Trigger warning: This article contains material related to suicide and mental illness. Discretion is advised. If these topics cause emotional, mental, or physical distress, please call your National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
A body found in the St. Lawrence river of Montreal the night of October 4th, 2018 mentioned in a few news articles, was my husband, Anand Almeida. I can talk forever about suicide statistics, that every 40 seconds someone in the world dies by suicide. But it doesn’t hit home until it happens to you or someone you know.
From September 28, 2018, when I last saw Anand and filed a missing person’s report, I was in daily contact with the police till the morning of October 5, 2018, when the police came to tell me his body was found. That week and day were the worst in my entire life.
At the risk of being blamed for Anand’s death and possibly facing repercussions for speaking the truth about the cause of his death, I was candid about what happened. The backlash, coming in particular from relatives/community members, especially those from India, primarily because there is very little understanding about mental illness and where “keeping appearances” is of utmost importance.
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I will not waiver from a vow I made a few days before Anand’s funeral, which was held a week after he was found. That I would not be silent. I would not let Anand’s death be in vain. That his struggle with depression, which had been going on since his teenage years, would be acknowledged, not hidden. That I would break this bullshit notion of saving face and giving more importance to “what will people say/think” rather than helping a loved one in need.
This need to “keep appearances” carries on amongst Indian diaspora even in North America and elsewhere. I and many other foreign-born Indians can attest to how this has made life miserable for many of us, even though we were not born or raised in the motherland.
What is far more crucial than what small minds will think and say, is that Anand’s and my story will be a catalyst for change. To wake people up, so that someone else does not have to face internal struggles alone; so that others don’t have to experience the sort of painful and tragic loss our families and friends have. To those who are in a dark space and feel like you have nowhere to turn to, you are not alone. To those who have lost someone to suicide and are struggling with the grief, you are not alone. Reach out to a local helpline or grief support group, you will be met with someone who understands to talk to or be directed to resources to help you and cater better to your needs. Apart from supportive family and friends, counseling and grief support groups have been a saving grace for my grief and healing journey which I am still on and will most likely be on for a while.
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If our story will save at least one life, ease the pain of at least one person; taking on all the awful things people might say in response to my advocacy is fine. For it pales in comparison to having lost the love of my life, and I wish that on no one. The only way to prevent these tragedies is by speaking the truth. I have a responsibility to do that. My conscience overrides my vanity, ego and fears.
Anand and I had our good times. We were each other’s rock and anchor; however, he was not easy to be around all the time. He made decisions that were self-destructive and hurtful to both of us, right till the very end. While I don’t encourage anyone to abandon someone during their darkest hour. Just because I stayed with him, does not mean I would encourage anyone to stay or look down on someone who left similar circumstances to save their sanity. As a caregiver, the whole situation took a toll on my mental health. Anand did things that gave me justifiable reasons to leave him. The caregiver as much as the individual suffering from a mental illness, both need a support system.
Mental health and suicide are not just taboos or stigmas in South Asian communities but in ALL communities around the globe. I was selective about who I reached out to talk to or ask for help. When Anand’s own family, who are supportive, fair, understanding and very good people who embody integrity were in denial about his mental health, I had to face the reality that others too might have similar views. I did not want to jeopardize any future employment prospects for Anand, with friends who might be able to refer him for a job, by revealing that he was struggling with mental illness. What triggered Anand’s anxiety and depression in the first place was looking for work upon arriving in Canada. I was stuck between a rock and hard place.
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I racked my brains to get Anand help. Begging and pleading with him to seek professional help, taking him to two different marriage counsellors. Found a coach for him who helps new immigrant professionals integrate into the Quebec workforce. Reaching out to anyone who might help him find work. Researching programs for new immigrants. Calling suicide helplines, calling the police & paramedics, reaching out to family members, including having my cousin, a medical doctor, come over to talk to him.
As my bereavement counsellor at Suicide Action Montreal said:
“You went above and beyond to help Anand but in the end, it is the individual’s responsibility to reach out and take the hands stretching out to help them.”
Easier said than done.
I know I did my best with the knowledge I had at that time. Unlike most suicide loss survivors who deal with guilt, I don’t feel guilt. I feel a lot of anger. Rage at people’s complacency and willful ignorance. I honestly feel that if more people were given safe spaces to talk about their losses and struggles openly without judgement, it would create awareness, empathy and understanding, that just as we can fall physically ill, we can fall mentally ill. It would not eradicate the stigma surrounding mental illness but it definitely would aid in diminishing it; furthermore, alleviating the shame individuals feel associated with mental illness. Thus making it easier for those in need, to speak up, to seek out help, be it from family, friends or mental health professionals. There would be less resistance to get help by those suffering from depression, anxiety or any other mental illness.
The families who have lost someone to suicide should not be feeling shame or silenced out of fear of being shamed. Shame on those small-minded people, the village idiots, who gossip, judge and criticize without knowing the individual and families, their circumstances and struggles. The ignorance & myopic views and behavior of these people and groups add to the grief of others. Not only that, it perpetuates the stigma and suffering.
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I was initially told by both our families to say Anand’s death was an accident, which is what was announced in India. I was adamant to use Anand’s funeral in Montreal as a platform to address mental health and suicide and how our Indian community puts so much pressure on individuals making them feel that their self-worth is dependent on their education, occupation, salary, wealth, status, title, etc.
Because I made that decision to be true to myself, honest, vulnerable, straight forward and authentic at Anand’s funeral, it has since created a safe space for people to come forward to us about their own or loved ones’ struggles with mental illness, depression and anxiety. Many even have said how it was a wake-up call to seek help for themselves or take a loved one to a mental health professional. Anand’s death has shaken many, even friends of mine near and far who never met him were affected by his suicide.
Being open about Anand’s death has created a ripple effect of compassion and empathy within others towards others. More than anything it has created open and honest dialogue which is just the start of creating awareness and bringing change.
Let us move forward with purpose and not shame or fear.
PLEASE SHARE to keep the dialogue going and help me in my mission to diminish the stigma and to help others.