The letter arrived from a stranger with no name, no return address, yet it was one of the most intimate letters I’ve ever received.
It was written by a middle-aged man who had read my July 1 story about the alarming rise in Baby Boomer suicides. The man wrote that he “has considered suicide on a half-dozen times in the past five years. I have a good job, a wife of 40 years, and four beautiful grandkids. But for some reason the down side of life seems to be much more prevalent than the up side. Just felt the impulse to share this.”
My heart went out to this stranger, and I wanted desperately to meet him at Starbucks and talk about his feelings. I wanted to write him back.
There was, seemingly, nothing I could do, but I couldn’t get him out of my mind.
Yet if I did speak to him, what would I say? What wisdom could I offer? I have never been in such a dark place that I considered taking my own life. Sometimes a simple song — George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” or Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World,” can shake me out of the blues.
Anything I could think to tell the letter-writer seemed like a platitude. I could remind him of the many joys in his life, but from his letter he clearly understands and appreciates those.
I discussed the letter with Tricia Marks, president and CEO of Dayton’s Suicide Prevention Center, who has seen a huge increase in calls from baby boomers on the suicide prevention hot line. “It’s troublesome,” Marks said. “He has thought about suicide, even though he has everything for him.”
Marks has seen it too many times before: middle-aged men who need professional help, who need to reach out to their family members and friends, yet are reluctant to do so. A new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a 50-percent increase in suicides among men in their 50s. The same study showed that 2009 was the first year in which deaths by suicide surpassed deaths in car crashes.
“Men so rarely seek help because they are supposed to be the strong ones, the ones who have all the answers,” Marks said. “If they can’t fix what’s wrong with them, they’re certainly not going to go to anybody else.”
Boys are trained in that mindset from a very early age, Marks said, and she sees little sign of that trend reversing itself. “We’re not letting boys express their feelings,” she said. “We tell them to shake it off. We tell them ‘no pain, no gain.’ What message are we giving them?”
Marks wanted the letter-writer to know that the Suicide Prevention Center of Dayton’s hotline — 937-229-7777 or 1-800-320-HELP — is completely anonymous. “He can talk with someone without anyone knowing who he is,” she said.
Next I turned to the other experts: suicide survivors who have lost loved ones. What would they say to this troubled Baby Boomer?
Barb Wildermuth of Kettering lost her husband, Keith, to suicide in 2009. She, too, had earnest advice for the letter-writer:”I would say to him that no matter how rough his life seems now he needs to consider how suicide would impact his family and friends. It is a very selfish act. It could have a lifetime impact on those who love him in many different ways, financial, in future relationships, and perhaps in future family suicide or depression. Would he really want to place that burden on his family? He has to try to think of what he will miss out on and what they will miss having him at — births, marriages, graduations. There is always help out there for him if he would just reach out.”
Leigh Ann Fulford of Oakwood lost her 42-year-old sister, Lynda Dilgard, to suicide in 2005. “I would want the man to understand that his family will never be the same or recover from his suicide,” she said. “Regardless of what he tells them or writes them or leaves them in whatever form, they will always feel responsible and guilty to some degree. They will always miss him and wish he were there, from large family milestone events, such as weddings and big birthday celebrations, to the smaller routine happenings like family game nights or pizza outings and such.”
Dilgard wrote five individual suicide letters. “My sister thought that we would be happier if she just went away and she was so wrong,” Fulford said. “She did not blame any of us in her suicide letters, but explained that she was unhappy and just couldn’t go on living.”
Fulford has only compassion for her sister in spite of the pain she caused her family. But she ardently hopes the letter-writer won’t put his family through the same anguish.
“The valley she found herself in was just too deep and dark to climb out of on her own,” Fulford said. “Possibly this man feels the same way. He is surrounded by people who love him and whom he loves. Perhaps he is too proud to ask for help. I think many men are. They think they can soldier on and carry on without any support or help from anyone and it is a sign of weakness to ask for help.
“He needs to know this is a big mistake. If he can’t ask his family, he needs to ask a professional counselor or his doctor or someone he trusts. Sometimes, the problems are simply chemical imbalances in the brain caused by hormonal changes as we age, or they could be emotionally based. Something needs to be done to help him find that light at the end of the tunnel and something to strive for.”
This is what I would like to say to the letter-writer:
After reading your letter again and again, I care about you, a stranger.
Think, then, about how much your family cares, and find the help you need to stay in their lives.
How to Get Help:
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: www.afsp.org
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Suicide Prevention Center of Dayton’s anonymous hotline: (937)229-7777 or 1-800-320-HELP.