BY MIKE FUHRMAN
My parents taught me how to read, how to ride a bike and how to mow the grass when I was a kid. By the time I was 12, I knew how to throw a curveball, cut and haul firewood, and how to distinguish between classic rock and disposable popular music — the last of which was a critical skill for any teenager in the 1980s.
What they didn’t teach me was how to cope with the physical and emotional pain of losing those you love the most.
Following the deaths of my mom and my brother-in-law within a six-month period four years ago, I was at a loss for what to do. As much as I tried to be there for Amy and especially our two boys, I didn’t have the right words — if they exist — to help them through the most difficult time in our family’s history. I stumbled through life, managing to handle my adult responsibilities, but I’ve avoided dealing with my feelings, stuffing them away to be dealt with who knows when.
My mom died less than three weeks after she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer in the summer of 2016. She chose to live out her final days at home with her beloved dogs and cat, and Hospice nurses helped us keep her as comfortable as possible until she passed away. I’ve since come to accept Mom’s death as part of the natural process of living. She was almost 70, had a chance to live the good life, had fought the good fight in many arenas, and left the world a better place. (She was a free and independent spirit. She once fought to keep Walmart from building a store on a Civil War battleground near her home. And she never intentionally harmed another living creature as far as I know.) Knowing that we will all meet the same fate eventually, I have found a small measure of peace in knowing that Amy and I were there for her when she needed us the most. She knew she was loved unconditionally. Isn’t that what we all want?
Nothing prepared us for losing Amy’s brother to suicide four years ago this week. Dave, or Uncle D as we called him, had struggled with mental health issues for two decades. He also had the benefit of world-class mental-health treatment, counseling and support — and in the year before his death he had earned an advanced degree in counseling.
Uncle D was larger than life. He had a huge personality, a kind heart, and an enviable confidence grounded in his significant intellectual and athletic abilities. I could not get the best of him at Scrabble, waterskiing, a debate over the issues of the day, or obscure sports trivia. He was a better cook even if he destroyed the kitchen and never cleaned a pot or pan. Forget about an IQ test. One year during his visit to Statesville I devised to beat him in a foot race. Although I’m nearly 10 years older, he had me by at least 100 pounds and was a former smoker. Confident that a claim to supremacy was finally within my reach, I set the big event for about 30 minutes after Sunday dinner and then watched smugly as Dave emptied and refilled his plate with roast, mashed potatoes and his famous mac and cheese. Then as we took our marks in the middle of Park Street, I knew I would win. His extra girth and the heavy meal sitting on his stomach would surely give me a big advantage. Well, I don’t have to tell you who won.
Apart from — or maybe because of — his competitive spirit, Uncle D’s love for his nephews was unrivaled. He always arrived with suitcase surprises and, to my amazement, he enjoyed the CiCi’s buffet as much as the boys. He read them books, let them climb on him like a jungle gym and was the king of ba-boomies. During many of his visits, I wondered if it was possible that he loved my children even more than I did. Luckily for me, I guess, such a thing is not easily quantifiable. At this point, I am willing to concede that contest was too close to call.
So Dave’s death — and his decision to end his own life — has been nearly impossible for our family to reckon with during the past four years. His absence hangs like a heavy blanket over every family gathering, from graduations to Sunday dinners. Several times a month Amy reaches for her phone to text Dave about something great — or not-so great — that Josh or Ben has done. Uncle D has missed a lot — proms, penalty kick shootouts, some amazing family trips and our first parents weekend at college.
On Wednesday, the anniversary of Dave’s death, as Amy and I sat down for lunch, we talked about finding the best way to honor his short life. We asked the same questions that have haunted us for the past four years: What if we had done this? Or not done that? Or what if Dave had known how much he would be missed by dozens of friends? Or if he had known the permanent void his death would leave in our hearts and lives? Could we have helped him save himself? Did he know he was loved unconditionally?
Of course, it’s impossible to answer those questions so we will remain in an endless loop of asking and wondering and second-guessing everything we did and did not do during that last year. No parent or sister — or nephew or brother-in-law — should have to ask these questions.
We have to fight harder to save those who are staring into the abyss of depression, bipolar disorder and other major mental illnesses. Aside from working to ensure universal access to high-quality mental health care services and medication, there are steps we can take to help someone who is at risk for taking his or her own life.
Depression is one of the leading causes of suicide. If someone you know is exhibiting signs of depression — such as apathy, guilt, hopelessness, mood swings, or sadness — please reach out and let them know that you love them and care. If they push you away, get other people involved. Let them know they are not alone, that help is available and you will help them get it.
If you know someone who is exhibiting warning sides for suicide — such as talking about being a burden to others, increased use of alcohol or drugs, acting anxious or behaving recklessly, sleeping too little or too much, or who is intentionally isolating themselves from friends and loved ones — call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The trained professionals who answer the phone can help.
If you think someone is in immediate danger, do not leave him or her alone — stay with them or make sure someone else does — and call 911.
Every life is worth fighting for. Everyone deserves to know they are loved unconditionally.
Mike Fuhrman is editor of Iredell Free News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.