Please pardon this extremely personal story that I need to share.
One year ago tonight, I was at work. I was in the middle of a session and my ten-year-old kept calling my phone. It was already dark, maybe 8 p.m. I knew something was wrong so I answered the call during the session with a couple I had been working with.
He told me I needed to come home immediately, and that something was wrong with my wife’s brother. I could hear her wailing in the background and I knew something was terribly wrong.
When I got home I found her in her bathroom–on the floor–crying so hard that there was drool and saliva and snot and tears running down her face. Her cheeks were red and her eyes were swollen already.
She had just learned that her 25 year-old brother had died by suicide earlier that day.
Jack was an Afghanistan veteran. He was a US Army Cavalry Scout and was responsible for detecting mines as his unit was on the front line, and he was in front of them. He had many traumatic experiences, but came home a hero, having saved many lives and bandaging up the wounded. One of my favorite stories about him over there was that he personally applied bandages to an Afghan soldier after a particularly fierce attack from the Taliban.
It has been the most difficult year of my own life, and I barely knew this kid. I met him and had a couple of private conversations with him and had great respect for him. He was exceptionally bright, a voracious reader, and a very kind friend to everyone he met.
Apparently he was being treated through the VA for post-traumatic stress disorder. After his death, we found blog entries where he had written about his experiences in Afghanistan, and he admitted that PTSD is real.
I have watched my sweet wife turn into something that only sadness and grief and loss and anger can make someone become. It’s been extremely difficult for our family and I wanted to share some of the things that I’ve learned throughout this year as a result of the suicide of John McCliment.
Say good morning.
After his death was discovered by his friends, so many of them went to social media to tell the story of how everyday this handsome and quirky young man would text them a good morning message…every day. It became something of a tradition, and many people learned to be annoyed by his constant “good mornings.” He posted on Facebook almost every day, good morning. In the days and weeks and months after his death, the expression of good morning became a way that the survivors of his suicide bonded with each other and remembered his kind and thoughtful words.
I know that some of those mornings for him were not good at all. They weren’t good because he had insomnia, and often went with little to no sleep but kept grinding through whatever he had to accomplish. He used alcohol (to self medicate, I presume) but that wasn’t–and never is–a good remedy for poor sleep. But surely it had its effect on his mood and well-being in other respects. So he didn’t sleep, he would have been drinking all night and now he had to face the day, likely feeling alone, still he shared love in the form of a good morning message to everyone he cared about.
Hang out with people who drink, even if you don’t.
I’ve had my vices. I do not drink alcohol, partly because I’ve had issues with it in the past, and partly because I’m a Mormon and perhaps uncomfortable being seen with people who drink, maybe because of the fear of how others might judge me. I think that’s something that I need to get over.
I don’t intend to go to bars or nightclubs anytime soon, and I’m not going to purchase alcohol for people to come into my home to drink. But I feel like there are many people that I could appreciate more fully in my life, if I lost the judgment about the fact that they drink alcohol.
Jack was someone like that. He came to visit one Thanksgiving and he and his cousin and younger brother wanted to have some beers. One of my wife’s favorite pictures of him includes him with his arms around his brother sister and cousin, with him holding a bottle of Budweiser. It’s always kind of made me cringe to have that picture visible in my home, but now I see it so differently.
“He’s holding a beer!!” I would think to myself. And while his use of alcohol was surely a part of his eventual demise, that’s not what this article is about. I just feel that I–and maybe many others–are so concerned with how things look, and should be more concerned with how things feel.
My regrets would never make me feel like I should have drank with him that night; I was already battling that demon for myself during that very hour. But I think maybe I would have let myself at least be in the picture. Maybe I wouldn’t have minded that photo to be visible at my house. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt whatever tension that was probably palpable because this young man was holding a brown glass bottle.
This picture of him now sits on my mantle, next to a statue of Jesus Christ and a large painting of the Salt Lake LDS temple.
One of the only contributions that I was able to make to the memorial services was a tribute video. We asked for people to email us pictures that they had of Jack and I put them together with a few songs and what I found was so many amazing photographs of this kid.
He was goofy. He allowed himself to tap into extensive absurdity and it was so humorous and heartwarming to see how he let himself have fun. He took pictures with just about everyone he loved. He held them close. Some days his shirt was dirty, some days he wasn’t even wearing a shirt, he had a chipped tooth and while he hid that sometimes, he also let it show through when he was really having fun.
Take pictures and let your picture be taken. In the end it really won’t matter if your hair is fixed or your gut is sticking out or if you have bad teeth. And a little detail that I noticed he often did in his pictures is that his face was touching the face of the other person. How many times are we so uncomfortable with having our picture taken that we stand there all stiff and fake. No, stand there with your cheek touching the cheek of the person you love. Male or female, pull yourself close to them and act like you like each other.
Be kind. To everyone.
One of Jack’s friends said that the best thing about him was his hugs. She said that he would just hug people until their hurt went away. Who are you hugging like that?
Be humble. One of my favorite stories about Jack was that he was staying with a friend and had gotten a job. Instead of asking for rides to work, he asked to borrow one of the bikes in the garage. Apparently he rode the bike to work in the snow and rain. They lived in Wisconsin.
Respect the military.
Regardless of what your political views are, I hope that you can have respect for our military because it is made up of young men and women who are doing the most difficult jobs in the world, for basically minimum wage and just a little bit above that. This young man volunteered for this job; he wanted a job that no one else wanted. And to be the person who sweeps for mines put himself in grave danger every single day of his one-year deployment. He saw people blown up.
One of the things he would have to do is gather all of the material from the bombs to find out what was in that particular explosive. Many times that included gathering human remains and this was part of the trauma that he never could come back from.
He was just a kid, trying to be a good citizen of the United States. He was trying to be a soldier. He was trying to protect his brothers. He was trying to do his duty. And he did that–with incredible courage. Show some respect to the kids in the camouflage.
So much of people’s anger is sadness.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, this was one of the most difficult times of my life, but not because of my own grief. I cried a few times, especially putting together the tribute video for Jack and typing out the stories that were relayed by his friends and family.
The most difficult part for me was being on the receiving end of some very intense anger from my wife. It was beyond my wildest expectation, and beyond any story that I’ve ever even seen in my work with clients in 20 years of practice.
I’m not sitting here talking a bunch of trash about my sweet bride. I’m trying to illustrate a point.
One of the things that she did was target me as the source of all of her problems and pain. She found it difficult to talk about her brother and her own guilt. See, their mother died when my wife was 14 and Jack was 5 or 6 years old. That led to major upheaval in the lives of these kids, and they were separated because they had different fathers.
My wife felt tremendous responsibility for this because she was the older sister, and felt like she should have been more like his mom. There were plenty of good women in Jack’s life, but that did nothing to remove the burden of guilt that my wife placed on her own shoulders and by so doing, projected so much anger toward me in the last 12 months.
She told me about 100 times that she wanted to divorce me. She would rarely cry in the corner of our living room. Instead, she would lash out in anger, picking apart everything I did, and being enraged by sometimes the most insignificant of triggers.
It was difficult to bear. And even though I have lots of experience and formal, advanced, graduate-school training, I still wasn’t able to have the kind of patience I should have had. Here’s my point:
Sometimes anger is simply the bodyguard of sadness.
What seemed like such an unfair targeting of me, was really just an effort to release pain. Jack had pain, Jack had anger, Jack was sad, and apparently that’s what led to him ending his own life. That anger and pain and sadness was transferred onto my wife and other friends and family he left behind who had to absorb all of that. It compounded all of Kara’s other losses, and all of her other pains from the time that she was about five years old until August 25th of last year.
That sadness and hurt and loss and anger and devastation came at me with an unrelenting severity. A couple of times I didn’t think we would make it. My dear, sweet, and beautiful wife was hurting. And even though I have all of the intellectual understanding a person should ever need to help someone through a hard time, I still was unable to be free from my own subjective experience and took things personal, and often reacted poorly.
So if I, with all of the 40-plus-hour-per-week experience of observing people’s emotions and helping them through them for the last 20 years, have been unable to control my reaction and keep things in perspective, you and your loved ones who are also failing to do that should be given a break. The person you know who’s grieving and sad and who behaves in unkind ways should be given a break. The person who has experienced trauma and painful situations in their life should be given a break for a bit while they sort it out.
Know and love God.
In the tribute video for Jack, there were some words shared on the screen that were written by Jack and Kara’s mom while she was facing treatment for a brain tumor, which she survived, but then died from another form of cancer a couple of years later. As she wrote what she thought were her final words to her children, she wrote to Jack, specifically, “know and love God.”
I’m not sure if Jack was ever aware of this letter, or his dying mother’s admonition to use a relationship with a higher power to deal with life. But he didn’t. I’m not exactly sure what kind of exposure he had to spiritual traditions, but in his last few years, at least, he professed to be an atheist. That was likely something that he developed (understandably) throughout his experiences of war. Maybe he felt that way from a young age because his mother was taken from him when he was in first grade. Maybe he didn’t understand how so many unfair things could happen to such good people. I don’t know.
But I wonder if things might have been different if he believed in some kind of just and loving Source. I wonder how his perspective might have been different had he explored with a more open heart the beauty and peace that comes to many people who choose (and it is a choice) to believe in a Creator of some kind.
It is my conviction that this kid has not truly departed, but has only changed. Maybe like the caterpillar emerging from the cocoon becomes a butterfly, he is flying in some beautiful form and may even be visiting my wife and our home this weekend.
I’m sure his spirit lives on, and I’m sure that his perspectives on some things are different now.
So are mine.
In the time that has passed over the last 364 days, I have made the treatment of PTSD and Veterans and volunteering with suicide prevention programs and a program called Give an Hour a high priority in my professional life. I have tried to be more genuine and my relationships and have tried to seek out people in pain. I have sought forgiveness from my wife for MY unforgiveness of HER during the most difficult year ever. I’ve tried to love more. I am changed. Like every year–but more profoundly so this past year–I am changed.
Every suicide directly affects an average of 150 people. This was a kid I barely knew. And this situation devastated my family. My wife. My children. My clients. My neighbors.
Twenty-two (22) veterans die by suicide every single day in America. Let’s talk about this. Let’s love each other. Remember that every one is experiencing some form of pain. Everyone.
Suicidal thoughts are symptoms. Suicide is a medical condition.
It can be prevented.
I’ve learned so much in the past 364 days since Jack lost his battle with PTSD, more than I could ever describe in a single blog post. But I am proud to be standing here. I am proud to be married. I am happy to have one more day to be alive and to hug my kids and live in this great land and be married to my best friend. I am humbled and grateful.
Post Script: I wrote this while my wife was at work today. She never even knew I was writing this and she told me the most curious butterfly, a yellow one, was flying around her today inside the indoors of her building. When she told me that, I almost laughed and cried at the same time. Life is just one extremely special educational experience. Make it count.
If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, please reach out to 1-800-273-8255 (24 hours per day) or visit your nearest emergency room.