Summer 2012 goes down in history as one of my roughest seasons in life. On the inside, I was filled with potential, but my outside circumstances told a different story. I looked in the mirror and saw a recent college grad who was working in a position as a car salesperson. I hated it and did not know how I would change my circumstances, but I knew that everything would work out. Little did I know, there was someone close to me experiencing an even rougher season and her disposition was not as sunny as mine was. She had no silver lining. She had no hope. She was my younger sister, Amanda.
I remember it like it was yesterday. Amanda called me on a Wednesday afternoon sounding very strange. I asked her how she was doing and she replied in a sad voice, “I can’t do this anymore.” I laughed nervously and asked, “Do what?” In a flat tone she said, “Live.” I just sat there, speechless. I did not know what to say, but I knew she was very serious. She continued to say, “Sometimes when I am driving, I pray that another car hits me so I can end it all.” She burst into tears and said, “If I was brave enough, I would have done it already!”
I fought back tears as I held the phone to my ear. Grasping for an encouraging word to say to my sister, all I could say was, “I love you. Tell me what is going on with you.” She took a deep breath and told me about the past few months of her life. In a nutshell, the strong black woman persona she has been told to maintain could no longer be upheld. With the increasing pressure of adulthood, bills, financial issues, relationship drama, loneliness, disappointment, and darkness. Not to mention that when she tried to tell our mother, she blew her off because she just assumed Amanda was looking for attention. When I asked our other sisters if they had spoken with Amanda, they acted as if she would simply “get over it.” As much as I wanted to believe my sisters and my mother, I knew this was a serious situation that I could not ignore.
That afternoon, I stayed on the phone and listened to my sister and made sure to reassure her that she was loved and that she was needed. I let her know that at any time, she could call me and I would be there for her. She hung up the phone and I dropped to me knees. I prayed. I cried. I begged God to protect my sister because I did not know what I would do without her.
Before that moment, I never thought suicide would be an issue that I would have to deal with in my family. In fact, the black community is very silent about this issue. As a strong, black woman, you do not get the chance to be vulnerable, depressed, or suicidal. You can’t let them see you sweat. But as I think about my sister, I think about the thousands of other black women out there who are at the end of their rope and the people they reach out to brush them off because they assume that their words and actions are for attention-seeking purposes or that they are just having a bad day.
If you find yourself in a conversation with someone who is having suicidal thoughts you must implement these four actions.
- Believe her – Being a “strong, black woman” is so exhausting. In our community, depression is a sign of weakness. And being weak is unacceptable. You definitely do not want anyone to gossip about you. With that knowledge, you should understand that if someone is making a desperate plea to you, take her seriously. Believe her. Do not tell her she is just in a bad mood or to sleep it off. Believe her!
- Listen without judgment – Oftentimes, we listen to respond. If someone is coming to you with thoughts of harming themselves, you do not need to prepare a sermon or a motivational speech to help them. You need to let them know that you hear them and that they can trust you. As a friend, it is natural to want to provide a solution like prayer or taking a vacation. This is not the time. If you ask follow up questions, make it about the person, not about a potential solution. An example of a great question is, “How long have you been feeling this way?” An ineffective question would be, “Have you tried working out? I hear that helps with your mood.” This is a very sensitive topic. Handle the situation, and your friend, with care and be a listening ear.
- Stay in touch – Do not leave the conversation without locking down a time to call her back. It needs to be a definite time and both parties need to commit to it. If she is ending the conversation, you could say, “Thanks for sharing with me tonight. I’ll give you a call in the morning at 11:00. Will you be free?” Maintaining communication was so important to my sister. She began looking forward to having someone to talk to who believed her. That made an enormous difference to her.
- Be her advocate – A substantial percentage of the time, we will not know how to handle this situation. But everyone can support your sister through a crisis. You may not have the right words all the time, but being there for her means so much more than being eloquent. While she is going through this tough time, stand in the gap for her. What does this mean? This means you need to pray for her when she cannot pray for herself. Defend her when people are calling her over-dramatic. Listen to her when no one is there. Be selfless and dedicate time to ensuring that she is connecting with the right people and resources so she makes it through her season of darkness.
As I stated earlier, I never thought I would have a first-hand experience with a suicidal person. But I thank God every day that he equipped me with these skills. Because of that my sister has flourished. She is a devoted mother to my incredible nephew. She is aware of who she is and every day is walking closer into the purpose that God has on her life. Summer 2012 taught me so many things, but the most important thing I learned was how to be a resource even when you are not in an ideal situation. Knowing that everyone is fighting a battle we know nothing about, be kind and be aware that your response and words are life or death.
Jessica Alexander is a Personal Brand Strategist and the Founder/CEO of Operation Evolve, LLC. Sh e created her company to provide personal and professional development services to teen and young adult ladies that allow them to gain clarity, discover their passions, and confidently walk into their purpose. She believes that everyone is a “10” at something and she is committed to creating opportunities for women to evolve into the person she was called to be.