December 8, 1980 – February 6, 2018
A long-held acquaintance of mine committed suicide a few days ago. Shawn Leonard. His funeral service was today. Shawn was a friend of my husband’s since the 6th grade who, according to Mike, entered his friend group based on his skills of not being deterred by all the crap they gave him.
Feelings of grief and loss have been coming in waves for me since his death.
The funeral today was packed full of people, filled with sorrow, confusion, and questions – one glaring one in particular: Why?
On the back of the program for today’s service, it stated:
Shawn made everyone’s life a little brighter. He will be so missed by so many. Don’t ask why – ask how you can bring a little Shawn to the lives of those you love.
Each member of his parental team: mom, dad, stepmom, and stepdad, along with four of his six siblings and his oldest nephew, spoke at the service, painting a vivid picture of Shawn’s authentic, lighthearted, and generous spirit. Some of their words that stuck with me and made a lasting impression:
If there’s something you want to do with a loved one, DO IT! (Shawn’s dad)
Shawn loved hard and loved often. (One of his sisters)
Talk more and listen more. I regret that I didn’t talk more and listen more to Shawn. We never know when it will be the last time we’ll see someone. (Shawn’s 19-year-old nephew)
Shawn was very close with his family and dearly loved. He was funny and charismatic. His death came as a complete surprise.
As a long time hospice volunteer I’ve formed a relationship with the death and dying process that affords me a certain level of openness, acceptance, and understanding, which I feel I would not have acquired otherwise.
But suicide is different.
My heart aches for the people who see fit to take their own lives – who lived in such agonizing misery that suicide was their only recourse. My heart aches for their loved ones left behind, filled with so much regret and remorse and confusion.
With Shawn, I wonder: How long had he contemplated this action? Was it a long time coming or a rash decision? How was it that he was struggling so deeply and those closest to him had no idea? What made him not reach out and get support? What made him think he had to stow everything so intensely from those he knew full well would bend over backwards to help him? What was the final tipping point, where suicide was the only option he could fathom?
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (afsp.org), there’s an average of 123 suicides per day, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death in the US. And for every suicide, there are 25 who make an attempt. In 2016, my home state of Montana was ranked #1 in the US with the highest rate of suicide (per 100,000 people), at 26.01. The 2016 national average was 13.42.
When I think of Shawn I think of his smile, I always have. His smile was one of those smiles. The kind that immediately draws you in, attracting you to situate yourself in his presence. He was one of the few friends my husband had from growing up that didn’t treat me like an outsider for not having grown up in their click.
Shawn’s suicide puts me in touch with the vastness of the human condition; with the vastness of human suffering; with the incredibly deep cracks that lie in our cultural and ancestral lineage in regards to not being given the proper tools and teachings on how to function skillfully, contentedly, and optimally in this human manifestation; and the incredible damage done by the grave and misguided stigma centered around mental illness.
From a poem Shawn wrote to his youngest sister on October 5th, 2017:
People come and people go…
But the sky always loves you…
The ocean always loves you
May I love harder and may I love more often, just as you did. May I keep your memory alive within my heart by reaching out to my loved ones, even when it seems I am the only one who is making an effort.
May I not be stingy with my love but shine it brightly for all to see and bask in its embrace.
May I situate myself in the same spirit of generosity and kindness that you offered so freely to all beings (people and animals) in your wake.
May I remember to not take for granted the time I am afforded with those I hold dear; that all life is of the nature of change in the blink of an eye; and that we are loved fully and completely – bumps, bruises, and all – by the beauty that holds us in its gaze.
In Loving Friendship,