Editor’s note: This commentary discusses grief, loss and suicide.
I live in an old Denver building with six units, one of which was occupied, until recently, by a mathematician.
I met this neighbor several years ago when I asked permission to enter her apartment, because I was looking for the building’s main water shut-off valve, which I had reason to believe was located behind her refrigerator.
I had seen her around the building, but she kept to herself and seemed to value her privacy. We conversed for the first time, and it turned out we had some things in common. She had musical equipment set up in her apartment, including instruments, recording hardware and other gear — stuff I know a thing or two about. And that conversation established a bond.
If you or someone you know is in a crisis, call, text or chat the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. In Virginia, you can reach the Crisis Textline by texting ASKUS to 741741. If you are trying to reach a 988 call center in Virginia using an out-of-state area code, call 703-752-5263. If you need help with grief and loss, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention offers advice and resources. You can also call the National SAMHSA Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP, with services in English and Spanish, toll free 24/7. The Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services also offers a two-day Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training; contact Nicole Gore at [email protected] for more information.
On a later occasion, I noticed hanging on her wall an item that referred to the Riemann hypothesis. I asked her what that was, and she explained that the hypothesis involves a very complex and famous math problem that, if solved, could illuminate how prime numbers are distributed. Much of what she said went over my head, and she readily acknowledged that aspects of it even she had difficulty grasping. But while talking about it, she became animated and revealed a passionate side I hadn’t seen before.
Before I left, she offered me a book to borrow called “The Riemann Hypothesis: The Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics,” by Karl Sabbagh.
One weekend in June, several residents of my building, including the mathematician, were sitting outside talking when the chat turned to the topic of transphobia. The mathematician, a trans woman, spoke frankly about the rank bigotry she had experienced in her life. She spoke touchingly about what it meant for her to transition and that she wished she could have begun transitioning earlier in life.
During another moment in the conversation, she said she had never visited the Denver Art Museum, and I understood that her difficult experiences in public settings deterred her from venturing to places, like the museum, that she would otherwise enjoy. A couple of us volunteered to accompany her to the art museum sometime.
We never got the chance. My neighbor took her own life on Aug. 26.
The suicide of a loved one or friend produces guilt in addition to grief. What more should I have done? A truth that is difficult for me to acknowledge right now but which is crucial to understand is that suicide is often preventable. It’s impossible to know if my friend’s death was preventable. But many suicides are.
That’s one of the primary messages of National Suicide Prevention Month, which is September. Mental health advocates and professionals as well as survivors and other community members will spend the month promoting suicide prevention awareness — a campaign that is a personal priority.
There are actions that loved ones and allies can take to effectively help a person who is in crisis or thinking about suicide.
“Research shows people who are having thoughts of suicide feel relief when someone asks after them in a caring way,” according to 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. “Findings suggest acknowledging and talking about suicide may reduce rather than increase suicidal ideation.”
The Lifeline offers much helpful advice: Listen to a person who is depressed without judgment, make means of suicide less available, help them create a network of people for support and safety, and maintain supportive contact with the person. There are many such national and state resources to promote suicide prevention.
Advocates plan further focus on suicide prevention during National Suicide Prevention Week, Sept. 10-16, and National Suicide Prevention Day, Sept. 10. For example, the Colorado chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention plans its Out of the Darkness Community Walk in Fort Collins that day.
Part of AFSP’s mission is saving lives, a goal that’s especially urgent in Colorado, where 1,287 people died by suicide in 2022. That figure has hovered around 1,300 in recent years. Colorado has the sixth-highest rate of suicide death in the U.S., where suicide is a leading cause of death.
Rates of suicide are especially high among transgender people, particularly trans youth. This is a disturbing aspect of suicide that as an opinion writer who has repeatedly calledout bigots, I understood in the abstract. Now it’s personal. A close friend of my neighbor told me that bigotry played a role in her death. She “endured a lifetime of transphobia and violence,” the friend explained. It turns the stomach to reflect that in 2023 America, one suicide prevention strategy must be resistance to the mainstreaming of hate.
I had started to read “The Riemann Hypothesis” right away and found the parts that I could comprehend fascinating, though I ran aground on pages that proved impassable to my untrained brain. The other night I picked up the book again, and I happened upon this passage, in which Sabbagh writes about mathematicians: “It is given to them to see truthswith a clarity that is sometimes breathtaking … It seems, if the history of mathematics is anything to go by, that they will never run out of territory to explore, new discoveries to savor.”
This brought me back to the excitement my friend exuded when we first talked about math. It gave me some comfort to imagine that despite whatever deep pain she endured, she was also in touch with what is breathtaking in this world.
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