In what seemed like an instant, everything changed. For all of us.
Health at risk. Rising death tolls. Jobs and paychecks gone. Savings shriveling. Routines cast aside. Stay-at-home orders. Social distancing. Separation from family and friends.
We have lost freedoms and a sense of security. And with these losses come apprehension, fear, grieving. We feel isolated from one another and the lives we’ve known. It’s a time when emotional support and encouragement are desperately needed, yet may be elusive.
For those whose issues with anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts predate COVID-19, that sense of isolation may be overwhelming. Some states already are reporting increases in the number of suicides and dramatic jumps in calls to mental health and suicide prevention lifelines.
We know about feeling isolated and alone. As we recount in our recently published book, Sons of Suicide: A Memoir of Friendship, our mothers took their lives when we were in our early teens. We escaped inward with our grief, unable to talk about our conflicted emotions with anyone until the two of us met a few years later.
We believe our story illustrates three points, all of which apply to the current crisis:
- You are not alone. Others – perhaps most of the world – are experiencing similar reactions and a tremendous sense of loss. Take solace in that. Not only are you not alone, you don’t need to be. Share your angst and allow yourself to be open to those who are willing to listen non-judgmentally and help you through your pain. Which brings us to our second, most crucial, point.
- Open up. Many of us – especially men – tend to keep our emotions bottled up, allowing negative thoughts to fester. Perhaps we believe no one else is interested in our feelings, or we’re embarrassed, or we don’t want to “bother” others who have their own troubles, or we feel that no one else could possibly understand.
That was how each of us felt until, at 17, we confessed to each other the silent burden we shared. We quickly discovered we could open up to each other with our deepest feelings. We came to call those conversations “soul sessions.” The closeness we felt helped us find our way through the fog of isolation and abandonment. As we remembered in our memoir: “Expressing the emotional relief we each felt after discovering we were both still struggling to come to terms with our mothers’ suicides is near impossible.”
Opening up means more than repeating news of the day, sharing Internet memes, or railing about what governments are or aren’t doing, though that can be gratifying. What we urge is opening your heart and soul to someone you trust. That is, talking frankly about what troubles you, scares you, haunts you. The hard part isn’t the talking, it’s what you’re talking about — fears, doubts, disappointments, uncertainties, dashed hopes. Opening up to someone you’re comfortable confiding in can lift the heaviest emotional weight from your shoulders while helping you understand your worst worries and ease your sense of foreboding.
Who to talk with? It could be a psychologist or psychiatrist, social worker, clergyperson, teacher, family member, or – as in our case – a friend. Note that we said talk with. Our experience is that listening empathetically can be just as healing and cathartic as talking. Even though today those intimate discussions necessarily must be six feet apart, by phone, or via electronic media, they are no less meaningful and no less indispensable.
- There is life after loss, although it may not seem possible when grief and anxiety are at their peak. Nearly 60 years after our mothers’ suicides, each of us still feels that crushing sorrow. We still wish we could ask our mothers why. Those feelings are part of us. But they don’t define us. Our lives are rich with family and friends, pastimes and careers.
Once this crisis passes, life undoubtedly will be different. The good news is that if we make the effort now to share what distresses and frightens us – if we open up – we will relieve our burdens and allow healing to begin.
Rick Knapp lives in Cleveland, OH; David Pincus in Oceanside, CA. They are co-authors of Sons of Suicide: A Memoir of Friendship. All net proceeds from sales of the book are donated to nonprofits focused on suicide prevention, grief counseling, and mental illness. More information at http://www.sonsofsuicidebook.com