How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.
It was a late January afternoon in 2018, just two days after I had major surgery. Drifting in and out of a painkiller haze, I leaned over to check my phone. There on the screen, I saw a text message from my best friend’s mom: “Call 911.”
That marked the beginning of my endless free fall through grief. That night, my gorgeous friend, whose laughter could light up the darkest room, died in a hospital bed after attempting to take their own life.
A shock wave went through our entire community. And as loved ones struggled to understand what had happened, everyone around me kept asking the question: How could something like this happen?
That was a question I didn’t need to ask, though. Because nearly a decade ago, I, too, had attempted suicide.
It didn’t make the grief any less painful, of course. I still had countless moments of self-blame, confusion, and despair. But it wasn’t as incomprehensible as it was to everyone else, because it was a struggle I knew too well.
But my experience on “both sides” became a blessing in disguise. When my loved ones asked me how a suicide attempt could happen, I was able to answer. And as I fielded their questions, I saw something beautiful happen: We both could heal and empathize with our friend just a little bit more.
While I can’t speak for every person who has struggled with suicidal thoughts, I’ve spoken to enough survivors to know there are commonalities in how we’ve felt about the experience.
I want to share what those commonalities are in the hopes that if you’ve survived a loss like this, you might be able to find some comfort in hearing from someone who’s been there.
I’d like to think that, if your loved one could reach you now, these are some of the things they would want you to know.
1. Suicide is more complex than a ‘decision’
People who attempt suicide aren’t always convinced it’s the only option. It’s more often that they have exhausted their emotional reserves to continue pursuing those options. It is, in many ways, the ultimate state of burnout.
That state of burnout doesn’t happen overnight, either.
In order to attempt suicide, a person has to be in the neurological state where they can override their own survival instincts. At that point, it’s an acute state — not totally unlike a heart attack or other medical crisis.
A person has to have reached a point when they feel their capacity for emotional pain has outweighed the amount of time they’re able to wait for relief, at the same moment when they have access to the means to end their life.
The thing I often tell loss survivors is that a suicide attempt isn’t unlike a “freak accident” — because a lot of little things have to align (in a really terrible way, yes) for suicide to happen.
The very fact that someone can progress that far is a much stronger reflection of the state of mental health in our country.
We didn’t fail, and neither did you. The system failed us all.
Our system almost always requires long periods of waiting (bringing people much closer to that acute state) and stigmatizes care that leads people holding out until the very last minute to get help, if ever, at a time when they really can’t afford to wait.
In other words? The time when someone in crisis has to expend the most energy in order to keep themselves alive — to ignore the intrusive thoughts, the impulses, and the outright despair — is often the time when they have the very least energy available to do so.
Which is all to say, suicide is a tragic outcome of extraordinary circumstances that, in reality, few of us have a lot of control over.
2. We’re often very, very conflicted
A lot of loss survivors look at their loved one’s suicide and ask me, “What if they didn’t want this?”
But it’s rarely that simple. It’s much more likely that they were conflicted, which is why being suicidal is such a confusing state to be in.
Imagine a scale being tipped back and forth until one side is finally outweighed by the other — a trigger, a moment of impulsivity, a window of opportunity that disrupts the precarious balance that allowed us to survive.
That back-and-forth is exhausting, and it muddles our judgment.
This quote helps capture this inner conflict: “We are not our thoughts — we’re the people listening to them.” Suicidal thoughts, once they snowball, can become an avalanche that drowns out the part of us that would otherwise choose differently.
It’s not that we aren’t conflicted, so much as the suicidal thoughts are so incredibly loud.
This is also why some of us (often unconsciously) sabotage our own attempts. We might choose a time or place when it’s possible that we’ll be discovered. We might drop hints about our mental state that are nearly undetectable to others. We might choose a method that isn’t reliable.
Even for those who meticulously planned and appeared very committed to killing themselves, they are — in a way — sabotaging themselves. The longer we take to plan, the more we leave open the possibility of an intervention or slipup.
We desperately want peace and ease, which is really the only thing we are sure of. A suicide attempt doesn’t reflect how we felt about our life, our potential, or about you — at least, not as much as it reflects our state of mind in the moment when we attempted.
3. We didn’t want to hurt you
Personal disclosure: When I attempted suicide, there absolutely were moments when all I could think about were the people I loved.
When my then-boyfriend dropped me off at home that night, I stood motionless in the driveway and tried to memorize every single detail of his face. I really believed in that moment that it would be the last time I saw him. I watched his car until it was completely out of sight. That’s the last memory I have of that night that’s clear and distinct.
I even staged my attempt to look like an accident, because I didn’t want the people I loved to believe I had done it on purpose. I didn’t want them to blame themselves, and by staging it, I did what little I could — in my mind — to lessen their suffering.
I did know, on some level, that my death would be painful for the people I loved. I can’t articulate how heavily that weighed on my heart.
But after a certain point, when you feel like you’re burning alive, all you can think of is how to put the fire out as quickly as possible.
When I did finally attempt, I was so dissociated and had such severe tunnel vision that much of that evening is entirely blacked out in my mind. Suicide attempts are often as much an emotional event as they are a neurological one.
When I speak to other attempt survivors, many of us share the same feeling: We didn’t want to hurt our loved ones, but that tunnel vision and state of acute pain — along with the sense that we’re a burden on those we care about — can override our judgment.
4. We knew we were loved
A suicide attempt doesn’t necessarily mean someone didn’t believe they were loved.
It doesn’t mean your loved one didn’t know you cared or believed they wouldn’t get the unconditional acceptance and care that you (without a doubt) had to offer.
I wish that love alone could be enough to keep someone here with us.
When my friend died, we had to have two memorials because of the sheer number of lives they touched. They packed an entire lecture hall at the local university, and it was so at capacity that there was barely standing room. There was also a drag show in their honor, and I’m pretty sure that bar was so packed, we must have violated every fire safety code in the city of Oakland.
And that was just on the West Coast. It says nothing of what happened in New York, where they’re originally from.
If love were enough, we would see much fewer deaths by suicide. And I know — believe me, I do — how painful it is to accept that we can love someone to the moon and back (hell, to Pluto and back), and that’s still not enough to make them stay. If only, if only.
But I can tell you what your love did do, if that helps: It made their time here on earth so much more meaningful. I can also promise you it sustained them in many, many dark moments that they never told you about.
If we truly felt that we were capable of staying for you, we would have. Before my attempt, I wanted nothing more than to get better and be strong enough to stay. But as the walls closed in on me, I stopped believing I could.
Your loved one’s suicide attempt says nothing about how much you loved them, nor how much they loved you.
But your grief does — because the pain that you’re experiencing in their absence speaks volumes of how deeply you cherished them (and still do).
And if your feelings are that powerful? The odds are good that the love between you was, too — mutual, cherished, understood. And the way they died can never change that. I promise you this.
5. It’s not your fault
I’m not going to pretend I haven’t blamed myself for my friend’s suicide. I’m also not going to pretend I didn’t do that as recently as yesterday.
It’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of rumination, wondering what we could’ve done differently. It’s gut-wrenching but also, in some ways, comforting, because it deludes us into thinking that we had some kind of control over the outcome.
Wouldn’t the world feel so much safer if it were possible to save everyone we loved? To spare them from their suffering with the right words, the right decisions? That, through sheer force of will, we could save everyone. Or at the very least, the people we can’t imagine our lives without.
I believed that for a long time. I really did. I’ve written publicly about mental health and suicide for the last five years, and I truly believed that, if someone I loved was in trouble, they would know — without question — they could call me.
My sense of safety was shattered when I lost one of my best friends. Even as someone who works in mental health, I missed the signs.
It’s still an ongoing process for me to fully surrender to the fact that no one — no matter how smart, how loving, how determined they might be — can keep someone alive.
Did you make mistakes? I don’t know, maybe. You might’ve said the wrong thing. You might’ve turned them away one night without realizing there would be consequences. You might’ve underestimated how much pain they were in.
But when a pot of water is on the stove, even if you turn up the flame, you aren’t responsible for when the water boils. If left on the burner long enough, it was always going to come to a boil.
Our mental health system is supposed to provide a safety net that takes that pot off the burner so that, no matter what happens with the flame, it never gets to a fever pitch and boils over.
You aren’t responsible for that systemic failure, no matter what mistakes you did or didn’t make.
You were failed, too, because you were made to feel responsible for your loved one’s life — which is much too heavy a responsibility for any person to carry. You’re not a crisis professional, and even if you are, you’re not perfect. You’re only human.
You loved them the best way you knew how. I wish so desperately it had been enough, for both our sakes. I know how painful it is to accept it wasn’t.
Every day since that horrible afternoon in January of last year, I’ve found myself wondering, “Why did they die, and yet I’m still here?”
This is the one question I still can’t answer. To try to reckon with that question is a reminder of how deeply unfair it all is. I don’t think anything I can say will change the injustice of losing someone this way.
But what I’ve learned since then is that grief is a powerful teacher.
It’s challenged me, again and again, to recommit to living a life imbued with meaning. To give my heart away freely and readily, to speak truth to power, and most importantly, to let the life I lead be a living dedication to this person I loved so, so much.
I’ve learned to live alongside my grief, to let it transform me as radically as possible.
Each moment I find the strength to do what’s right, to be brave and relentless in fighting for a more just world, or to simply let myself laugh without feeling self-conscious, I become the living and breathing altar of everything my friend stood for: compassion, courage, joy.
I won’t pretend to have a good answer for why your loved one is gone. I’ve looked for the answer for myself, and I’m not any closer to finding it than I was a year ago.
But I can tell you, both as a survivor of loss and of an attempt, that life is unquestionably precious — and I believe that more fiercely than I ever have before.
You’re still here. And whatever the reason might be, you still have the chance to do something extraordinary with this life.
My greatest wish for you, and for anyone who’s grieving, is to know that your pain doesn’t have to consume you. Let it be your compass that leads you to new and exciting places. Let it bring you closer to your purpose. Let it remind you of how precious your own being is.
You’re part of the legacy your loved one left behind. And every moment you choose to live fully and love deeply, you bring a beautiful part of them back to life.
Fight for your own life the way you so desperately wish you could’ve fought for theirs. You are just as worthy; I promise you.
Sam Dylan Finch is a leading advocate in LGBTQ+ mental health, having gained international recognition for his blog, Let’s Queer Things Up!, which first went viral in 2014. As a journalist and media strategist, Sam has published extensively on topics like mental health, transgender identity, disability, politics and law, and much more. Bringing his combined expertise in public health and digital media, Sam currently works as social editor at Healthline.