Each of the last three years, in December, I have put together an online tribute to Climbers We Lost. Among two dozen from 2014 were three suicides.
With suicides, we often find it hard to decide whether to give the cause. As journalists we should be forthcoming, especially when the information has been made public on social media and elsewhere, yet Rock and Ice has at times chosen not to, for a family’s sake.
As a person, though, I think we should.
Watching the Academy Awards, I was struck when Dana Perry, a winner for the documentary “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1,” referenced a son lost to suicide, and said, “We should talk about suicide out loud.”
I teach a writing class at Colorado Mountain College, and our most recent end-of-summer picnic dinner featured a presentation on … suicide. I was a bit put off. It wasn’t a very cheery way to welcome everyone back for fall.
But I found the presentation illuminating and have since thought of it many times. Among the myths discussed was, “People who talk about suicide won’t really do it [or: just want attention].” In fact, suicide victims usually did talk about it beforehand, perhaps as a cry for help. Or this one: “People who commit suicide want to die.” The mother of four didn’t. The loving single father of a 15-year-old girl in our area didn’t. Most do not, but cannot see beyond their pain or hopelessness to realize they can feel much better.
Suicide is vastly more common than I understood: the third-leading cause of death for those ages 18-25. It’s rising among college students. Information on cdc.gov lists suicide as the 10th-highest cause of death in the United States.
At the end of the evening, a presenter counted the 30 or so of us in the room, and said that according to the numbers, one of us would deal with a suicidal student.
I don’t know if I was the only one, but I was one. An earnest young woman struggled with depression, missed class after class. Thanks to the presentation, I knew to ask right away if she was struggling with the idea of ending life, and if she had someone to talk to, and to offer a local hotline number where someone answers 24/7. The student assured me, with thanks, that she was hanging in and had counsel. So I don’t know if she even needed the words. But I was just glad to have the template.
One of the three climber suicides was Dave Pegg, a good friend to many of us who live in my area. I had met him long ago in England, worked with him when he moved here, gone to his and Fiona Lloyd’s wedding. I still can’t believe, when I drive out to Main Elk or any of the many crags Dave developed, that I won’t see him there, see his face light up as he greets everyone by name. Dave was beloved.
Thankfully, he did not struggle in isolation: Others tried hard to help. One was Amber Johnstone of New Castle. She and Jeff Achey had Dave over for dinner the Wednesday and the Thursday before he died, and urged him to join them Friday, too. Amber settled for saying, “OK, you’ll come climbing tomorrow then, right?” The three were to meet at 10 a.m. at a nearby small, quiet crag. Also on Friday night, Lee Sheftel, a dedicated friend, visited Dave, and left with the words, “Keep fighting.”
Dave said, “I will, Lee.”
The next day Amber kept scanning for him, but Dave never arrived at the cliff.
Weeks later she and Fiona unpacked his climbing pack and in it found a sandwich, a moldy sandwich. He’d packed lunch. He’d been trying.
Sorry, this isn’t the humorous TNB you expected and might prefer. But this affects us all. My cousin killed himself on Christmas Day. I was talking with his loving sister, who lives on a boat and had phoned with holiday wishes, when she got the call on an emergency line. She later told me that in her anguish she was finally able to start sharing stories and photos after reading in “Climbers We Lost” about those three. They had, she said, lived so richly and fully, and were so honored by their peers.
Before posting that compilation, I checked in with people close to the three climbers. Fiona e-mailed back, “Feel free to say he took his own life. Shame and secrecy do nothing to help.”
I hope, like me at the picnic dinner last August, you can accept this different sort of TNB, and that something in it might help someone.
From helpguide.org, one of many websites with suicide-prevention information:
Talking to a friend or family member about their suicidal thoughts and feelings can be extremely difficult for anyone. But if you’re unsure whether someone is suicidal, the best way to find out is to ask. … [G]iving a suicidal person the opportunity to express his or her feelings can provide relief from loneliness and pent-up negative feelings, and may prevent a suicide attempt.
Ways to start a conversation about suicide:
—I have been feeling concerned about you lately.
—Recently, I have noticed some differences in you and wondered how you are doing.
—I wanted to check in with you because you haven’t seemed yourself lately.
Questions you can ask:
—When did you begin feeling like this?
—Did something happen that made you start feeling this way?
—How can I best support you right now?
—Have you thought about getting help?
What you can say that helps:
—You are not alone in this. I’m here for you.
—You may not believe it now, but the way you’re feeling will change.
—I may not be able to understand exactly how you feel, but I care about you and want to help.
—When you want to give up, tell yourself you will hold off for just one more day, hour, minute—whatever you can manage.