Learning From Loss

by Dave Maddox

Chris and Dave from left to right

When my friend Chris ended his life in 2021, like all his family and friends, I was stunned. He was the last guy I would have thought could have done this. Upbeat, optimistic, with a ridiculous sense of humor, time spent with Chris always left me worn out from laughing. It also always left me feeling better about myself. That was his special gift: he was genuinely interested in everyone he met and could make everyone he knew feel smarter, stronger, braver, and better looking.

Our friendship was forged years ago when he was a deputy sheriff and we traveled around Virginia delivering training to police departments and criminal-justice academies across the state. He was the best man at my wedding and even after he retired and moved to Pennsylvania, we stayed in touch and got together when we could. We could talk for hours about life, leadership, sports, and history. He made plans to come down and tour our civil war battlefields with me when his health improved. When I took on the challenge of starting my own business, he always encouraged me and let me know how proud he was of me. Now he’s gone. My great friend who had given hope to so many had kept none for himself.

Always willing to help others, Chris never wanted to put anyone else out. He rarely asked for help- always preferring to give rather than take. He had been facing some serious health challenges that had kept him from doing many of the things he loved. Outwardly, he seemed to be facing them with the same optimism that he had for everything else. As it turned out, his despair was deeper than we could imagine.

After I got the news, I went through the full range of emotions. Sadness and anger were the big ones. There were days as I told my wife, that I just wanted to break stuff. I even considered going to one of those rage rooms where you can tear up cars, dishes, etc. with your choice of tools. Ultimately, I figured I’d just end up hurting myself and passed on the idea (although it is still on the table).
This was not the first time that suicide had touched my life, but this time I decided to not bury it, but to learn from it and share it with others. Here’s some of what I’ve learned so far:

  • We can’t beat ourselves up. It’s natural to feel like we could have done more like we should have seen it coming like we missed something. I took a QPR Gatekeeper course to try to better understand the dynamics of suicide and there I found a quote that addressed this issue of guilt. It came from a mother after her son took his life. She said, “We are only responsible to do what we know to do at the time it needs doing, not for the things we will learn to do later.” That statement reminded me that so often we don’t know what we don’t know. I didn’t know. Now I do.
  • We don’t get better; we just get stronger. Any attempt at “getting better” would involve forgetting and I won’t do that. I just want to get to the point where gratitude and happy memories start to outweigh my sadness. Smiles before tears, as they say. Find ways to stay positive.
  • When you are strong, I am strong. For me, getting stronger meant learning more and helping others get stronger by sharing that knowledge. The more informed people within a community, the larger safety net we can create. A group of people with the tools to recognize a crisis and the courage to act can save countless lives.
  • We need to face this problem head on. Suicide is an uncomfortable topic. It’s easy to try to change the subject or avoid it altogether. That won’t drive change. The good news is that mental health discussions are becoming more public and commonplace. We need to continue to build on this. The QPR Gatekeeper course opened my eyes to so much I didn’t know that it inspired me to become an instructor. I encourage everyone to consider a gatekeeper certification or to find other ways to be involved: participate in a suicide walk through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, support the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or an organization that assists high-risk groups such as veterans, youth, or law enforcement. Opportunities are everywhere.
  • Chris’ story ended way too soon, too many blank pages and broken hearts. And while I’m grateful for all the great memories I have, I’d much rather have my friend back. Sadly, none of us can change the past, but my hope is that we can impact the future by doing our part to help others find their way through the darkness. Please join the fight.

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