My husband came home two days ago with a very heavy heart. His SAE fraternity brother, Brian, had committed suicide. He was only fifty years old. “I feel guilty for not reaching out, I should have communicated more,” my husband sadly confessed. Brian’s untimely death forced us both to look deeper into our own lives and the conversations we have with others.
When I first met Brian twenty years ago, I was immediately charmed by his mischievous sense of humor and his infectious smile. I vividly recall him telling a story about the time he contended for the title of Mr. Arizona. We were enjoying straight whiskey on the rocks at our local watering hole. Although we were surrounded by a crowd of people, that didn’t stop Brian from proudly demonstrating his signature swan-like pose. Everyone present was laughing. Brian’s swagger and fun-loving personality made him stand out in a crowd.
Reflecting back, I wonder if we were seeing a person who had learned to disguise his difficulties behind a larger than life personality. Brian was someone who gave the impression that he had it all together. What was he feeling inside that made him want to end his life?
Acting like you feel one way when you really feel another is exhausting. I speak from my own experience. Growing up, I ached to be understood and accepted for who I was. But rather than reveal my true self – full of pain and imperfections – I became a personality that was not reflective of who I truly was. I would be overly energetic and entertaining. This performance distracted me from the negative environment around me and the private pain I was experiencing.
My hiding days are over. I no longer try to be all things to all people. I wish I could talk about that journey with Brian. I’d tell him how much lighter I feel, not pretending to have it all together. I’d tell him how sharing my pain with others no longer feels like a weakness, but has actually become a source of strength. I wonder if he would have felt comfortable enough to open up and share some of his struggles with me.
Recently, Anderson Cooper and Steven Colbert had an in-depth discussion about grief that touched on the countless tragedies both men have experienced in their lives. Their tears, honesty, and openness were refreshing. Colbert eloquently stated, “It’s a gift to exist and with existence comes suffering. There is no escaping that.” I forwarded the YouTube link to my husband and adult sons. Colbert’s comment had made me pause and ponder. Life is suffering, and that is exactly why I believe we all need to come together.
Just a couple months before Brian passed, I remember expressing to my husband that I was longing for deeper, more authentic conversations. But how do we start asking each other harder questions? No one wants to talk about inner darkness and demons at the dinner table, I get that. Yet in this ever-changing, difficult world we need a place to sort through our pain. We need to talk more about feeling through our hurt. We need more support. How I wish Brian and I could have swapped stories.
As I scroll through many superficial social media posts, I try to remind myself that no one’s life is picture-perfect despite what they might portray online or even in-person. These are counterfeit ways of showing up. No one wants to appear weak, so we hide our true emotions.
As we awkwardly dance together on this stage of life, I believe there needs to be more affirmation and applause. Recently, I have tried to ignore my natural urge to offer others advice and simply share my own vulnerability instead. I am in no position to preach or provide expert anything, but I do think we could all work on becoming better communicators.
None of us can escape suffering. It exists and affects us all. Why not allow ourselves and those around us to be more candid about emotional pain? When we stand in our truth, we give others permission to do the same. When we experience physical pain we go to the doctor, don’t we? Why should emotional pain be treated any differently?
So next time you are sipping coffee with a colleague or even sitting watching Netflix with your child, simply ask, “How are you doing? What was the best (or worst) part of your day?” Send an email or text to a friend you have not talked to in a long time. Let’s engage with each other more! In my experience, when I connect on a deeper level empathy emerges.
© Shannon Hogan Cohen – September 2019
First Published – Life as a Human – September 2019 https://lifeasahuman.com/2019/making-a-difference/living-the-question-deeper-discussions/