, drugs, cancer, murder… we might ask why these things happen, and we might wonder what made this random twist of fate come home to our lost ones, but suicide is somehow seen as different. There’s blame involved, and shame involved, and we have to figure out where to direct, or how to deflect, those toxic feelings. Because life’s basic instinct is to live. And suicide is seen by many as a choice made by the person who died.
In some ways, that’s true. Ben made a decision the night he died; he completed suicide. There was no accident, no long noble battle with cancer, no evildoer to blame. It was my son, my beloved Ben, making a mind shift from battling his anxiety and depression, to losing hope, to taking action and making one horrible, impulsive, irrevocable, utterly tragic decision to end his life.
And we, his family, loved ones, and friends, are left with “Why?” What led him to that point? Because for that to happen, for someone as vibrant and intelligent and successful and beautiful and funny and adventurous and kind as Ben to die this way, there has to be a cause. How could he have gotten there? And if our Ben could be that lost, couldn’t anyone? Suicide is a mystery, a scary prospect, a fearsome monster lurking just beyond the edge of darkness.
In these few months since Ben died, I’ve explored countless theories about the causes. Researchers and experts say that it’s never one single reason. Rather, it’s a constellation of factors that swirl together and overwhelm the ability to cope, to keep going, to live. Even though I only see it in hindsight, Ben hit all of the indicators.
Stress and anxiety. Ben was increasingly stressed and anxious about all the unknowns in his future. A job he’d been considering turned out to be a false promise, and he was deeply worried about where he would live, about not having a job lined up, and about his financial situation.
Impulsivity. Researchers believe that people who die by suicide may be inherently more impulsive. Ben’s tendency to act impulsively showed in his willingness to drop everything for his friends or to go anywhere on a moment’s notice. Stories from people who have survived their suicide attempts show that their decision involved an impulsive moment as much as a specific plan; it’s a few minutes of spiraling into the mental anguish of lost hope, feeling totally entrapped with no way out, and deciding anything is better than enduring the pain of it all even a second longer. So while my Ben might have considered the method and the means and established ideas about an attempt, in the final spiral, he wasn’t thinking rationally at all; he was functioning on impulse.
Mental illness. Depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder are all risk factors for suicide. Ben and I discussed him having a bipolar mood disorder several times. It’s a topic I’m deeply and personally familiar with. Ben knew from my example that these conditions can be managed quite successfully, but that it takes effort and time to tame. With my encouragement and support, he sought help… but he was waitlisted in two places for evaluation and counseling. Then his college course load caught up with him, and he stopped following up; he told me he was too busy for counseling even if they did have someone become available.
Last summer, it’s entirely likely that Ben was caught in the aftermath of an intense, pressure-packed senior year in which he earned a 4.0 GPA with 24 credits, followed by a 3.9 with 23 credits. He graduated cum laude, but the intense schedule he kept to achieve at such a high level probably induced a manic state. He received awards and medals and money at graduation and was supposed to feel great and be at the pinnacle of success. In reality, he was crashing into the depths of bipolar depression, exacerbated by having no idea what to do next, the anxiety of no job, the uncertainty about paying his student loans, and the defeat of moving home for a while until he could figure it all out.
There were signs of his distress throughout the year. He called me sobbing from anxiety and stress more than once. He told me how little he was sleeping and how he didn’t even have time to eat, so I sent him expensive protein bars and healthy snacks he could eat on the go. I also brought him food whenever I was in the area visiting, and I put money in his bank account so he could get something delivered if he could find the time. I responded with love and support when he poured out his stress to me in text messages. I encouraged him to talk to his department head or to follow up with counseling, but he always replied that things were improving. I worried incessantly when he would go radio silent for days at a time due to his schedule, hoping he was eating and sleeping and practicing at least some measure of self-care.
July 27, 2019, is the date I lost my son. It’s also the date when I began to realize there are some questions that, no matter how much we wish otherwise, can never be answered, because no answer can ever be satisfying.
All of my theorizing, all of my understanding, is at best an educated guess. None of it can fully answer the question. None of it can fully explain what darkness led my son to die by suicide. None of it can ever fully heal the loss we feel.
We must realize that my son’s story isn’t unique. The experiences of people who struggle with mental illness and depression are often obscured by society’s narrative about suicide. It’s imperative that we unearth these lived experiences so that we can try to understand what moves someone from contemplating suicide to completing it.
There was a battle. There was a long, dirty, exhausting battle with an enemy in his mind, a mental monster that can be relentless, that waits for a moment of weakness and isolation, and strikes with utter, sometimes deadly, accuracy. On the terrible night he died, my son lost the ground in his battle with the monster and spiraled into its trap.
The monster had some help. There is still a terrible stigma attached to mental illness that dissuades people from reaching out for help when the illness begins to get the upper hand.
My son was at a moment when society tells young people that they should be thrilled and that they should be commencing the next phase of their life. His depression was feeding on the fear of being judged as somehow lacking if he admitted that he was deeply lost and depressed. If he expressed that he felt unsafe, what would the response be?
It comes down to two essential truths.
The first truth is that my son didn’t have to die this way. For whatever reason, he didn’t feel safe letting us know that he was struggling and losing the battle. That is utterly tragic, and we must change that. We must get to work and learn ways to talk about mental illness and about suicide appropriately and safely, with sensitivity, so we can identify and help people who are struggling on the edge of tragic action. We need to make it simple and easy for someone who feels unsafe to reach out for the help they need. Because help was available to Ben, but for whatever reason, he didn’t ask.
My Ben was so loved; he mattered to so many people. He told me more than once how much he appreciated my support and love. I know he knew we loved him. So it wasn’t for lack of love or lack of support that we lost him. Any of us — all of his friends and loved ones — would have come to Ben’s aid. We would have held him, walked with him to find help, stayed with him until safety was achieved and he found the ground again, until he could see that he wasn’t trapped, that he had resources. There would have been no shame, no stigma, no judgment from any of us; there would only have been love. But clearly, Ben believed otherwise, and I know he didn’t get that belief from his family and friends.
The second truth is that healing and moving forward, to me, means learning to live with and make peace with the unanswerable question of why Ben died by suicide. Because I’ll never fully understand it. But more importantly, no answer, no matter how much sense it makes, no matter how well researched it might be, no matter how eloquently I try to word it, can ever be satisfactory.
Because the only truly satisfactory answer would be to have my son back, alive, whole, and well, and that’s impossible. So I need to make “There was no one reason, no simple explanation. I will never fully know why, and I’m making peace with that” become the only answer that matters. More importantly to me, Ben’s death by suicide cannot be, must not be, the only thing that we remember about him. His life was so much more than that, and it cannot be reduced to that.
We won’t be able to fully battle suicide until we, as a society, eliminate the stigma around mental illness and suicide, and become okay talking about it in the same way we are okay talking about cancer, about divorce, about sexual orientation, about alcoholism and addiction, about all kinds of things we used to find uncomfortable and only spoke of in a whisper. We need to make it acceptable for anyone to say “I am so depressed that I think I could harm myself” without fear of judgment. When we can do that, maybe we won’t be left wondering why they died by suicide, because we’ll be able to provide the help they need so that they can choose to live.
Whatever you are facing, there is always hope. And we will hold on to hope until you’re able to grasp it yourself. If you’re thinking about suicide, we encourage you to use TWLOHA’s FIND HELP Tool to locate professional help and to read more stories like this one here. If you reside outside of the US, please browse our growing International Resources database. You can also text TWLOHA to 741741 to be connected for free, 24/7 to a trained Crisis Text Line counselor.