Last year, I reached out to you all about September being Suicide Prevention Month and I did so from a still fairly safe distance. I knew of others who committed suicide and shared my perception as an outsider. As I write to you all today, I share my sentiments knowing more fully how devastating it is to lose a friend to suicide.
When he committed suicide last November, I was in the raw stages of grief. Shortly after his loss, I was undone in my research on the local veterans’ court when news came that another veteran attempted suicide. I lost it and bawled in a room of strangers. For the past month I’ve pondered about the many other things I could write to you all about but this month always comes done to what’s important. Suicide Prevention is a conversation we must allow ourselves to have and to keep it moving forward.
On Friday, September 23rd, I read about medically retired Marine veteran Kirstie Ennis losing her friend and fellow wounded veteran, Izzy, to suicide. My heart breaks for her, Izzy’s family, and Izzy’s other friends and colleagues. I know there are–unfortunately–so many of us who are the survivors left behind who feel that we failed our loved ones and friends. We could see the obstacles our loved ones have overcome but we haven’t seen the daily struggles that tear them up inside. For this reason, I write to you all today to discuss how emotionally difficult this year has been coming to term with losing Kiernan.
My work with student veterans on many occasions is an extension of the camaraderie I had with a number of Marines in my former units. To those people who know me best, my face lights up when I find a meaningful friendship in particular with my Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans. Kiernan was one of those veterans and I did feel like I failed him when I learned he committed suicide. For almost two years, we shared a professional connection and I personally admired his ambition. He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met and when I doubted my abilities, he was one of those people who offered small doses of encouragement for both my academic and personal fitness goals.
After he died, I felt basically like I was going to his grave on a near daily basis. The campus–despite how it is a constant energetic flow of people–became a solemn place that haunted me with his memory. I would remember where we crossed path on my way to class after work. I would try to recall the last conversation we had when he came into my office and I would blame myself for not even recalling specifically the last day we saw each other. I remembered, with pride, how he beamed in his graduation regalia. To this day, there is still one place on campus I do not go and that’s to the gym. For me, that location is where I got to see the person he loved to be and unlike others who use the gym as a socialization tool he took his athletic pursuits quite seriously. We would only converse briefly and then he’d go back to his routine but I would always remember when we saw each other he made the effort to say hi quickly and catch up. Some day I might be ready to go back there but for now, I am comfortable enough with the rest of the campus and that’s a substantial victory from where I started after he died.
He, like so many others who commit suicide, will not know how much he was loved by his friends and family. However, I am not angry with him and as we extend the conversation about suicide prevention I think we must be overt our battle is to help others see the value of their lives and to keep living in the face of daily (or constant) struggles. I do not think we can effectively encourage individuals to see their self worth if they feel we will be angry with them for their self-doubt and any current or past actions of self-harm.
My emotional struggles are a bit easier now because I opened up to medical professionals about losing a friend to suicide. I know it was a lot to juggle the fear and anxiety I’d lose another companion or student to suicide. No one handles grief quite the same way and for me as awkward as it was to trust the medical community after some crummy experiences in the Marine Corps, it was necessary. I didn’t like how his loss consumed me like the many service members who died on my deployment. I knew that I had to be on campus every work day and if I continued to feel like I was going to a grave every day I would be constantly miserable. I am not perfect in any way because grief is not perfect. There are times where a song still bothers me or I get more upset driving home because I see the beautiful things he will never experience again, but I recognized I needed self-care after losing him.
I want to thank you all for reading this blog post today. I was very nervous to discuss how emotionally taxing this year has been but with our veteran community losing another peer to suicide so recently, I know we must keep fighting.