After months of deteriorating mental health – and just one day after I’d left the Dana Point home we shared, fearing for my own safety – Bill walked onto the Metrolink tracks in Capistrano Beach and waited for XX tons of steel to kill him. And it did.
Had Bill died from an overdose of painkillers or a self-inflicted gunshot wound, perhaps my life would have taken a different trajectory – one of quiet grief accented with the frustrating and painful work of healing. But there was no hiding from Bill’s death. Not a single friend or family member – or local stranger, for that matter – didn’t know how and why Bill died. And as I picked up the broken shards of my once-happy life and marriage, I knew I could either die with Bill, or find a way to help this suffering stop.
For me, the grief of losing Bill will never leave. But in the wake of that grief – and in honor of the person he was – I’m committed to preventing this from happening to others – other wives, other parents, other caring friends and, most importantly, other Bills.
Through the wise and regretful lens of time, I now see that Bill’s suicide plans were plain – if not obvious. Today I live with the regret of failing to recognize the severity of these warning signs – hoping that you won’t do the same. For months, Bill quietly told me he was going to complete suicide. Here’s how:
He lost interest in things he once loved.
Bill wasn’t just a gym rat; he was a fitness fanatic. He competed in bodybuilding competitions across the country. He prioritized his workouts above everything else. But in the months and weeks before his suicide, Bill didn’t seem to care as much. When a friend canceled workout plans, he wouldn’t go to the gym on his own. His muscle-ripped, 250-pound frame began to shrink. He just didn’t seem to care as much.
He talked about death.
It was usually theoretical, almost like he was just making obligatory conversation, but Bill frequently, even daily, talked about death – mentioning deceased friends or family, stories from the news or even hypothetical scenarios about his own. I knew Bill was depressed, and while talk was morose, I assumed it was typical of someone with depression and anxiety. What I didn’t know is that it was a hallmark warning sign for suicide.
He was abusing substances.
Bill didn’t just abuse substances; he was completely dependent on them. After years of steroid use to help him excel in the competitive bodybuilding world, Bill “needed” a host of prescription painkillers, and anti-anxiety drugs to combat those side effects and cope with his deteriorating mental health. Sometimes, Bill would quit these cold-turkey, sending him into a spiral of withdrawal that seemed worse than the dependence. It was a cycle he could never seem to break.
His friends completed suicide.
Bill wasn’t a stranger to suicide. In fact, three of his friends had taken their own lives. One, a longtime friend from his bodybuilding days, reportedly shot himself. His trainer at the gym also shot himself. Another friend, a long-term member of the gym Bill and I owned together, set himself on fire and jumped off a bluff near our home – just two days after we’d seen him last. At the time, I had no idea that knowing people who complete suicide increased your risk for doing the same. Now I do.
He isolated himself.
He looked like the quintessential bodybuilder, but Bill was a big softie at heart. He loved people. He loved helping friends. He loved talking to strangers. He called his parents regularly. But before he died, Bill became quieter, more subdued. His happy, easygoing self was clouded with worry and sadness. Once, he disappeared for long enough that I called the police to report him missing. He returned, completely surprised by my panic, simply saying he just needed some time to think. As Bill cut himself off from the people he loved, it was a clear warning that he was in trouble.
He’d attempted it before.
When stood on those railroad tracks, Bill knew he wouldn’t survive the oncoming train. But it wasn’t the first time he’d reportedly harmed himself. Months before his death, I awoke to a suicide note – short and to the point – and panicked before hearing Bill in the shower. I ran into the bathroom and Bill told me he’d taken a whole bottle of sedatives the night before – which I couldn’t imagine was true since he was alive and well in front of me. I convinced him to go to the hospital, where he was placed on a three-day involuntary suicide watch, then released. While I still don’t know whether this was a cry for help or Bill actually intended to end his life, I begged him to let me get him help – which he did, for a while. Today, I can see that this act was an unmistakable red flag.
As Autumn approaches, two significant days loom in my near future. October 10 marks the seventh anniversary of Bill’s suicide – seven years I’ve replayed these warning signs in my head, wishing I’d recognized them for what they were.
In the meanwhile, National World Suicide Prevention Month is September – a month where we can work together to prevent more October 10ths. If someone you love is exhibiting warning signs for suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or call 911 for immediate help.
Breathing exercises are so important to do on a daily basis when you are grieving. They helped me deepen my connection with my body and bring awareness to the present moment. I found that when tension in my body was released, my mind was able to take a break from worrying about my loss and how I would cope in the future, which is a side effect of grief.
My grief settles in my belly and chest. I find myself tensing up to protect myself from future pain. Learning to breathe and soften my stomach and chest muscles has helped me to relax and let go
How to breathe:
1. Find a quiet, comfortable place for a few minutes. Sit up straight with your hands by your sides or on top of your legs, palms up or down—whichever feels most natural and relaxed.
2. Close your eyes; breathe deeply through your nose so that your abdomen expands first, followed by your chest for a count of four.
3. Hold your breath for a count of eight.
4. Slowly exhale completely through your mouth, making a whooshing sound to the count of twelve.
5. Repeat four times.
6. Open your eyes. Breathe normally. Take a minute before standing to make sure you are not lightheaded.
Grief is often described as a journey – one that does not present a clear or efficient route from Point A to Point B.
In fact, in my own experience, Point B may not even exist on the map. For me, the grief process is one I navigate every day, with most of those days (but certainly not all) a little happier and healthier than the last.
Unfortunately, along that journey there are often outsiders telling you which turn to take, when it’s “okay” to stop and rest or maybe even trying to convince you that you’re already at Point B and it’s time to end this journey and move on to the next. The thing is, grieving is a complicated, personal process, and society’s opinions, requirements and stigmas only serve to make the terrain rougher – and the griever weaker.
by Kristi Hugstad
Each of us has attached ourselves to something or somebody, and when you lose that special thing or person, you grieve. Always. You can try to run from it all you want, but it will always find you and tackle you when you’re not looking. My blogs, along with my books, will give you the tools to help you learn to live with your new self as you journey through your grief.