My birthday is July 4th. On July 5th, 2018, my cousin Alex took his own life after struggling for many years with deep depression. I was a number of years older, but we’d grown up in the same area and I’d known him since he was very young. I’d babysat him when he was a child and I was in my early- or pre-teens. Even as a kid he’d been fun-loving and very kind. The photo above is him helping his sister at a Washburn family reunion many years ago.
Initially it didn’t seem to affect me too much. We had our fourth child on July 8th, and he was a bright shinning ray of light that maybe distracted me from the reality. As the days passed and especially when I saw Alex’s parents and siblings at the funeral, it began to deeply affect me. I cried a lot at the funeral. I mourned my cousin. As time went on, mourning turned into unhealthy thoughts. The questions “what if I had done more?” “What if I had reached out in recent years?” haunted me and plagued my idle mind.
That combined with the anxiety of other stresses in my life, began to deeply impact my mental health. I’ve struggled with anxiety most of my life, and depression at times. Depression seemed to be lingering, waiting for it’s chance to pounce.
It was under those circumstances that my mother shared something with us that the coroner shared with her when the police were investigating Alex’s death. I combined it with a section of a talk by Elder Richard G. Scott that really came back to me at this time and sent it all out to family members through our Facebook group and via email:
Like many of you, I’ve struggled with Alex’s death. I thought I’d gather a few things that I found helpful, and that others have told me were helpful for them as well. On our [my parent’s] family chat, my mom shared some tips that the Coroner shared with her and Alex’s father:
When the coroner came to our house to confirm Alex’s death, he said this to us (Alex’s father and siblings): “we need to remember that in dealing with Alex’s death, for our own mental wellbeing we need to realize:
1. we can’t control what happened or what people do.
2. we didn’t cause it… we can’t blame ourselves.
3. we can’t correct it… so don’t mull it over in your mind trying to figure it out.
That ‘I should have done this or that’ thinking can drive us crazy and is not practicing good mental health.”
I thought his advice was wisdom and was glad he shared that with us.
It was helpful for me to understand and reminded me of some principles Richard G. Scott taught in a talk that I’d recently read. He talked about how he was able to overcome the severe anxiety that he suffered shortly after getting married and landing a great job:
Within eight months, I was in the office of a doctor being carefully examined to determine if I had ulcers. For weeks each night I would return home from work with a severe headache, and only after a long, quiet period of isolation could I calm my nerves sufficiently to sleep briefly and return to work the next day. I began to prayerfully consider my plight. It was ridiculous. All I wanted to do was to be a worthy husband and father and carry out honorably my Church and professional assignments. My best efforts produced frustration, worry, and illness. In time, I was prompted to divide mentally and physically, where possible, all of the challenges and tasks and assignments given to me into two categories: First, those for which I had some ability to control and to resolve, I put into a mental basket called “concern.” Second, all the rest of the things that were either brought to me or I imagined I had the responsibility to carry out, but over which I had no control, I put in a basket called “worry.” I realized I could not change them to any significant degree, so I studiously strove to completely forget them. The items in the “concern” basket were ordered in priority. I conscientiously tried to resolve them to the best of my ability. I realized that I could not always fulfill all of them on schedule or to the degree of competence I desired, but I did my conscientious best.
Occasionally as I sat in my office, I’d feel my stomach muscles tighten and tension overcome me. I would cease whatever activity I was engaged in and with earnest prayer for support, concentrate on relaxing and overcoming the barrier that worry produced in my life. Over a period of time, those efforts were blessed by the Lord. I again came to understand how the Lord is willing to strengthen, fortify, guide, and direct every phase of life. The symptoms of illness passed, and I learned to face tasks under pressure.Richard G. Scott, “To the Lonely and Misunderstood“; Aug 10, 1982, BYU Devotional
Elder Scott’s method agrees directly with the Coroner’s advice, what other prophets have told us, and with books I’ve read about how our brains work: we have a lot more control over what gets “airtime” in our brains than we think we do. We should remember Alex, and we should mourn him. That’s healthy and normal. But second-guessing and feelings of guilt need to be pushed aside and put in that 2nd “worry” basket, where we should “studiously strive to forget them.”
I hope this doesn’t sound preachy. I know we’re all grieving, so hopefully this helps some of you.
Some people who weren’t able to attend asked for a copy of my Dad’s talk (also helpful) from the funeral. You can read it here.
The months that followed were very rough for me for a myriad of reasons. But the more I applied these concepts, and with the Lord’s help, those negative, unhelpful thoughts around Alex’s death diminished. I still mourned him, but was able to slowly push aside the “what if’s…” and other unhealthy and unhelpful thinking.
Now I remember him happily, though with some mourning and loss. The guilt is gone, and just the reality remains.