When I was younger, a dear friend of mine made an attempt on his own life.
I was informed shortly after I arrived at the emergency room that he hadn’t taken a lethal dose and that physically he would be alright, but that gave me little comfort. I sat awake in that waiting room all night, trying to process exactly what was going on.
The movies had always taught me that the emergency room all-nighter was a time of profound emotional exploration. Accordingly, I sat and waited for my epiphany. I thought back to all the fleeting conversations I’d had with him – all the good times I’d shared with him in which I’d never thought to stop and ask, genuinely, how he was doing. All the times I didn’t tell him I loved him.
These memories were now cast in a different light. No longer were they innocent, happy vignettes of a friendship well-enjoyed; they were now all evidence in the mounting case that I was a bad friend. I vowed that once he was released from emergency, I would have those conversations with him; I would get to the bottom of his suffering so that I could be right there with him. I would make it all make sense. I would never let anything like this happen again.
At my first opportunity to see him the next morning, I came armed with my newfound emotional intelligence and supreme confidence in my ability to fix the situation.
But that’s not what he wanted. In fact, he didn’t much want to talk at all about what had transpired the night before. I was confused and, honestly, angry. I wouldn’t accept it. How could it be that he truly only wanted to have the same conversations we had always had as if nothing happened? How could I pretend that everything was fine? We just spent the whole night in the emergency room! I so badly wanted him to let me support him.
I tried my best to slip back into the old groove of conversation, but my underlying confusion and anger didn’t subside. I spent a lot of time with him in the weeks that followed, but I still felt like a failure as a friend. I hadn’t fixed his problem, or coaxed his feelings out of him, and therefore I hadn’t supported him as a true friend should.
The epiphany that I yearned for didn’t come that night, that week, or even in the years that followed. In fact, it didn’t quite materialize until I put pen to paper (fingers to keys?) and started reflecting on this story with the few extra years of life I now have under my belt:
Supporting someone is not a unilateral decision that one person makes for the other. Looking back on it, what may have seemed to me like a sincere effort to get to the root of his suffering could easily have appeared to him a belligerent demand for him to explain his actions.
I realize now that he likely couldn’t have given me a full explanation even if he wanted to. I couldn’t have truly known his life, or his mind, or the brutal constellation of factors that all converged on that fateful night to drive him to do what he did. He needed support, most certainly, but not on my terms. He needed his friend Matt. He needed those ephemeral conversations that I lamented; the small details we shared that I thought were useless; the stupid inside jokes. Everything that I had cast from my mind because they didn’t fit neatly into the linear trajectory from happy to suicidal that I was trying to formulate in my mind to make sense of the whole thing.
When we try to come at the notion of support from a strictly logical, rational, or (heaven forbid) legal perspective, things get lost. We act based on how we feel people should be, rather than how they are. We get angry when things don’t make sense. We get hurt when the support we offer doesn’t work.
In times of crisis, and even in everyday life, it can be a real struggle to find the “best” way to support our loved ones. I can’t promise that I’ll know the best way to support you, or that I can tell you the best way to support your loved ones. I can’t truly know your life, or your mind, or the constellation of factors that brings you to our office.
What I can promise is that I’ll be here to support you legally and that I will always remain sympathetic to the things in your life that don’t make sense. The purely legal aspects of any given family issue are rarely the most important ones to those involved. That’s why I care about the small details that make up your story – they help me get to know what is truly important to you.