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It Wasn’t the Sadness, It Was the Silence

I got a call at 3 am on Dec. 14, 2014, that would change me forever. My youngest cousin, John, who had been at my house for dinner just hours before, had died by suicide in his garage.

How could this happen after a beautiful evening of wine and steaks and exchanging Christmas gifts? He was only 30 years old and had just married the love of his life, a really amazing woman, a Chinese student at the University of Oregon. As they cuddled on the couch that last night, they talked about his work doing online marketing and maybe starting a winery near Salem.

Now it was time to help his wife pick up the broken pieces of her life. I stayed with her for more than 72 hours straight, never leaving her alone. We cried, talked and packed up the eerie house. Mostly, though, I listened more deeply than I ever had in my whole life. 

When almost everything was packed on the morning of the fourth day, I held almost half of her body weight by her arm and shoulders as she stepped out of the house for the first time as a woman alone in the world. We were survivors of a suicide without so much as a note.

We tried to make sense of what happened. She recalled that other than the last family Christmas dinner, John was not going out of the house and was communicating less with people. His alcohol and marijuana intake had increased and was pretty much a daily habit.

Despite the dreams of owning a winery one day, we realized he had been rejecting all help and future plans. For example, her father had offered to pay for John to go to college, and he declined. 

John would say his life “sucked” to his wife but wouldn’t want to talk about it with anyone else or seek any counseling. The conflict in their relationship was increasing. 

But the biggest red flag of all was that he had tried to take his life a year prior in that same garage after a binge drinking episode. That suicide attempt was kept silent from me. I assumed it was not in his wife’s Chinese culture to talk much about these things.

But then I realized the saddest truth: Americans don’t talk much about suicide, either.

For my part, I haven’t spoken much about John’s death to anyone, and I feel it is time for me to break that silence.

My cousin’s behaviors were among the textbook signs of someone at risk for suicide — and we missed them. He had behavioral clues like unexplained irritability, as well as increasing drug and alcohol use. His negative statements about his life were typical indirect verbal clues. His increased social isolation and previous suicide attempt were both risk factors for another attempt.

The warning signs of suicide are well-researched. If our family had known them, perhaps I would still have my sweet cousin. I have to live with that.

I would rather you don’t live with that kind of suffering — which is why I’m inviting you to a free opportunity to learn QPR suicide prevention training. Teaching you how to “Question, Persuade and Refer” those in your life that may be at risk for suicide, QPR training not only allows you to recognize the suicidal clues people may be showing you, it shows you how to offer them hope as well.

The next online training sessions are 10 am Nov. 3 and 6:30 pm Nov. 18, and in just a bit more than an hour, you can learn how to save a life. If that class is full, look further down the schedule; there are classes all through the fall.

I hope to see you there. As a family member of someone who has died by suicide, I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did.

To register for QPR training, go to SuicidePreventLane.org or the Lane County Public Health Suicide Prevention Program at 541-682-8731.

Melanie King Velez is a nurse who was born and raised in the Eugene/Springfield area. She is currently working on a doctorate nursing degree and is a member of the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Lane County.