March 27, 2015 was designated as Mental Health Day by the ABA Law Student Division. Please visit The Dave Nee Foundation, which promotes mental health awareness and reduces the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide.
A few years ago, I went to an all-day meditation retreat for women at Green Gulch. Most of the day was spent in silence, in meditation, in reflection, practicing mindfulness. When you take away the ability to talk, I find that all of my other senses come alive. I look, I listen, and I feel more attentive.
I notice a lot of little things about the other participants on these retreats. There was one woman in particular who I was really drawn to. It felt as though she was radiating warmth and beauty. I would admire how peaceful and content she looked during her meditation.
At the end of the day, when we broke our silence, we had the opportunity to go around the room and share our experience. When the woman spoke, she shared that her son who was just a teenager died the previous year. She shared she would often wonder how it was possible that the sun kept rising each day and time kept passing. She said during the day of the retreat, she simply noticed the sunshine and practiced noticing its beauty. She had stopped allowing herself to feel any sense of joy — even enjoying the sunshine because it felt like a betrayal to her son.
I remember being so surprised that the person who was arguably in the most amount of pain in the group appeared so peaceful and beautiful to me. And I wished that when I’m faced with such suffering, I would have the similar courage to be with the pain.
Last year, a friend of mine took his own life. I wrote these words shortly afterwards.
I woke up to find these words in an email “…he committed suicide.” Suicide: the action of killing oneself intentionally. I stood, staring at my iPhone as the word suicide repeated over and over in my head. There were so many emotions that washed over me all at once — anger, fear, regret, remorse, grief, and others that I have no words for. This is the first time I was touched by suicide. As though I was on autopilot, I showered, got dressed, and went to work. It seemed strange that time continued to pass, all of my day’s obligations still existed despite this tragedy.
Later that day, I searched for all the emails we exchanged and read each one. I looked at the words said and words unsaid. I wanted to find the implied words, the words I should have heard. I went to Google, typed in his name, and read through all 14 pages of Google results. I looked at all the search results from Google images. I also read through his Facebook posts. I don’t know exactly what I was looking for or why I was doing this but I did. I couldn’t escape the feeling that I must have missed something. Maybe if I found some clue that he was reaching out for help, I can go from grieving to being angry at myself.
His obituary said he was 24 years old… When I read that, I felt rage, it welled up from some deep part of me. Then I felt sorrow. He didn’t have perspective of his older self to tell his younger self that this pain he’s experiencing, this will pass.
A few days after reading that email, I connected with the friend who shared the sad news. As soon as I got on the phone, we both started to cry. It was a deep release of pain, sorrow, grief, and all things that were said and unsaid. Despite the pain, at some point during the call, we both noticed a sense of kindness, gentleness, and sweetness — both of us crying, sharing our humanness.
There was no looking away from the pain. No attempt to hide. No attempt to deny our sorrow. I practiced and felt what it meant to be truly in my grief. It reminded me of this poem:
Don’t turn your head.
at the bandaged place.
the Light enters you.
The sense I’m left with is incompleteness. I’ll never know this beautiful human being as his older self. I’ll never get a chance to ask my many questions.
Sigh. I really miss you, my dear, beautiful, darling friend.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet with Rachael Barrett, the Executive Director of the Dave Nee Foundation. The foundation was started after Dave Nee, a law student, took his own life. Their mission is “to eliminate the stigma associated with depression and suicide” and to promote treatment and candid discussion.
I decided to write this post after my conversation with Rachael when she shared that oftentimes, when she goes into law schools, bar associations, and law firms, a common response she receives is “maybe Dave shouldn’t have been in law school because clearly, he couldn’t handle the stress.” It’s these types of remarks, insensitivity, and this attitude of “this is your problem” that prompted me to write this post. I hope this gives others the courage to share their story.
I posted on Facebook and asked my friends to share if suicide has touched their lives. I received dozens of responses. Some lost family members, others lost friends and colleagues. I often wonder if those who chose to take their own life could truly know the ripple effect their action would have, would they still choose to end their life?
One friend shared that once you know someone who committed suicide, the idea of taking your own life goes from abstract to a possibility. Another friend shared “it can happen, it does, and still, no one seems to know how to handle or discuss it.”
So, here are my words, sharing with you my experience of knowing suicide. I wish I could find a way to write it neatly and wrap it up with a tidy conclusion, but that’s the thing about suicide. It’s complicated. It’s raw. It shakes you at your core. It’s painful. It feels… unspeakable.
This article was first featured on Above the Law.