Words by Cheryl Sheik | Image by Jamie Brinkman
On October 8, 2016, my life abruptly changed. The man I’d loved for more than 15 years took his own life. I was shocked, devastated, and lost in a sea of emotions while simultaneously trying to collect myself enough to face my two small boys, who were nine months and three years old. It was a moment that induced a fog that I had never experienced before. I have heard it described as “widow brain” but it was much more than that. It was the detachment and numbness that happened while trying to process my new reality, but it was also all the sadness, confusion, anger, and hurt that came with it.
It took me a long time to admit that there was a small portion of relief mixed in with the rest of my emotions. Not that I wanted or imagined it would ever happen; but the months, weeks, and days leading up to his death were painful, complicated, and frustrating. There was a spiral happening, in big and little ways, leading up to his final hours and we, as a family, lived in its destruction. I remember telling our therapist, my husband’s family, and some of my close friends that he was unraveling; a dissolution that I couldn’t put into words or pinpoint with specific actions or events, but more of a feeling.
One of the questions that I often get is, “Did you see it coming?” I cannot help but get frustrated when I hear it because suicide is so misunderstood. Of course I did not see it coming! In hindsight, and with the perspective of his final choice, there were plenty of signs but none were blatant or definitive. Many could be chalked up to having a newborn in the household, a demanding job, financial stress... and the list goes on. So I find myself defensive and thinking, “Yeah, I saw it coming, knew he was going to do it, gave him the gun, and kissed my entire life goodbye.”
My husband had struggled with alcoholism and drug use for most of his adult life, but it seemed (from the outside) like his issues were under control. Again, it wasn’t big things that brought on the unraveling feeling; he held a job, provided for our family, and interacted with his friends and family. But upon his death, I learned secrets he had been keeping from me, which may have been the cause of my uneasiness. Shortly after the birth of our second son, my husband had a panic attack and went to the hospital. While there, he was prescribed his first anti-anxiety medication. He did not tell me about the prescription and therefore I didn’t correlate the beginning of the spiral with him taking the medication. The spiral continued with rapid job changing, erratic buying and selling behavior, mood swings, and unobtainable demands.
As things became more unstable, I made the very difficult decision to move out for awhile. During this time, we worked hard on our marriage and it seemed like he was trying hard to work on his own issues. I could tell he wanted things to be different, but wasn’t quite sure how to make that happen.
Then, three weeks before his death, he went back to his doctor and was prescribed three different anxiety medications and a sleeping medication. I truly believe that was the beginning of the end. He was immediately a different person afterward, he seemed “high” when I saw him, and I assumed he had begun using drugs or drinking again. Sadly, he kept the medications secret from me, and I was left grappling with my confusion. I knew he was depressed about our living situation, that he wanted his life back the way it was before; but I also had to listen to my gut. As sad as it was, he was unstable.
Do I feel responsible for his death? No. Do I wish I could have done more to help him? Yes. Am I deeply saddened by the emotions he must have felt leading up to his final choice? Yes.
I hate that he felt so alone, unworthy, and ashamed. I hate that there are many more families living in this spiral every day with so little support. It truly is miserable for the person suffering AND for the families living through it with them. Many of these families are struggling in private; their lives look “normal” to someone looking in from the outside, yet they are simply managing the pain and are unsure where to turn.
I am not an expert on the subject of suicide, just a wife and mom who was changed forever because of it. I find, through talking with others who have experienced this kind of loss, that there seems to be a strong correlation between suicide and shame. There are some who make the choice to end their lives due to a long battle with mental illness (often fraught with shame). But others are new to dealing with mental illness and may not know it’s happening to them or their loved ones. Regardless of whether it's a new struggle or an old one, many feel ashamed of the choices they have made, for the way they are feeling, for who they are, for letting down their families, and for not being able to control their mental stability. And then they end their lives and the shame continues on with the survivors; as there is a stigma attached to suicide deaths that cannot be ignored.
I cannot change the outcome for my husband. But during this journey I have learned a lot about grace. Grace for myself, grace for my husband and his decision, and grace for those who don’t know what to say, what to ask, or what to do. Through my experience, I have a renewed commitment to show grace and love to those around me. To live in the “mess” with others and to really listen when they are hurting. Whether the individual I am with is the one struggling or their friend or family member, they need more understanding and love and less judgment and shame from us. Really, we all could do with a little more of that.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.
Each year, 44,965 Americans die by suicide
For every 1 suicide, there are 25 attempts.
On average, there are 123 suicides per day in the U.S.
Firearms account for almost 51% of all suicides.
Men die by suicide 3.5x more often than women.
White males accounted for 7 out of 10 suicides in 2016.
The rate of suicide is highest in middle age - white men in particular.
If you need help, please call National Suicide Prevention Line: 1-800-273-8255.
* Statistics from American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared in Issue 12 of Holl & Lane Magazine. Please click here to read the whole issue.