Tuesday, June 03, 2003
Ah, the simplicity and innocence of rural and small town living...how can anyone be sad in a land of white wooden steeples, grain-edged sunsets and green rolling hills?
It's never so simple, unfortunately. Take, for example, Plattsburgh, New York. It's a town of approximately 20 thousand souls, give or take; it's much smaller now since Plattsburgh Air Force Base, home of the 380th, was decomissioned over a decade ago. Plattsburgh has many qualities that feel big-town because it's located in the center of the triangle formed by Montreal, Albany, and Burlington - a little bit of urbanity comes through. But by and large, you can travel a mile or so from the town's center and encounter pure country lands populated by placid dairy farms, VFW's and country stores.
This afternoon, my partner received a call from Plattsburgh that our friend's brother had committed suicide last night by jumping off the Chateaugay Bridge. It's a very high bridge, bordered by an ineffectual 3-foot-tall concrete railing.
Back when we lived in Clinton County, every winter when I drove across the bridge I had a flash of losing control on slippery black ice, my car plunging into the black rapids. I'd hold my breath, grasping the wheel tightly. It was an awfully frightening image, and I'd always breathe a sigh of relief after when I safely reached the other side.
He was terrified of heights.
He was in his mid-40's and had endured some great personal losses in recent years. The eldest brother of a large family, by all accounts he was a "man's man": a traditional husband and father, and until recently worked at one of the area's several state prisons. Reportedly, a passing driver noticed an odd sight that morning - a man leaning over the bridge railing in the dark. Sensing something was wrong, the driver turned around, but the man at the railing was gone.
Unfortunately, his choice of exit mode virtually guarantees anonymity in the local media: Plattsburgh newspapers and radio don't talk about suicides, even if they fall from a bridge several hundred feet into a swift rocky river. The family will bear the burden of sharing that news themselves, his end resonating as a reverberating shock wave of tears and whispers - leaving an unfillable hole his family will constantly seek to mend. I believe that for the survivors, having a family member or friend die by suicide is the worst possible end because of the questions.
"How could they have thought things were so bad?"
"Why didn't they come to us for help?"
Or, the simplest and most resonant question:"Why?"
How can one help ease the survivors' pain? I can send them a card of sympathy, call them on the phone, think of them...but like many people I have a hard time confronting the bereaved face-to-face. I wish it weren't so, and I'm slowly working on it. There is a time and place to face loss: to this day I feel regret over not visiting a terminally ill co-worker and friend in the hospital in Plattsburgh, almost exactly three years ago. He knew his time was ending, but I couldn't muster the courage to visit.
I wish I had.