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When the Suicide Crisis Hits Home

Reports project at least 75,000 deaths from suicide and drug overdose during the pandemic alone. My friend Dan was one of them. How do we grieve? How do we take action? How do we fight for our mental health?

When my friend Justin called me at 5:30 a.m. on Friday, June 12th, I heard the vibration of my phone and reflexively threw it across the room, quickly falling back asleep without looking. A few hours later, I got up to pee and saw his text, the kind we all dread waking up to. “I need you to call me,” it read. “I don’t want you to hear about this on Instagram.” 

It was obvious: Someone had died. 

Over the past few months, death was everywhere. As the text acknowledged, there’d been a growing number of social media posts mourning loved ones who had died, many from coronavirus. But it seemed people — especially relatively young creative ones like me — were more frequently falling victim to illnesses of the mind that the isolation of quarantine only made worse, and in this case, fatal. As such, I instinctively knew it was suicide or a drug overdose, or some combination of both.

There was really only one person Justin would reach out to me about — my ex Dan, who I’d reconnected with in quarantine. Justin didn’t know this at the time, but I’d texted Dan in mid-March — like a fuckboi just “checking in” — and apologized for sabotaging our promising relationship because I wasn’t over a previous one. I was also worried about him because he’d had pneumonia a few times, and I admittedly missed talking to my smartest and funniest ex. 

All Justin knew was that I took our initial breakup hard and that I’d take the news that Dan had hung himself even harder. I heard what he said, but responded like Dan was getting married, moving to the other side of the world or going away to prison. Or perhaps that was my brain’s failed, arrogant attempt to delete him without leaving a painful void behind. “Thanks for the heads up,” I wrote back flatly.

A divorced dad with a complicated family life, there would be no Zoom funeral for Dan, only a small memorial barbecue among mutual friends in the same backyard we first met over burgers and beers in September 2018. The couple who initially introduced us, Matt and Rachel, have always been known for their parties, but unfortunately, they’re also now known as the last two people to see Dan alive. Matt had asked Dan — a carpenter and out-of-work set builder — to help him construct a pair of cornhole boards for COVID-friendly outdoor gatherings. Dan showed up with the boards already made a day before they had planned to build them together. The generous but confusing gesture makes morbid sense in retrospect. 

Sharing stories through tears and masks, we tossed bean bags back and forth on the boards Dan made, which Matt had freshly painted our friend’s initials onto. It quickly became irksome that with every throw, the wood roared with absurd intensity. We padded the ground below them and later moved them from the pavement to the grass, but the boards continued to boom louder than the fireworks lighting up Brooklyn on a nightly basis. Like the first evening I met Dan, I tried to play it cool as I left the party but failed miserably to hide how I felt.

In the days that followed, Fox News pundits cynically politicized suicide as an argument for prematurely opening the economy, arguing that lockdown was killing more people than the coronavirus. The way the suicide of my friend was being used to advocate for more death was made worse by the forced isolation of quarantine. Even under normal circumstances, suicide bereavement is linked with a greater incidence of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and worst of all, more suicide. But now that we can’t distract ourselves with the hustle of a pre-pandemic life or physically comfort each other (“Many people are also more tense and on edge, and less willing or able to be a shoulder to cry on while dealing with personal frustrations and struggles,” adds Patricia Celan, a medical doctor and psychiatry resident at Dalhousie University), the trauma of a person choosing to die is an unyielding nightmare. 

Along these lines, Allen never really understood the importance of funerals and other grief traditions until — like his close friend Richard who killed himself on May 25th — they were gone. “We don’t have the rituals we normally do [when grieving],” he says. “I’m like, ‘I’ll hug you, but I’m not going to hug everybody.’ It’s so fucked up.”

Allen and Richard met as stand-up comics in L.A., where Richard quickly gained a reputation for being the kind of performer who would “sacrifice your opinion of him, his body, his mental health for the joke, always,” Allen says. Their already close friendship was further cemented by a shared traumatic experience less than two years ago, when they were victims of a drive-by shooting in a Lyft. Allen fully credits Richard — who saw what was happening early and told him to get down — with saving his life. “We’d just look at each other at a party and be like, ‘I’m glad you’re alive,’” Allen tells me. “Then he did this, and it’s like, ‘Man, you’re just gonna leave me with that?’” 

When Allen first woke up hungover to a bunch of text messages and voicemails about Richard, he thought it was a bad dream, and like me, went back to sleep. It wasn’t until he read the texts a second time that it really sunk in — and even then, it didn’t stick. “The first couple of days were like, acceptance, denial, bargaining, whatever, but it was all mixed up and all happening over and over and over again,” Allen recalls. 

On top of the isolating aspects of quarantine, Richard died the same day as George Floyd. As Allen attempted to coordinate an outdoor memorial, protests broke out nationwide, and the City of L.A. enacted aggressive curfews as early at 1 p.m. in some areas. He was ultimately able to gather with friends in Griffith Park, but Richard’s death still didn’t seem real. “He was a mischievous little guy. I could really see him poking around the tree and being like, ‘Gotcha!’” Allen says. 

I share my version of that: Checking my spam folder for an email from Dan explaining it was all a hoax. Allen responds with a knowing laugh. “I’m still not at a point where I’ve fully accepted it either,” he says. 

The acceptance stage of grief is particularly challenging with suicide because of it being volitional. When that reality is too much to bear, we turn into fumbling detectives instead, staying up all night, trying to connect all the clues that could possibly add up to a better explanation. “Suicide grief feels different than other types of grief because of the guilt, blame and shame that’s placed upon the loved ones of the deceased,” therapist Aisha Shabazz explains. “Anytime someone considers what could have been done to prevent this, it adds a different layer to the grieving process.”

Connecting with others who are struggling to accept the same reality is a crucial part of dealing with this unique kind of grief, Shabazz and Celan agree. But in the vacuum of our current reality, there’s nothing left to do other than to keep mulling over all the warning signs we may have missed — the isolation, addiction issues, unresolved trauma and/or pre-existing mental illness. 

The thing is, the warning signs of suicide can be easy to overlook at a time when no one is doing particularly well. “I don’t know how you get [to killing yourself], but with everything that’s going on, [suicide] is going to be a more common thought and I don’t know what to do about it,” Allen says. “Even though Richard had talked about killing himself and maybe always would have, [the pandemic] definitely sped the process the fuck up.”

A report from the Well Being Trust projects at least 75,000 deaths from suicide and drug overdoses resulting from the economic and social consequences of the pandemic. Worse yet, another recent survey of 880 behavioral health organizations found that the pandemic has forced many practices to cut services, lay off and furlough employees, and in extreme cases, close down completely. And an ample amount of research demonstrates the devastating impact the Great Recession had on suicide and substance abuse rates — for men specifically. (The current unemployment rate has obviously well surpassed that of 2008.)

Shabazz, a clinical supervisor of other therapists, admits most experienced clinicians never planned for a pandemic like this, and so, they’re struggling to triage high-risk clients. “Many therapists found themselves at odds when medical experts were telling people that they shouldn’t come to the ER unless they’re experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. Because calling 911 and going to the ER is part of every suicide risk safety plan,” Shabazz tells me. 

Safety plans are like contracts individuals can draw up with their therapists when they struggle with recurring suicidal thoughts. Essentially, it’s a list of triggers, warning signs, coping strategies and emergency actions, put in writing, to reference when someone is too deep in their own mental health crisis to trust themselves. The idea of drafting a safety plan that doesn’t include “going to the hospital” would have been absurd in the past, but now it’s a terrifying reality therapists haven’t been able to adapt to. “Now that the heart of the safety plan is removed, you cannot reach out for help in the way you were primed to, and you cannot activate any of your coping skills like spending time with friends,” Shabazz says. “So what are you supposed to do instead?” 

Dan and Richard were different men, but they both used drugs and alcohol to self-medicate in similar ways. “Partying was hard on him. It was one of those things that gave him life, but it was also killing him,” Allen says. What’s difficult for Allen to stomach is that, in an effort to feel better mentally and physically, Richard had stopped drinking about a month before the pandemic. “He was already trying not to drink, and then the world gets set on fire on top of that,” Allen explains. 

To Allen’s knowledge, Richard had remained sober up until a week before his death when Allen saw him briefly. He seemed healthy, happy and like his funny self. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he started drinking again the day he died. He could be in total control, and then lose it so quickly. I think that’s probably what happened,” Allen speculates. “Whatever happened, it went hard and fast, which was very much Richard.”

When Dan and I unpacked our failed relationship late one night in March, he mentioned that he had stopped drinking for the past year, which gave him more clarity on how he completely checked out on me. And although he’d never been a fan of 12-step programs, he made an informal amends to me, which I appreciated. Then he mentioned that now, with no production work in sight for the foreseeable future, he had started drinking again. But like the financial stress he spoke minimally about — child support, a mortgage, rent on workshop space — it seemed caused by circumstantial stressors that would resolve in time. More importantly, it was none of my business as an ex who was just coming back into his life. 

Men are already four times more likely to die by suicide than women, a risk that more than doubles when a man is divorced. This risk also goes up with drug and alcohol abuse, which more commonly impacts men, and unemployment, as men tie their job to their self-esteem more than women. Allen theorizes this might have been the case with Richard. Once he stopped being able to work as a comedian and be the life of the party socially, he lost his sense of purpose. “Richard really liked to feel useful. He loved to clean up after a party, he loved to help people, he loved to make everyone laugh,” Allen says.

“When someone dies, the brain replays memories about that person the same way the brain replays memories about someone lost in a breakup,” Celan explains. “Think of it like a physical filing cabinet and realizing you need to back up files from one area to a different one; to properly organize the material, you may need to look again. As a result, anything that was once a happy memory or a frustrating memory now becomes tinged with sadness during the brain’s organizing process.”

I had already revisited my Dan files when he dumped me after I got very drunk and angry at him for not coming to a friend’s birthday party with me. I woke up hungover the next morning with not one but two donuts in my purse. I wanted to laugh with him at how stupid I was, but he wasn’t taking my calls. He broke up with me via text a week later. “You seem chill, but are not,” it read. His astute, concise assessment made me miss him more. 

What I had yet to review were the new memories we had made over the course of our three-month-long quarantine friendship — almost the exact duration of our romantic relationship a year and a half before. After I reached out, we reconciled quickly and became fast friends, texting daily about what he was cooking, what I was writing and the deck he was constructing for his friend’s parents in New Jersey. He’d send me pictures of his two sons, and we’d fantasize about how we’d fill our newfound free time — him tackling home improvement projects, like the leak in his second bedroom; me, feuding with the Duolingo owl. 

Our late-night conversations would occasionally take a flirtatious turn. He’d invite me over, I’d decline because of the virus and my roommates, but also because I was scared to go down a romantic road again. He’d suggest phone sex, and I’d counter with eating dry toast to create the worst ASMR experience possible and generally joke my way around any sexual tension. Finally, after my roommates broke quarantine first, Dan picked me up on his motorcycle and took me to his place, where we slept together three weeks before he killed himself. 

I had no intention of getting back together with him, and the hookup was mostly due to a combination of cooped-up horniness and muscle memory. Still, the immediacy of the intimacy left me curled up on the floor wailing for 20 minutes after Justin called. “Intimacy on a physical or emotional level strengthens a bond in a different way. So it makes sense to me why you might feel this grief in a visceral way,” Shabazz says.

Steve never considered dating men until he started sleeping with Richard. Steve, who identifies as queer, jokes that he only likes to have sex with guys about as often as he likes eating Little Caesars pizza — “about two or three times a year.” “I’d never gone on a date or been romantic with a man. Richard was the first guy where I liked him like that,” Steve says. “He was the first guy where I was like, ‘If he didn’t hate himself so much, I think I could have a relationship with him.’ So I always had it in the back of my mind that if he weren’t so self-destructive, this was someone I could fall in love with.” 

Steve pauses, before adding, “But I also knew there was a pretty high possibility that wouldn’t happen.”

Steve used to party hard with Richard, but had gotten sober over the past year. Some of the boundaries he had put in place for his own recovery made it harder for him to check on Richard toward the end. As painful as that is in hindsight, Steve isn’t sure he’d be able to deal with the loss if he didn’t prioritize sobriety. “We got coffee before the pandemic, but I already guarded my heart,” Steve tells me. “I knew I couldn’t spend that much time with him because I really did love him so much. If this happened when we were sleeping together and drinking and partying, I would’ve been beyond devastated.”

He’s been coping by leaning on his support system in Alcoholics Anonymous, his girlfriend and his friends who also loved Richard. But he worries his grief could sneak up on him at any point, especially when the world returns to some sort of normalcy. “I just don’t know how this stuff is gonna end up hitting. We’ll see when life starts going again,” he says. In the meantime, Steve has felt more connected to Richard through activism, particularly participating in protests for Black Lives Matter. “Richard hated cops,” Steve says. “He played by his own rules, to his detriment, but he never tried to follow society’s expectations.”

Unfortunately, more traditional avenues for dealing with suicide bereavement have been hindered by the coronavirus. Teletherapy and Zoom support groups are out there, but with the overwhelming amount of grief taking place at the moment, these services are overwhelmed. Anecdotally, the first three therapists I reached out to following Dan’s death weren’t taking new clients or my insurance, and the only support group that emailed me back was through the The National Alliance on Mental Illness, which said their groups were only open to people who had been grieving for six months or more — i.e., suicides prior to the pandemic. 

The thing is, the grief needs a place to go. Especially because, again, there’s something distinctly heartbreaking about finding out that someone you cared for thought the world would be better without them. “Doing something like that, you know you’re going to put a lot of people in a lot of pain,” Allen says. “Even knowing that, if Richard felt like he had to do it, that’s okay. I get mad because I want to hang out with him one more time, but I don’t think I need to forgive him.” 

As for me, I loved Dan in a way that was somewhat disproportionate long before he died. I know that if I never reached out, he wouldn’t have contacted me at all. I would’ve found out he died on Instagram and felt sad, but been spared the gutting grief that I welcomed into my life when I went to his apartment.

When I kissed him goodbye that morning and pulled my vintage scarf over my face, I was certain it was the start of a new normal for us — a meaningful relationship unencumbered by romantic obligations for the foreseeable future.

But things went awry almost immediately. He called me that afternoon tripping on DMT, a smokable psychedelic that lasts only 30 to 45 minutes, something he dabbled in to deal with his depression when we dated that I always worried would stop working. I found it weird and frustrating, but let him ramble a bit while I washed my workout clothes in the bathroom sink, rolling my eyes at myself in the mirror. “Okay Joe Rogan, I gotta get back to work,” I said, hanging up. 

Our conversations were never the same again, but I blamed this on hooking up and gave him space, hoping the friendship would reset itself. A week later when I texted to see how he was, Dan promptly responded that he was sorry for his radio silence, that he wasn’t doing well and that he never realized how he used working all the time as a way to run away from himself. Now that he had nowhere to hide, it was overwhelming him. I told him that he was being too hard on himself, that he didn’t have to be sorry for not paying attention to me and that I was just glad he was back in my life at all. Not long after, I texted him about a meditation group in the park I thought he’d like, and he replied that he was feeling better. Our final communication was regrettably benign. 

Four days later, he was dead.  

Of course, I wish I’d called him. I wish I’d better understood his pain. I wish I’d demanded he come over the night he confessed that he was in a dark place. I’ve run through so many other scenarios, a million times over: What if I’d asked better questions? What if I’d told him how much I cared about him? What if I’d outright begged him not to die? 

I know none of that would have worked. But there’s comfort in the myth of being able to save someone from themselves, with the idea that small changes can prevent others from dying this way. And for now at least — with a pandemic raging and a mental health-care system desperate for change that may never come — maybe that’s the only thing we can do.