Editor’s note: Columnist Linda Braden Albert is yielding her space today to her daughter, Emily Effler, who writes about suicide. “Her words touched me deeply, and I thought they might be beneficial to others,” Linda said.
It’s 5 a.m. and I can’t sleep. A few hours ago, I watched a TV show that showed a man who had hanged himself and was found by his co-workers. I’ve been trying to process my thoughts ever since the show ended, and I want to share them.
Twelve years ago I was working at a mental health hospital. I worked with kids, but on one particular day, one of the adult units needed extra help, so I volunteered to go. My job was to stay with a lady on “CO” — constant observation. This meant that the woman was considered high risk for self-harm or harming others, so someone needed to have eyes on her 24/7.
I had a chair in the hallway outside her room, and I sat there watching closely as she napped. I’d never worked this unit before, so I didn’t know anyone’s names or anyone’s stories, and I was being extra vigilant.
Just a few minutes into my shift, a woman patient walked down the hall towards me. I smiled, said hello, introduced myself, and asked how she was doing. She smiled back warmly and told me her name and that she was doing fine, then she walked into the room across the hall from the lady I was watching. I knew from the board in the hallway that she was a level 3 patient, meaning she’d worked her program, was granted the highest level of freedom and trust, and was considered almost ready to go home. No need for anyone to keep an eye on her.
Within 10 minutes of meeting that lady, I saw her roommate walk into the same room, then immediately run out crying and screaming, “She’s dead! Help! She’s dead!” Not knowing anything at all about the roommate, and being accustomed to irrational outbursts and strange behavior, I assumed she might be hallucinating at first. I hesitated to leave my CO for a second, but I saw that I was the only one close by, so I hurried in to see what had upset her, so that I could calm her down. I found that she was not hallucinating. The lady I’d just spoken with a few minutes ago, who had just smiled and told me she was fine, had used a bed sheet and a chair to hang herself.
I yelled for help. From the color of her face, which isn’t a color I have any desire to describe, I knew that she was gone, but we tried desperately to cut that sheet off anyway.
I’m sure it wasn’t more than a minute, but it felt like an eternity before nurses arrived and took over. A few minutes later I saw ambulance workers leaving with her with a sheet over her face.
I never learned anything about her other than that on her paperwork she’d said she had three kids, but after a few phone calls, it was found that she actually had three cats. I guess that was the closest thing she’d had to love.
I’m sharing this because I’ve grieved for that woman for 12 years. Every time I hear of another suicide, I think of her. I can’t recall her name, but I wish I could. I was the very last person she ever spoke to, and all I had was small talk. I know that it wasn’t my fault, and that it wasn’t up to me to prevent it, but I do wish I could go back and tell her what 12 years could have done.
Twelve years could have given you a holy calling from God himself. Twelve years could have given you three children. Twelve years could have given you children who needed a mentor or foster mother. Twelve years could have given you countless shelter animals who needed a human to care for them. Twelve years could have given you meaningful friendships, fulfilling work, newfound talents and a passion for bringing healing to others from whatever is hurting you. Twelve years could have shown you how to give and receive love you haven’t experienced before. Your life matters now, no matter how screwed up, and it always will.
Every human life is so precious. I hope all of you believe that.
Addendum from Linda Braden Albert: The Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network has a wealth of information on suicide prevention. Visit the website at tspn.org. If you or a loved one are feeling desperate, alone or hopeless, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is a free, 24-hour service available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Alternately, you can text TN to 741741 to connect to the Crisis Text Line and a trained counselor.
As Emily so eloquently wrote, every human life is so precious. Believe it.