Several months ago, I took part in a suicide awareness walk. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect when I signed up to participate. Would it be a morose affair? Did I need some kind of credentials to show up? Had I really been affected by suicide enough to be a part of such an event? This wasn’t like an ordinary fund-raising activity; this was something literally dealing with life and death.

I’m happy to say I wound up coming out of the experience with a much greater appreciation for life. There is something about considering death which can make a person put their own life in perspective. As I walked that day, all the little things which had been bothering me that morning just seemed to fade away. They lost their importance in light of the fact that I still had air in my lungs and my heart was still beating. I wanted to leave there that day and go tell everyone I knew that I loved them. And, in the case of a few, I actually did.

There were plenty of elements of the walk that day to stir my emotions, but I was most affected by a picture mural someone had made of people who had taken their own lives. As I approached it, I fully expected to see plenty of photos of people frowning, maybe dressed in all black, looking away from the camera, trying to withdraw from whatever was happening around them. In reality, though, I saw quite the opposite.

Nearly everyone in those pictures who had committed suicide was smiling.

And that sent a shiver down my spine.

I suppose we all like to assume that we’ll know when someone close to use is struggling mentally. We want to believe we’ll have exactly the right words to say at exactly the right time. We can’t imagine someone being able to hide a pain so bad that it would make them want to leave this world forever. And we certainly don’t expect smiling faces.

Sometimes, though, it is the people who are hurting the most who are the most adept at hiding their pain. They have learned over the years to present a face that will convince the rest of the world that everything is fine with them. They have learned to deflect concern, to stifle affection directed their way, to show a strong front even when everything around them is falling apart. People suffering from depression are among some of the greatest actors you will ever meet. I should know; I’ve done my share of performing over the years.

What can we do, then, to recognize the warning signs of someone about to go over the edge? If there is nothing outwardly for us to see, how do we discern what is going on inside? If you were expecting me to offer five tips for doing this successfully, I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong blog. The simple truth is that in some instances we will never get past that smile. We will believe things are fine until the very end.

We can get close to people, though. We can let them know we care about them. We can strive to know them to the point that we can tell the difference between a fake smile and real one. We can tell people we love them. We can fight for those we love, and, in many cases, we can win.

What we cannot do, though, is blame ourselves for not spotting the “obvious” warning signs. We all, in one way or another, become experts at hiding our pain, our hurts, our disappointments. It is so very, very difficult to see what lies below the surface of someone else’s smile. It is nearly impossible to catch the small inflections in a voice that is about to crack. I would have never guessed from any of those photos that any of those people would commit suicide. I feel bad about that, even though I did not know any of them.

I wish we lived in a world where suicide awareness walks weren’t necessary. Until those smiles are real, though, we will be faced with the uncomfortable truth that people do take their own lives. Be genuine, and be vigilant. We can get through this … together.
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