If anyone reading this is going through a tragic loss of suicide of a loved one, or other similar traumas, I want you to know that there is hope. There is hope for healing, and a hope of happiness. It will take time, and it will take humility, and proactive actions. There is hope. There will be light once again.
I’ve never publicly written about my experience with suicide. I may have mentioned aspects of it here and there, but here it goes, mostly in its entirety. There are some aspects of this experience that I will never share, except with my wife, and The Lord.
I rarely discuss the topic of suicide. It brings way too many emotions to the surface, which makes people around me uncomfortable. I’ve brought it up a few times in church, and at special family councils. On the few instances I discuss the topic, I am so emotionally drained afterward that I need to sit for an extended period of time, or lay down. My point: writing this was difficult. I had to take several breaks while writing this story so I wouldn’t become an emotional mess.
I’ll take you through the tragic experience of losing a loved one through the traumatic act of suicide, and the long, long, incredibly long and painful healing process. I have no idea if it will help anyone, but I hope it will. If nothing else, it will likely be therapeutic for me.
When I was 17, a junior in high school, one of my best friends, who happened to be my cousin, killed himself. We didn’t live near each other, and I was unaware of the tragedy for most of the day. However, without me consciously knowing, something internal knew. The whole day was awful. I was overcome with excessive fatigue and dark introspection. I wasn’t in the mood to socialize, participate in class, or even use my masculine wiles to flirt with the girls. Okay, I didn’t really have any masculine wiles, just nerdish and goofball wiles. I got home from school, remembering my parents were out of town on a getaway. I found my sister doing the dishes. I didn’t know it at the time, but she knew.
After school, I normally would read, listen to music, do nerd stuff on the computer, or get a snack. At that moment, I just wanted to retreat from the unexplained darkness and slip into healing sleep. With dark cloud surrounding me, I told my sis I was not feeling well and I was going to take a nap. I never took naps at this age. Never. I walked down to the basement, pushed open my creaky bedroom door, let my heavy backpack drop to the floor, and I collapsed onto my bed. I fell asleep almost instantly.
I have no idea how long I slept. I have no recollection of dreaming. What I do remember with absolute clarity is waking up to the sound of my mom and dad quietly calling my name. I slowly opened my eyes and saw them at the edge of my bed, looking down upon me. I was confused. Why were they home? Something must have occurred. Something so bad, it required them to immediately cancel all their plans and race home. Something horrible. I quickly became alert.
They broke the news, telling me that he was dead. It took a moment for the words to register. No, it can’t be. In my mind, I repeated what they told me. Was he really dead? My stomach tightened, and I took in a labored breath.
Even though I already knew the answer, I asked what happened. There was a brief moment of hesitation from my parents, and then the words that will forever haunt me: he killed himself.
With sudden swiftness, a devastatingly dark blackhole consumed me. I was gone. In a different place. This pit completely consumed my memory. I have absolutely no recollection of the proceeding evening.
In my memory now, the days between the death and the funeral are a nightmarish blurry globby mess. I remember uncontrollable sobbing. Feeling the need to be alone. Laying on my bed, on the bathroom floor, on the basement couch, while soaking in emotional vomit. I vaguely remember watching an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a favorite thing that my cousin and I would do together. I remember the overwhelming deep dark despair. So much confusion. So many questions that would likely never be answered in this life. So much regret with the wonderings of “if only…” (more on that later).
Raw. I felt absolutely raw and drained at the funeral. we had had to drive six hours to get there. I still couldn’t believe it. He was dead. I would never again in this lifetime see the awkward way he would eat breakfast cereal. No more witty sarcasms or retorts. No more summer or Christmastime hijinks. No more irritating our respective sisters. No more video game binges. No more movie or Star Trek marathons. No more fun. If only I had called him.
The funeral was the first time I remember feeling like a completely selfish snake. In all my sorrows over the preceding days since the tragedy, I never once thought about the pains of my aunt and uncle. They had lost a son. What a jerk I was, having only thought about myself. When I saw their pain, all the ripple effects of this suicide came to me in a rush. this event had caused deep sorrow and confusion to spread to multiple people in a severely swift way. His parents, his siblings, our grandparents, our other aunts and uncles, our cousins, his school friends, his church friends, his school teachers, his church leaders, my parents, my siblings. And since we would all be dealing with this for.. forever, this was going to affect others in our respective lives that didn’t even know of my cousin. I slowly shook my head and made a fist. If only I had reached out to him before he did what he did.
This was the first and only time I had witnessed my grandpa crying. Simultaneously, We both saw the lifeless shell of my cousin’s body laying in the casket. My grandpa didn’t merely tear up, it was wrenching sobs. It broke what was left of my heart. He was hurting deep in his soul. If only I had stopped my cousin from doing what he ultimately did. I hated myself.
After the funeral service, the only thing I remember is sitting in the church foyer in a catatonic stupor. My aunt approached me, giving me an unused Star Trek bumper sticker. It had belonged to my cousin and she thought he would want me to have it. This small gift and small act of kindness from the woman who was in the most pain was so unexpected and cathartic. She gave me a tangible connection to my friend. “When I say give me space, I mean more STAR TREK.” I still have this bumper sticker. It still makes me laugh. At the time, and even now, I feel undeserving of this gift.
I don’t know if anyone can completely heal after such a traumatic event. But I do know that you can heal sufficient enough to endure through life and find happiness again. For me, it took a long, long time. And in many ways, I’m still healing.
After the funeral, we had to return to some form of normalcy. I still felt raw, and numb, but I did my best to attend school. My best was far too short of what was needed though. My grades slipped, my interaction with others became less frequent, and I felt no happiness. My friends did their best to help me and hang out with me, which I was grateful for, but they didn’t exactly know the best way to help. Peace was so evasive. But I didn’t care. I felt hollow inside. And I deserved it. I should have seen the tragedy coming. In hindsight, there had been warning signs. I hadn’t taken heed of any of them. I was in a very dark place, and I felt it was impossible for any amount of light to enter.
My loving parents, concerned about my education, but primarily concerned about my emotional state, arranged a meting with all my school teachers and a rep from the school administration. I was not present at the meeting, but my dad recounted the meeting to me. One teacher, whose name I will not mention (although I think she deserves the infamy) was rather unsympathetic to my plight and wanted to write me off and have me sent to study hall. My other teachers would not have it. One teacher, Mr. Phil Hartman, stood up for me and said, “Kyle is too good for study hall. You put him there and it will hurt him.” Further discussion followed and my school schedule was re-arranged to lighten my burden enough that I could graduate, and still receive the education I needed.
I owe a deep debt of gratitude to two teachers who not only cared about my education but cared about me: as a person: my band director, Phil Hartman, and my math teacher, Tobey Jossis. I would not have graduated if they hadn’t empathized and stood up for me.
After high school, I served a mission for my church. Being away from home for an entire two-year stretch can be hard, but it can be even more difficult if you are still healing from the emotional and spiritual trauma of suicide, and had self-imposed, but very real feelings of guilt and the nagging prick of “if only.” Just like with high school, I would not have finished serving a mission if it hadn’t been for two individuals, the president of the mission, Perry Webb, and a fellow missionary, Karl Martineau.
Bringing people to Christ can be daunting, rewarding, life-changing, exhausting, discouraging, eye-opening, soul-shaking, etc. I often felt inadequate to the task, especially since emotion was so close to the surface. One year into my mission and the mission president had no idea of my emotional struggles. He had been unaware of the suicide that had so traumatized me. I needed help, because I felt I was an inadequate disciple of Christ, and even though I felt I deserved it, the self-imposed guilt was crippling me.
I arranged a sit-down with the president, and told it all. Even though I had somewhat healed during the 17 months between the suicide and the start of my mission, the president and I both felt it wasn’t even close to enough healing for me to feel sufficiently healed. He asked if I thought I needed to end the mission early and go home. I thought about that for a long time. No. That wouldn’t help me. It would likely have the opposite of the intended effect. Some missionaries come home earlier than expected, and often times, this is quite needed. But it wasn’t what I needed. The mission president wanted to ponder and pray on the matter.
Several weeks later, he called me on the phone and asked me to serve primarily in an administrative role in the headquarters of the mission, and secondarily in a proselytizing role. I questioned this decision in my mind. How in the heck is that supposed to help me? The little experience I had had with missionary work told me the only bit of joy I could get would occur by bringing others to Christ. How could paperwork and answering administrative phone calls help me? How could it bring souls to Christ?
Even with my doubts, I had total trust in the mission president, so I accepted the service request. Serving on the administrative side was interesting at first, but it frequently became tedious and quite depressing. The little bit of proselytizing we had time for rarely netted any interest from others. That’s when Karl Martineau stepped into the picture. He was brought from proselytizing full-time to replace another office missionary who was headed home. Karl hated serving on the administrative side of the mission. He wanted to do the traditional missionary work, not sit in front of a computer screen all day. He had felt that he had done something wrong and was being punished. We were depressed together. We were in hell together. But, we survived together.
Although we had never met before, when we had been assigned to work together, we got along instantly, and quite well. Sure, there were a few instances I wanted to slap his face with a frozen trout, and there were several times he wanted to gut me like a deer, but this is normal abnormalities that occurs with any two people who work in close proximity together and share the same apartment. Karl had enough quirks, wit, stories, bizarreness, and nerdishness that he made the mind-numbing administrative work tolerable. And he liked pizza.
There were computer issues that challenged and strengthen my nerd skills, and I did help office efficiency, which I hope made the mission president more available for spiritual matters rather than devoting so much of his time to bureaucratic phone calls and paperwork. I did eventually realize that the work Karl and I were doing was necessary to keep a mission operational.
How did all that help heal me? I’m sure there are some aspects that I still haven’t realized, but as of this writing, I know that I needed someone to suffer with me. I know that kind of sounds funny, and maybe even a bit cruel from the perspective of Karl, but I needed to go through hell with someone so they understood my pain. True, the pain from the suicide was still pretty raw, and very different from the struggle of mission service that wasn’t very traditional, but the fact that we had become united through suffering gave me a connection to someone I hadn’t experienced since the connection to my cousin. By the way, Karl and I are still close friends to this day.
After my mission, I returned home and started searching for the one girl that I could convince to marry me. I dated a few, but nothing really clicked. Then, about 17 months after returning home from my mission, crap! My retina detached in the only good eye I had. Four surgeries in a period of four months and no amount of success. I was again drained, spiritually, and emotionally. Laying in bed, listening to audiobooks, talk radio, and being alone with my thoughts. Being alone with one’s own thoughts can often times be quite terrifying. During this time of physical healing, my mind frequently went back to the suicide. Thinking about my cousin, his final thoughts, what he was feeling that made him decide and then do what he ultimately did in this life. If only. The memory of the pain the loss had caused me was still fresh, but I was more able to deal with it, and I knew I could come out of the darkness at some point. I missed him deeply.
One year after my retina detached, my bishop set me up on a date with his niece. I figured if nothing else, it would give the chance to get out and have some fun. Although I had been on a few dates since going blind, this one was different from the get-go. I felt completely relaxed and felt that I didn’t have to entertain or impress. I had nothing to my name, nothing to offer, a bag of emotional burdens, tons of self-imposed guilt, and I didn’t care. I figured, it is what it is, this girl will either be polite, then never call me again, or she will like me for who I am and will want to get to know me better. I remember sitting in a car with her at a store parking lot while the other couple we were doubling with went inside to get some treats for us to eat while we watched a movie later. I ended up talking about a brand of pants I really wanted to buy. I talked forever about those stupid pants. Evidently, she found it charming and cute. Three months later, I asked her to marry me, and three months after that, we married. The moment of marriage was the most joy I had ever experienced since the passing of my cousin. 14 years of marriage, and still in love.
All through marriage and fatherhood, I have had emotional ups and downs regarding my cousin’s suicide and the stabbing guilt of “if only”. Having my forgiving, loving, loyal, babe of a wife by my side when I’m down is a huge boon for me. I would be absolutely empty without her. My children, even with their challenges and sometimes exhausting behavior, are all a source of love and joy.
I call my aunt and uncle on the anniversary of my cousin’s death. I always want them to know that someone outside of their immediate family remembers him and still thinks about him. Some years are harder than others, much harder. And I don’t know why. This year, and last year, I laid in bed most of the day, only to get up to eat, use the bathroom, go to church, and to make the phone call. The phone call itself isn’t hard, that’s easy. And I need it. I hope my aunt and uncle enjoy the phone calls too. It is merely remembering the pain that brings the pain, and the guilt, back.
What Actually Healed Me?
Well, my friends who insisted on hanging out helped. The two teachers made it possible for me to graduate, and I feel indebted to both of them. Karl helped me feel connected to someone once again, and my mission president through divine providence facilitated that. My aunt who was deeply hurting nonetheless showed deep caring towards me and gave one of my cousin’s possessions to me. My loving parents never gave up on me. They never stopped praying for me. They never stopped supporting me. I can only imagine how hard it was for them to see their son go through this pain so many times. I can only imagine how hard it was for them to break the news to me. I know they worried about me. I know they love me. My wife and children have given me love and joy. All of those individuals have helped me at critical times in my life. Time has also helped. But the one thing that helped me actually heal? I mean really heal, spiritually and emotionally. It is something I haven’t really mentioned until now, because it deserves its own part in the story. It was, and is, The Atonement of Jesus Christ.
Throughout my great struggle with this traumatic loss, I have grown closer to The Savior of all mankind. Only He fully and completely understands my pain and my sorrows. He can lift my burdens, so I can endure. “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Rest unto my soul. That is precisely what I needed after the earth-shaking, soul-shocking event of losing a loved one through the act of suicide, and the very real, although self-imposed, feelings of guilt and the joy-sucking regret of “if only.” That is what I needed, and still need with each subsequent aftershock. And yes, Even though it has been over 20 years since this tragedy, I still have pain, sorrow, and guilt creep up on me. I can’t explain it, and I certainly don’t seek it.
When I was still a teenager, shortly after the tragedy, I utilized The Atonement of Christ, but I didn’t utilize it enough. Part of my hesitation was guilt, thinking I can do it myself, and I didn’t want to burden The Savior anymore. I’m sure I felt my burden wasn’t worthy of The Savior’s help. How arrogant I was. Typical teenager, eh? If not arrogant, I was definitely ignorant of certain aspects of Christ’s Atonement.
Through continual struggles, dealing with the suicide and all its many ripples and aftershocks, and many transgressions, and self-imposed guilt and suffering, I have more fully come to understand Christ’s Atonement. In prayer, I must give my sorrows, my burdens, my pain, my sins, and even my self-imposed guilt, to The Savior. The sacrifice by Christ has already occurred. His blood has already been spilt. All I have to do is sincerely repent, ask for forgiveness, and then give it to The Savior. He helps cary the burden with me. He is my Savior.
This phrase and line of thinking is nothing but destructive. It erodes joy, it picks at the soul, it gnaws on self-worth, it consumes hope, and it feeds despair and guilt. It took me a long time and experience to learn this. The only way to eliminate it is to give it to The Savior. Even after all my increase in knowledge of Christ’s Atonement, it is a struggle for me to give such a burden to Christ, since I feel that I’m the one who deserves it. Even if I deserve it, Christ is willing to take it. He is willing to carry it. Because he loves me. It gives my soul rest, and I heal.