When Anna woke up I quickly pulled myself together. I didn’t know what to say or how to say it. I was still scared and angry. I approached her bed and said, “You know that more than anything in the world right now I want to put on my counselor hat and figure out why and how you got to this place. But I know you don’t need me to be your counselor, you need me to be your daddy.”
She agreed. I said, “What do you need from your daddy right now, sweetie? How can I help you?”
“Just love me.” No problem. More of the same. I could do that, although I wondered whether, in spite of all of our love, she had ever felt loved at all. Later she would admit that she never really felt love from anybody — or at least she didn’t know how to identify it when she saw it.
After several hours in the ER, Anna was stabilized and moved to the pediatric intensive care unit. She was assigned a “sitter” around the clock so she was never alone the entire time she was on the PICU (about three days). It was hard to get used to at first, but they were kind and compassionate and most of them were unobtrusive.
Meanwhile I continued struggling with my questions. I was embarrassed around the doctors and nurses. I worried that people were judging me. But most of all I worried that in some way I deserved that judgment. Still it would be a while before anyone could have judged me harder than I judged myself. “What did we do wrong?” “How could I have missed this?” “I failed my little girl.” Rather than judge me, the staff kept reassuring me that there was probably little I could have done to prevent this, if anything. Every time I heard this, it was like hearing it for the first time. I drank it in.
After several hours in the PICU I still did not recognize my daughter. She was still very out of it. I think she was extremely fearful of what she had just done and was struggling to grasp it as we were. And I did what most parents do when a child is in the hospital. I made that cold place my home.
I couldn’t stop crying, though I think I usually managed to hide it from Anna, although on several occasions I didn’t bother. I wanted her to know how this was affecting me and how it would affect others. But every time I called Christy I couldn’t complete a sentence without breaking down. These were not weeps. They were not cool in any way, nor were they the slightest bit manly. These were ghastly, uncontrollable convulsions that seemed to have a mind and a time schedule of their own. Both this place and my unwelcome bursts of emotion reminded me of the reality I live in every minute of every day, that I have no ultimate control over any of the things I care most about. I had never felt so powerless and it washed over me in waves so massive I wondered if it would ever stop.
I remember being astonished at the intensity of the pain. A few days later I would quip to Christy, “And this is how crappy it feels when they LIVE!” I couldn’t even imagine having lost our daughter, but the problem Christy and I were both having is that that is precisely what we couldn’t stop imagining ourselves having done. Going home without her. I thought constantly about all the parents every year who go through this exact same thing, but who go home without their child. After years as a professional counselor, talking to parents and kids about these issues, I now could understand personally, on some level, how suicide affects families in such a deep and unique way, even though we fortunately hadn’t lost Anna. And I knew even then that doors were opening inside of me to be even better at what I do.
As the days wore on, new shifts brought new nurses. One nurse in particular was a God-send. She was the first person to sit down with us and talk through things with us. She reassured a very fearful Anna that she was going to be okay. She reassured me that it wasn’t my fault, that it was obvious that I was a loving father. She listened as I asked question after question, all of which I’d have known the answer to if someone were asking me. But I needed to hear someone tell me what I’d have told someone else. I suggested that perhaps she should have been a counselor instead of a nurse. She said she felt it was critical to have nurses with good counseling skills and I could immediately see the stupidity of my suggestion. She was a blessing to us.
Anna and I have always been tight (I’m close to all three of my girls), and as scary as this was I was grateful to be there with her. I kept thinking how hard it must have been for Christy to not be there, but one thing we’ve learned from 24 years together: when there’s a crisis, and there’s something that desperately needs to be done right now that calls for great strength and ability to focus in spite of the chaos, and something else that needs to be done that just involves mostly sitting, Christy’s the action person and I’m the sitter. Christy has always had an uncanny ability to summon her resources in crisis and keep moving, where I tend to become overly introspective and ask myself useless questions. Christy needed to be where she was, and I needed to be where I was, and I was grateful both for Christy and for the opportunity to stay with my daughter. And as hard as it was for Christy not to be up at the hospital, our commitment to doing a great open house for Brittany was as big as our commitment to getting Anna through this.
Now for the scary part. We had Anna in counseling when she attempted, with a brilliant therapist. I had recently taken her to our family doctor to explore getting her on some meds and we were pursuing some other reasonable options first (medication to help her sleep). Her doctor didn’t see this coming. Her counselor didn’t see it. Her pastor/counselor/counseling instructor daddy and school teacher mom didn’t see it. She didn’t tell any of her best girlfriends. She didn’t share her thoughts/plans for suicide with a single soul. Even if she had, she still might have attempted anyway.
Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for children between 10 and 14. If someone you know tells you they are having suicidal thoughts, take it seriously and tell someone who will get them some help. There are only two possibilities: 1) the person is serious, in which case it is critical to get them help; 2) the person is just saying it for attention and any person who says that kind of thing for attention also needs help. Teens especially, please hear this — this is a secret that is not yours to keep.