Contributing Author: Kirsten Pabst, NDAA Well-being Task Force Chair
I was sitting on the couch with my husband and youngest watching the latest episode of The Clone Wars, processing the never-ending supply of new email in my in-box when I noticed the subject line of a new coroner’s report displaying the decedent’s name in all caps, like they always do. But this wasn’t just a name on a document, it was a gut punch. The name conjured an old, wrinkly face and warm smile. I quickly closed my laptop, as if hiding the document would somehow make the loss of my mentor and fellow attorney less real.
When I finally read the contents, I jumped to the bottom and was horrified. MANNER OF DEATH: SUICIDE. Wait. Surely there were two people with the same name, the other one capable of taking his own life. I knew Randy* was grieving the recent loss of his beloved to cancer, but thought of him as the epitome of positivity and strength. I used to refer to him as “the cheerleader” for our profession because he was always espousing the critical and important work of attorneys and how we are blessed to be the appointed societal problem solvers.
“It’s fun, right?” he would grin at me. “Being privileged to hold another human’s sad story and being in a position, a lawyer, that you can really help. Really make a difference in this world. Not too many people can say that. You should be proud of your work, kid!”
It is always painful to lose a friend, but losing a friend to suicide is complex and difficult to process. Especially a person who didn’t necessarily fit the image of someone struggling or in deep pain. But that’s just it, we’re assuming that if someone puts on a happy outward face that they must be happy inside too. Because of this assumption, I’ve had to say painful goodbyes to too many of my colleagues.
September 5th marks the beginning of National Suicide Prevention Week and we are reminded to share resources and stories, promote suicide prevention awareness and direct treatment to those who need it. Each Mind Matters — a California organization dedicated to advancing mental health and equality — puts out a Suicide Prevention Activation Kit every year, to remind us that those at risk of suicide don’t “look” a certain way and to learn the warning signs and how to seek help.
According to Suicide Prevention Lifeline, less obvious warning signs can include:
Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
Talking about being a burden to others
Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
Sleeping too little or too much
Withdrawing or isolating themselves
Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
Extreme mood swings
Sometimes there are no discernable external warning signs. What shocked me most about Randy’s death is that he was the poster child for a happy lawyer, the Mr. Rogers of litigation. He smiled through his pain for decades and tooled our lives to the better even when he was suffering himself. I knew he cared about me and that whatever bad thing happened, he would always have my back — and he did. I found out after he died that he did that for many young — and old — lawyers in our town.
What can we do better? We can embrace the idea of resonant listening, and encourage open, vulnerable support, making it easier for colleagues to talk about their suffering. We can check in on people. We can normalize suffering and reduce stigma attached to seeking help because every one of us needs help at some point in our lives. We can simply send out a little love.
Reach out to a prosecutor — or someone else — you know today who may be struggling. Text somebody, “Thinking of you and sending love.” Send an email, “How are you?” Send a card. Make a call. Give a compliment. Remind a fellow human that you care. It might be the lifeline that makes a difference. Do what Randy did for me.
*The name is changed to respect the privacy of his family
Kirsten Pabst chairs NDAA’s Well-being Task Force and serves as the County Attorney for Missoula County, Montana.