by Sarah Gaer
I like to say friends are the family we choose.
For many reasons, my chosen family as a young person was often the kids who didn’t belong anywhere else. Kids bond through shared traits and I felt like a social outcast and so I connected with the other kids who also felt the same.
Some of them came from abusive homes, some of them had learning disabilities, some of them had mental health challenges and some had all of the above. Sadly, because I fit in with the group that felt they fit in nowhere, I lost many of my friends to tragedy. In fact, I lost three friends to suicide before I turned 21.
I lost my first friend to suicide when I was 17
John (name is changed) had been a friend for a couple of years. He was older than me, so we hadn’t gone to school together, but I had met him through mutual friends. I thought he was fascinating and knew he was diagnosed with a serious mental illness but to me he was brilliant and interesting and best of all, he liked me too. I could not even guess how many hours I spent on the phone, tied to the cord, talking with John. I appreciated that my learning disabilities and facial palsy didn’t register on his radar at all. We were just friends.
Two people with hard histories who knew better than to judge each other.
Sadly, things started to change. John started to behave strangely toward me and he thought our relationship was more than I wanted it to be. He became jealous when I had a boyfriend and was not respecting my boundaries. I began avoiding his calls. During this same time frame, John had a severe episode of paranoia and he allegedly attacked someone, confirming my reasons for avoiding him.
A few months later, a friend called and told me John was dead. As the story goes, he shot someone during a thwarted suicide attempt. When the police arrived, John said to them, “It’s me or you.” I will never know how accurate the details were as rumors spread quickly during tragedy and trauma, but what is undeniably true is that a police officer shot John and he died at the scene.
The wave of panic, heartbreak, sadness and pain is hard to describe
It’s like sticking your hand into a flame except you can’t pull it out. I was riddled with the “Tyranny of Hindsight.”
I should have answered his calls.
I should have called him back.
Maybe, just maybe, if I had talked to him this wouldn’t have happened.
He and I used to talk about depression and sadness all the time. He confided in me and when he needed me the most, I turned my back on him.
Then came the overwhelming anger.
Why did the police have to shoot to kill him?
Why couldn’t they have just shot him in the shoulder or the leg?
Why did that police officer shoot him like a rabid dog?
He was a person and a person with mental illness and even though I knew he had done some terrible things, I also knew that deep down he wanted to be a good person.
My pain turned into anger toward that officer
I don’t think I even knew his name and I am certain I never saw his face, but in my mind, he had murdered my mentally ill friend.
Fast forward many years
I was teaching suicide prevention at a fire department in the same town where my friend had been shot.
I referenced my loss in the training
By this time, I had become more educated and understood that the officer hadn’t “murdered” my friend. My friend had died “Suicide by cop” or “police assisted suicide.”
I knew that it wasn’t the officer’s fault and that John had put him in an impossible situation. At one time, I had wrongfully turned my grief-related anger toward an officer who was doing his job and it was John put him in that position.
What I didn’t know and what changed my understanding of the relationship between suicide and law enforcement specifically, was what the incident had done to that officer.
A fire fighter approached me after the training and said, “I know the officer who pulled the trigger that day. That situation almost ruined his life and it did cost him his marriage. People accused him of being a kid killer and he struggled for a long time. I don’t know if you knew that”.
My heart sank.
That officer has been a big part of my inspiration in working in suicide prevention for law enforcement. For every horrific story you hear in the news (and even more stories that we don’t hear about), police officers have to see it firsthand—suicide, domestic violence, homicide, child abuse, sudden infant death, terrorism, rape, motor vehicle fatalities, etc.
Sadly, not is their general life expectancy shorter post retirement, their suicide rates now outnumber their line of duty deaths.
And so this person (me) who once had a friend shot by the police, now dedicates a large portion of her life to saving their lives. I believe that one of the things that we must do, in order to save their lives, is to remember that beneath the badge and uniform, police officers are parents, spouses, siblings, and not the least of all of those things, human beings who are all too often deeply emotionally, mentally and physically impacted by their work.
For Public Safety: SafeCallNow.org 1-206-459-3020
USA Crisis Text 741-741
US Crisis line for LGBTQ Youth 1-866-488-7386
US Crisis Text for LGBTQ Youth 678-678
United Kingdom 116 123
Australia 13 11 14
International suicide hotlines