The swath of devastation left in the wake of a suicide is hard to speak of, let alone truly grasp, but try we must. If such a discussion prompts one person to seek another way through their pain than to opt out of life, then the pain of writing and reading about surviving a loved one's suicide will be worth it.
I have been told that sharing the story below is a courageous act. Just recounting the tragic event of 1997 for this article made me sick for a brief time, but it needs to be said for both personal reasons and to help others. Just rereading this piece brings tears to my eyes and pain to my heart. Thank you for letting me share.
Breakfast or a Bullet? Thankfully, I Chose Breakfast…
Nothing I ever experienced in life or as a lawyer, either in practice or in law school, had prepared me for this. Nothing!
The alarm clock rang and I opened my eyes slowly to another dark, gray, flat day just like so many that had preceded this one. I asked myself today, like every day now because the pain is so great I felt for sure I couldn't bear it one more minute, "Should I have breakfast or a bullet?"
As lawyers, we are smart, in control, self-assured and able to find the answer to the problems our clients bring us. That's what lawyers are and do. I learned this early on and lived it. We don't get sick and we certainly don't or shouldn't allow ourselves to get as sick as I was.
How did I get here?
One morning there was a knock on my door and I opened it to find a nervous, uneasy State Trooper standing in front of me. I knew many State Troopers, but this was not the face of one I knew. He asked me to confirm my identity and then said, "Your son is dead" - at least that's how I remember it.
It was as if the world all around me just disappeared. I could hear a most forlorn, horrific hollow scream. That sound couldn't be coming from me but it was. And the whole world went monotone.
My son had committed suicide during the night. I am a survivor of that suicide. The cost was immense.
After all the formalities, services and acquaintances telling me how sorry they were for my loss, the quiet set in. After a couple of weeks I went back to my practice doing what I had done for so many years.
Or at least I thought I went back.
Every morning I went to my office but couldn't work. I went through the motions of going to court, talking with clients and colleagues. But in reality I was slowly sliding into an abyss of despair.
Eventually it came down to me sitting at my desk unable do anything. I couldn't even answer the telephone. It appeared to others that I was working but I accomplished very little. Friends and colleagues drifted away. Few said anything to me about my son's death. Almost none of my lawyer brethren even asked, "How are you?" On the rare occasion someone did I answered with a hollow "OK."
Thankfully one very close friend would come to my office and take me to lunch or just to "hang out" for a while. He would caringly listen to me ramble. At home I didn't talk about it. At work I couldn't talk about it.
I was, after all, a lawyer and we don't share our personal feelings or emotions. It is a practiced affect to remain visibly calm and unreactive to such things as the horrific details of a murder or a devastating testimony during a trial. We get so good at it we don't even know we do it. It can be our downfall.
My practice died a slow death. I was so depressed I couldn't even open the mail. Complaints came in. I had become incapable of dealing with anything.
I finally hit bottom and thankfully again did not choose the bullet. Instead I called my doctor to ask for help. He recommended a therapist. But by then it was only a matter of time until I would lose my law license, and then my wife and nearly everything else.
In therapy I learned that I had suffered from depression most of my life, which exacerbated the grief I felt in losing my son. I learned depression was a medical condition that could be treated. After several years of therapy I was finally able to hold more than a simple job. The journey of recovery has been a long, slow road.
Today I am a lawyer again and so very thankful to first having survived being a survivor, and then having a second chance to pursue my profession, which I am told makes my eyes shine when I speak of it.
Growing up I often heard people say that "something good always comes from something bad." I believed it as a kid and still believe it now, even after all I've been through. I know myself far better than I could have without this trauma, and I know for certain that when tragedy befalls someone I know I need to reach out. I need to not just ask, "How are you doing?" but I also need to take the time to listen and offer friendship and undeniable support. The more connected we can be to the survivor of suicide or other tragedy the harder it makes it for them to choose the bullet.
Suicide . . . It makes us so uncomfortable very few people even want to say the word. But it happens, and the cost for those left behind can be immense without the help of caring friends and colleagues, especially those who have been there.
Thank you for reading this. I hope this article reminds lawyers that the high demands of practicing law or difficult life events can result in depression, anxiety, addiction and frustrations that challenge your ability to cope. There is hope and help, and it is just a phone call away.
If you need help, call the NYSBA Lawyer Assistance Program at 1-800-255-0569 or email [email protected].