Editor’s Note: The story below contains descriptions of self-harm and suicide that some readers may find distressing.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the Veterans/Military Crisis Line for confidential support 24/7, 365 days a year. Call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1; text to 838255; or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.
For those not affiliated with the military, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741). Both services are confidential, free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. On July 16, 2022, dialing 988 will route callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Virginia Cooper sat beside her son and stroked his hands over and over. She knew these hands – she had kissed his tiny little fingers when he was a baby, held them as they crossed streets together, and swatted them away when he tried to steal a taste of her cookie batter.
“I remember wanting to get some gloves for his hands, they were so very cold,” she said. She told him again and again she loved him. And in the silence of that room, she cried.
Virginia wanted to stay at her boy’s side. “I kept saying I didn’t want to leave.”
“We’ll take good care of him,” the funeral director assured her, as he walked her out. “I promise.”
Virginia’s son, Joshua Jaymes Wood, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, was 30 years old when he took his life on Nov. 7, 2021.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth aged 10 to 14 and adults aged 24 to 35. In 2020, 46,000 people took their own lives, but there are many more who’ve had thoughts of suicide or have made an attempt, which are risk factors for future suicide attempts.
In Josh’s case, prior to his suicide, he’d been cutting himself. Self-injury, such as cutting, is a way to cope with emotional pain, anger and frustration. Virginia and her family found out about it only after he’d cut himself too deeply on one occasion and ended up in the hospital.
Virginia was stunned. “I don’t ever remember him not smiling or making a joke.” Josh had been undergoing counseling and Virginia constantly checked on him, but there was nothing to raise any red flags. And Virginia can quote all the red flags. As the Soldier and Family Readiness program manager at U.S. Army Central, she takes some of the same training service members go through on suicide prevention and substance abuse.
But, she said, Josh, as a Marine reservist, had gone through the same training and knew how to deflect the questions Virginia asked.
“I don’t think he was being completely honest with his counselors either. It’s not that he was being deceitful – he was just not letting his guard down so he could get the help he needed.”
Virginia was also shocked to find out Josh’s brother and one of his friends had both been in situations with him that should have ended with Josh in a hospital. “The remark was made ‘I thought I could talk him down,’” Virginia recalled. “It infuriated me because nobody – not even I – could talk a person down. We need to get them to help.”
While going through her son’s belongings in his apartment, Virginia came across some letters written by Josh before his death. They were not addressed to any of the family members. In these letters, Josh asked his friend to pass on messages to his relatives.
“With every bit of my fiber I believe he couldn’t say our names. He couldn’t do it,” said Virginia. What Josh did express in one of his letters was his displeasure with the health care he’d been receiving and wrote “Tell my mom. She’ll be mad and do something about it.”
Virginia is still not sure what she’s going to do about it, but she does feel that the stigma that still exists related to coming forward to get help is causing preventable deaths. She said people who are feeling suicidal can’t see past their pain, thinking their deaths will remove a burden from their family and friends.
“Truth is,” Virginia said, “they don’t see the pain that’s on the other side, because now what they’ve done is they’ve taken that and they’ve transferred it to the all the people who care, especially in units. Everybody is affected by it, even if you’re not close to the person.”
Virginia also believes that training needs to include families. “If someone is struggling and can’t ask for help, or know they need help, the people around them should reach out for them. With family suicide prevention and planning, we need to ramp up substance abuse and gun safety. I wholeheartedly believe every pistol owner should have to take a class with a suicide prevention module.”
Virginia’s thoughts on weapons safety matches up with a military suicide prevention study group scheduled to begin this summer. The panel will study suicide prevention and behavioral health programs across the services. It will include experts in lethal weapons safety, as well as experts in substance abuse and mental health service.
In the meantime, Virginia said she wishes there was a way to make suicide real for people. “Show them the cost and not just the dollars. This is what suicide looks like,” Virginia said, gesturing toward herself.
What does suicide look like? It looks like the friends, family members and co-workers who are left behind when someone takes his or her own life.
For Virginia, suicide is the absence of her son, who hid his pain behind the smiles and jokes he always had for his mom.
“I wish I had one more time to just sit and hold his hand. I wouldn’t need words. That is all I would want.”