COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. — April 4, 2008, my sister awoke for the last time to a world that had not always treated her with kindness.
We were two weeks shy of her 31st birthday, and six weeks shy of a family wedding … my wedding. April 4 would be the last day I would see her. It would be the last day her six sons would see her.
In the wake of what had become a lifetime of tragedies, she left home with a couple bottles of pills, drove to a nearby farm and called her oldest son to give him a consolation goodbye. “I have nothing left to give,” she told him. There, alone in the dark, she fell to sleep for the last time.
If you are reading this, I can all but guarantee that you too have come to know the sting of such sorrow. Most have been impacted by suicide. Whether it was a family member, a high school friend, a fellow service member, or whether you’ve contemplated in your darkest moments of despair such a frightening decision. Unfortunately, suicide’s past has been all too familiar, and suicide’s future will continue to cause pain and sorrow. However, there are ways we can join together and resource ourselves to quell suicide’s ugly grasp. By raising awareness and equipping ourselves to combat suicide, lives can and will be saved. With that, I submit three initial priorities to guide our deliberations about how we care for ourselves and care for others.
- Learn to monitor your own mental, communal, familial and spiritual resiliency.
- Enhance the quality of social, spiritual and mental health opportunities for teens and children.
- Look for indicators of suicidal intent in others.
Priority No. 1 is self-care. We all know that the second United States Air Force’s core values is “Service Before Self.” We are called to a life of servant leadership, where we place the needs of others before our own, but to do so at the expense of neglecting our own needs proves to be dangerous. An example that highlights the importance of self-care is found when a flight attendant communicates, “In the unlikely event of an emergency … first put your oxygen mask on before helping others.” If you do not practice self-care, you will not be able to consistently care for others. Don’t ever apologize or feel guilty about taking care of yourself.
Improving community resources (our second priority) helps parents to address the needs of youths before they become candidates for suicidal behavior. These community resources develop a child’s innate joys and strengths, which eventually leads to greater resiliency and happiness. Without these avenues, a child’s inner resources might remain untapped. Therapy, along with social and spiritual activities, cannot guarantee an absence of suicidal ideations, but they can help a child cope with life’s struggles. My hope is that we all might become fosterers of growth, hope, and healing for our little ones.
Priority No. 3 is about knowing people. Pay attention to their nonverbal behaviors, their anxieties, stressors, statements, joys and fears. Although some suicides will come suddenly, many follow behaviors and ideations that in hindsight were warning signs that had presented themselves. Proceed by caring for people in such a way that grants permission for back and forth and life-saving conversations when needed.
This is not an exhaustive list. These are just a few commitments I’m making. I’m making them to honor people like my sister, Melissa, and I’m making them to know that I can better care for incredible Airmen like you. I hope you’ll do the same for me.