In light of Kate Spade and now Anthony Bourdain‘s deaths by suicide, I’m struck by the harsh comments by those who don’t understand. Suicide is not a crime (thanks to modern law), and it isn’t selfish. It happens when pain exceeds coping skills. Just as people with heart disease sometimes die from a heart attack, depression is a mental illness that sometimes leads to suicide.
It’s important to understand that suicide can also happen in the absence of depression, like a teen or young adult in acute pain from overwhelming circumstances they can’t see past.
If you haven’t lost someone who died from suicide or know someone who survived a suicide attempt, it can be hard to wrap your brain around it. But judging someone else’s actions when you don’t walk in their shoes only brings more heartache to the loved ones left behind who now face a lifetime of shame and stigma.
My heart is broken for all families left struggling in the wake of suicide, and serves as a good reminder to embody simple kindness. One hello can change a mood. One hug can change a day. One act of kindness can change a life.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Text HELLO to 741741
1-800-273-TALK. It’s free and open 24/7.
I met James Cameron Mjelve in 2005 while we were both living in Edmonton. At the time he worked for a laborer’s union. We married in 2007 and had three beautiful children together, one boy and two girls. In 2009, Cameron decided to go back to university and finish his Education degree.
In 2010, Cameron was in his second year when I began to notice that he was struggling more with the course load. During Christmas break Cameron seemed different, a little off from his usual self. Perhaps a little depressed, but nothing to be overly concerned about. In January 2011, our youngest daughter was born with a disability and the stresses of life became overwhelming for Cameron. He began to struggle even more with his university courses.
On July 21, 2011, my husband committed suicide. We were both forty-two at the time and our children were three, two, and five months old.
There is much that has changed in my life from losing a spouse. Perhaps the first is that I’ve had to learn how to use the word widow when speaking about myself. That alone has been a tough adjustment. I’ve become single again and I’ve had to learn how to be comfortable in a room full of couples. I’ve had to become comfortable in a room full of widows. I’ve had to become comfortable crying in front of both those groups of people.
It has been a difficult experience, losing a spouse. I’ve had to face major decisions for myself and the children alone. At times this has been very stressful, especially when I’ve had to make decisions which impact my children’s health or our financial stability. It has been so difficult not having anyone to bounce ideas off of. Friends will always tell you they are there to help you and listen, but it’s still not the same. I miss my friend who shared everything with me.
But I have learned from my experience, and developed a stronger decision-making process. As a result, I have been able to become more confident in the decisions I make. Another way my life is different is that I simply cannot do the things I want to do. I cannot run to the store at 10 p.m., there is no one to watch the children. I cannot sleep in on a Saturday if it’s been a tough week of being up in the night with sick children. Even something so simple as taking a vacation has become a major undertaking. Not only is there no one to help me with the children, but there’s no one for me to share the experience with. Even if we as a family are on vacation and the children are enjoying themselves, who did I get to tell about my experience?
Life is lonely. I don’t have anyone to share even the small moments with. There is no spouse who laughs with you or remembers with you. There is also no one who touches you. Yes, the kids hug and climb all over me, but it’s different than the simple loving touch of a husband.
Life has been different and even difficult, for sure. But I also see it as an opportunity to grow. Although my life will never be what I had dreamed it would be, I am discovering there is a new life that I can make. It unfortunately doesn’t include my husband, but it does include my children and we take Cameron’s memory with us wherever we go. And we are learning that we can still live a life that is full of meaning and adventure, even if it wasn’t the life we originally chose. And I do feel like I have a choice. We live in a society that is very focused on couples. This is not the life that I chose, to be single at forty-two years old, but I also feel like I’m presented with a choice on how to react. I can sit and wallow in self-pity and despair over broken dreams, or I can get up and start life over again.
I will always, always remember my husband. I will always grieve his loss. I will still cry over his loss. But I will choose to keep on living and to help my children find their life as well.
Written by Julie Mjelve. Julie’s 42-year-old husband Cameron died by suicide in 2011 Read her full story in Surviving Loss of a Spouse.
There is a certain type of person who, when he or she walks into a room, the atmosphere changes. It suddenly becomes more vibrant and exciting. It’s the type of person you know you can count on—the type of person who makes you feel deeply loved, and the type of person whose energy and laugh are contagious. That was Hannah.
She was one of my best friends and also my roommate. We met each other in south Florida and quickly connected, so moving into an apartment together was the perfect fit. Everyone’s initial response to seeing a picture of Hannah was how beautiful she was. She was incredibly beautiful, yes, but the most beautiful thing about her was her heart. She lived passionately, loved deeply, and had a lively spirit. We always had fun together, and I have precious memories of our many spontaneous adventures.
The deep authenticity in our friendship was what meant the most to me. We did life together. Neither of us had family in Florida, so we were each other’s family. Hannah was a truly loyal and supportive friend and made me feel so important and loved. She embodied confidence and joy.
What most people didn’t know, however, was how much Hannah struggled with insecurity over her potential, her personality, her worth, her relationships and her future. I never understood why she felt so self-conscious; she was such a lovable, smart, fun and valuable girl. I’ll never be able to understand exactly how it felt to be in her head but from talks we had, I knew Hannah was struggling to feel hopeful about her ability to overcome the internal battles in her mind and to succeed at all the dreams she had for her life. Hannah had been going through a particularly rough patch when she took her life. Her insecurities were affecting her relationships, she doubted her potential in pursuing a career in nursing, and she felt stressed out handling the responsibilities of life on top of her emotional battles.
A few days before her death, Hannah came home crying and told me she had been fired from the job she loved. Other events that weekend had been extremely tough as well. On the evening of May 5, I was sitting at a restaurant when I got a call from her mother, who lives out of state. She was concerned about Hannah’s well-being and asked if I had talked to Hannah that day. I hadn’t been home and hadn’t talked to her, so when I got off the phone with her mom, I called her. Hannah was crying and obviously in distress when she answered, so I told her I would meet up with her and help her figure out how to get through whatever was going on. I needed to close my check at the restaurant, so I told Hannah I would call her right back to figure out where we should meet. But when I called back shortly after, she didn’t answer. You know that bad gut feeling you sometimes get in a certain situation? I felt that, so I went looking for her. I drove around for hours, looking everywhere I could think of where Hannah might be, but had no luck. When it got late and I ran out of ideas, I finally had to return to our apartment for the night. I hoped maybe Hannah had fallen asleep at a coworker’s house or somewhere similar.
The next morning, her mother called me at 8 a.m. to tell me that Hannah had taken her life shortly after I’d spoken to her. She was at her boyfriend’s apartment and was found that night by his roommate. The police contacted Hannah’s parents shortly after. I’ll never forget that phone call from her mother. I’ll never forget the way my phone slipped out of my hand as I leaned on a chair for support, shaking and struggling to breathe. My thoughts were racing, yet the only thought that was clear was, “This isn’t real. This can’t be happening.” I remember laying on the floor at one point, because the solidity of the floor was the only sense of stability I could find in that moment. I remember the gut-wrenching sobs, sometimes so deep that there were moments no sound even came out of my mouth.
Losing someone to suicide forever alters your life and who you are. Hannah’s death has changed my perspective on life, my priorities, my relationships, my routine, and my heart. Some changes are good, while some have felt damaging. I have hope that the changes that currently feel negative will be redeemed and healed as my journey continues. Because Hannah was part of my daily life and one of my best friends, I think I took too many moments with her for granted, because I assumed we had a lifetime of moments ahead of us. I didn’t realize just how deeply my life was intertwined with hers until she was ripped away from it, and I found myself left with the sharp, jagged edges around a crater where her presence once was.
I was forced to start a new chapter in life, even though I hadn’t finished writing the one before. I’ve stood on wobbly feet the past year, looking at a new chapter I wasn’t prepared for and didn’t want, trying to figure out exactly how it has changed me and how to find solid ground again. I’ve grappled with the concept of closure and wondered if it’s even possible.
Experiencing this level of grief itself has changed me forever. I’ve learned that grief isn’t a coat you put on and then take off once you feel warm again. In a way, you have to absorb grief. It’s been a process of acceptance and a process of change and adjustment for me. It has become a part of me, not in the sense that it is my identity, but in the sense that it has redefined the person I am.
I ask myself exactly how Hannah’s death has changed me, but I honestly don’t think I fully know yet. I know that time will reveal more, but for now there are a few things I do know. I know that since Hannah died, I have a deeper level of compassion, love, and concern over the well-being of others than I ever did before. I’ve become more sensitive and educated in how to support people in ways that will be most helpful to them. I’ve found a deep desire to make a difference, to stand up for those who suffer silently and could too easily slip under the radar. I’ve found a voice to advocate for those who suffer from mental illness. I want to be a light in the darkness. And although Hannah’s death itself will never be something I view as “good,” I do know that the qualities I’ve gained are good gifts, because they make me a stronger, more loving and more dependable person. And I am grateful for that.
Written by Emily Barnhardt. Emily’s best friend and roommate, Hannah, died in 2014 at age 20. Emily’s full story is available in Grief Diaries: Surviving Loss by Suicide