When Winter Lasts Too Long

Reflections on suicide in the wake of loss.

I stand in tadasana, facing the towering San Bernardino mountains, their peaks glistening in late-Winter snow, my bare feet imprinting in the soft green grass. I open my eyes and sweep my hands high overhead, then bring them down again in prayer posture to my heart, gathering gratitude to my center for the mild golden sunshine of this morning and the vitality of my body to move freely.

Through my earbuds, the presenter’s voice speaks of suicide. I am listening to a Continuing Education presentation toward fulfilment of annual licensing requirements for therapists. I find it easier to listen and learn while my body moves. Suicide, she says, is a leading and increasing cause of death in the United States, with one death occurring every 11 minutes. My mind drifts to the family friend who took his life in late December, and to my uncle who drove his motorcycle off a cliff years before. It touches us all.

Several miles away, my son is in school along with two girls, whose mother, a fellow yogi from my studio, is also at home. Her thoughts, too, are on suicide.

“Don’t euphemistically ask if they are ‘thinking of hurting themselves’,” the presenter exhorts. Suicidal people don’t want to hurt themselves; they want to stop the hurting.

Overheard, bare, boney fingers of my winter-dead tree reach down toward me, stark and ugly.

Risk factors for suicide, the presenter informs us, include veteran status, LGBTQ+ identity with associated experiences of discrimination, feeling like a burden, isolation, high social media use (greater than three hours per day), and having access to means to complete suicide.

Several miles away, up in these mountains I am facing, my yogi friend’s heart – and her hurt – stops.

It is days before the terrible news circulates to our yoga studio, school, and community. Her husband, daughters, sister, and mother co-sign a heartbroken note delivered from her Facebook page. I scroll below and see that her usual weekly posts had quieted many weeks before.

Five hundred people react to the Facebook announcement with the sad or caring reaction buttons. Two hundred write long reflective comments in response, sharing the many ways she was a light in our community, how much she was loved, and how beautiful was her spirit. I think: if she could read this now, perhaps she would not want to be gone.

I don’t know what inner pain she sought to escape. All I know is the shock and heartbreak of her departure reverberate throughout the community, from her husband and children, to her students, fellow yogis, neighbors, fellow volunteers, and many friends. I ache to think of how much she must have been hurting – and no one knew the depths.

Check on your friends, your family, even your acquaintances. Ask follow-up questions. Be direct.

The presenter noted our collective discomfort with saying the words “suicide” or “death.” Practice, she encouraged us. Practice saying these words aloud: “Do you ever think of killing yourself?” “Do you ever wish you were dead?” These questions are awkward and uncomfortable and we fear we might offend. Some fear such words might come across as a suggestion, yet no one happily living begins to contemplate suicide because of a question like this. But far worse than the discomfort of speaking of hard things is the anguish of knowing it’s too late.

Be cognizant of what your loved one’s “normal” looks like. Watch for warning signs, such as giving away possessions, giving up on self-care, and talk of others being “better off without” them. Check in around potential triggers, such as trauma anniversaries, or the death – especially by suicide – of someone in their support system. Try to connect at-risk loved ones to professional supports and offer your own time to be there for and with them when they are hurting. Work with them to make their environment safe and free of implements of death, so that action requires effort rather than impulsivity.

The tree branches are moving more freely today, their brittle ends becoming supple under the influence of new Spring. Tender verdant shoots emerge, creating softness and color and hope. Blossoms are beginning to break through.

If only she knew that Winter would soon end.

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, reach out. It may be hard to see or believe right now, but there are so many who care. If you don’t know who to turn to, call or text 988 for help.

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