I recently attended a wedding reception where I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. Neither he nor I are the kind of people who do well mixing and mingling, so we ended up sitting in a corner and talking for about an hour. Which is the ultimate faux pas, I suppose. But as we talked he shared with me that his wife had recently been struggling deeply with depression, and had begun making plans to take her own life. He said that more than once in the previous two months he had gotten a bad feeling about her emotional state, and had to physically prevent her from leaving the house. She finally admitted that, as he had sensed, she was leaving to execute on a detailed plan to drive their minivan into a tree.
I shared with him that I understood what she was going through, because I had battled with cyclical depression for nearly a decade, and at two particularly low points in that dark journey, I had made specific plans to harm myself. I never really wanted to end my life, I told him, but I was desperate to escape the dark trap I was in mentally and emotionally, and hurting myself felt like the only way to really make that happen. Thankfully I never went through with it, and it’s now been over three years since I felt the kind of depression that gives birth to those dark thoughts. But I remember them as if it were yesterday.
As I disclosed this experience, he asked me if I would be willing to reach out to his wife in the form of an email, to share my story with her and let her know she is not alone. He said that she struggles to hear and receive support by call or text—mostly because the well-meaning people trying to help her actually have no idea just how bad things are. He wondered if an email, which she could read when she was ready and maybe come back to from time to time, might help. I clearly got it, he said, and he felt that what I had to say might somehow penetrate her dark cloud of sadness.
Of course I agreed that I would write to her. But that was about six weeks ago, and I haven’t done it yet. I haven’t found the courage or taken the time to write that letter. To really share with her how deeply I know her struggle. I’ve wanted to, I’ve meant to—I’ve had every intention of doing so. But I just haven’t.
As I’ve reflected on why that is, part of it is a certain trepidation about being that vulnerable—opening up about something that really only a few people know I went through. But I’m increasingly committed to being open about that part of my life, which is why I shared it with her husband in the first place. And why I’m writing about it now. I think more than anything the hesitation came from a feeling that this was a really important thing he was asking me to do and I wanted to get it right. Which meant that I needed to devote the proper time and energy to it—but those are the two things in my life that always feel in shortest supply.
As shameful as this is, I think it’s a very common experience—our desire to help and reach out is so often eclipsed by seemingly more pressing needs or engagements. Or by our hope to say not just something, but the right thing. Our best intentions are so often derailed by busyness and perfectionism. But as I’ve been working on a personal challenge to reconnect this year, I’ve been prompted more and more to finally make this kind of interaction my highest priority, and to just do it—no matter what it looks like.
This month I’ve had to do a little research about suicide prevention for a project I’m working on for Weave: The Social Fabric Project. In that process, I stumbled upon a video produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which I’m a member. It’s a straightforward, 90-second clip in which a female church leader pleads with her audience to just simply reach out to those who we discover—or even suspect—are considering suicide. “Put down the phone and look and see who needs your help,” she says. “Express love for that person, and an assurance that you are there for them. That you will stand by them. And that you’re not going anywhere until they find help—the professional help, the counseling—that they need. This is probably the preeminent thing that we can do in that moment.” Immediately I felt both touched and chastised, and reminded of the one “preeminent” thing I hadn’t done for this friend and his wife.
It’s not that I’ve done nothing. I’ve sent her texts encouraging her to look into a particular therapy that was helpful for me. I’ve mailed her a book that was a turning point in my healing journey. I’ve even considered how I might get her to visit so she could meet a counselor whose method was a game changer for me. But as I watched that video, I realized that despite all of this “helping” I was doing, I was failing to meet this friend’s most basic need. I was failing to simply show up—as a companion, a confidant, and a fellow traveler—in the darkest night of her soul.
There’s a beautiful phrase in the Book of Mormon that describes the highest commitment we make when we join a faith community—or any community, really. “To mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those who stand in need of comfort.” In our current enlightenment culture, where there’s always a scientific answer for everything and we have access to so many modern forms of healing, it often feels like when someone is suffering, the best thing we can do for them is to help them find a solution. To give them information they may not have. To inspire them to take action. To help them fix the problem. But the idea that true community means “mourning with those that mourn” is a profound reminder that in those darkest hours, what each of us wants more than anything is to feel connected. To feel tied and tethered to another person, whose presence has just enough power to hold us in place for one more moment, when what we want more than anything is to succumb to the pain.