In “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevye and Lazar Wolf joyously celebrate their agreement on Lazar’s engagement to Tzeitel by toasting, “L’Chaim”—“To Life!”
Their duet goes on to playfully contrast the joys and sorrows of life, with the repeated exclamation that despite the times of confusion, sadness, or bitterness, each moment of happiness should be grasped, and treasured, and celebrated.
Over the past few years I’ve spent increasing amounts of time with those who have come to feel that there is no balance in their life between joy and sorrow. Surrounded by dark clouds and doubt, they’ve considered a different path. Suicide. As a chaplain to Soldiers and veterans, the oft-repeated number of “20 suicides a day” is not an abstraction—it causes me to think of the names and faces of each of the Soldiers I have known, in their life or in their death, who have died at their own hand.
I’ve had three since the start of the year. I spent today with Soldiers who knew each of those three. They are hurt, confused, angry, grieving, and feeling some guilt, wondering what they didn’t see, what signs they didn’t notice.
But I also see the faces of those who are alive today, because someone did notice. Maybe they were unusually sad. Maybe they posted thoughts of death on social media. Maybe they just didn’t look right. Someone took the time to ask, “Are you thinking of suicide?” And the conversation that followed—that act of care alone– invariably helped to shine some light into the dark space, so that the person at risk saw that there were points of light. There was ambivalence where they only saw despair. There was the possibility of making a choice, for death, or for life.
Lots of things make people think of suicide: loss of a loved one, a treasured relationship, or a job. The sense of being overwhelmed by financial burdens. A feeling of loneliness. Sometimes they are facing a painful illness. Sometimes, later in life, they feel no desire to go on after the loss of a spouse; sometimes retirement from a job that was a primary source of meaning leads to a crisis of meaning in their life.
If you are ever at that point, you don’t need to face it alone. You can call 1-800-273-8255 (TALK), and find someone who will listen. If you are a veteran, press “1” on the menu and you will talk with a fellow veteran, or someone who understands veterans’ issues.
If you see someone acting differently, not caring, seeming to despair, drawing back, reach out to them. Be a friend. Ask clearly and deliberately, “Are you thinking about suicide?” And ask them why. Listen to their story. Stay with them. Be that spark of light, that moment of friendship, that listening heart, who can serve as a reminder that there are relationships and moments and opportunities that matter. That gives us the ability, in the midst of pain, to shout out, “To Life!”
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