By Emily Alvarez
Stories of lived experience can be used to fight the stigma of mental illness and suicide and to help get people involved in the movement. These journeys humanize the suicide prevention movement and help other people seek help. This series on lived experience is a great chance to highlight a loss survivor's story and the search for meaning after loss.
Cal Beyer is a friend of our CEO Sally Spencer-Thomas, as well as a friend to our organization. He lost a coworker last February and has been making meaning out of the loss ever since. As it is nearing the anniversary of his coworker's death, we wanted to share Cal's story of finding meaning through loss.
This is his story:
I lost a dear friend to suicide on February 23, 2015. His name was Jeff. He died at age 51. He left a wife and 3 grown adult children. He also left a family of loving folks and an army of friends who were all confused that Jeff had taken his life. Many of us knew that he was prone to periods of solitude and sadness. None of us understood he teetered on the brink of darkness and despair for so long.
I hired Jeff while working for a startup company. We worked together for approximately 7 years. We became great work friends and then personal friends.
Jeff was a very large man standing 6”4”. Jeff was a “gentle giant”. His best qualities included a sense of humor that allowed him to have numerous nicknames that ranged from “Tiny” to “Big Dawg”. Jeff loved fishing. He was hooked on fishing. Fishing was probably his reason for living. It was his being. Fishing made Jeff come alive. Jeff loved sharing the gift of fishing with others.
Jeff was loyal and dependable. He was an exceptional teammate. He was the teammate that would do anything to help another be successful in their projects. He was smart and resourceful in a methodical way.
Jeff touched me early on by thanking me for appreciating him as a person and as a co-worker.
We quickly developed an effective working relationship that grew into a personal friendship. He is one of the men in my life I opened up the most to. Although I do not fish, and only did once with Jeff, we shared a deep friendship based on unconditional love. He accepted me and he never judged me. His love of my wife and children was touching as well. I knew if we ever needed “Big Dawg” he would be there regardless of the circumstance.
My kids loved Jeff because he took an active interest in them. He would always affirm the importance of me in their lives by saying things to them that showed Dad was talking about them at work and to his friends. These little affirmations showed me we were genuine friends early on.
We enjoyed playing practical jokes on others in the office. Some of these jokes were sophomoric (“fart machine” hidden in the office of our favorite target that had a remote control push button) and some were very sophisticated covert operations that took days to plan and execute (making a mini golf course in someone’s office complete with sand trap and water holes and oversized plastic kiddy golf clubs). These experiences would bring out the inner-child in Jeff and me. It made us laugh for hours and we’d reminisce about them for years after.
Jeff made me laugh more than any other man in my middle years.
When he died, my own mourning was delayed as I first tried to be a calming influence on his family and then our former co-workers. I tried to build a bridge between Jeff’s family and our former co-workers. This is how I’m wired. I go into crisis mode and help others first and then deal with the issue over time and by myself.
I felt guilt initially. What if I hadn’t left the employment of the start-up and what if I had remained as his manager? Would I have seen this coming? Is there something more I could do? The fact is that I left in 2010 and Jeff and I remained in touch. Although I moved out of state we’d try to get together whenever I was in town.
The family’s openness at the funeral in discussing suicide and Jeff’s lifelong battle with mental health issues was a healthy catharsis. It allowed me and my family to process our grief without secrets. It allowed us to acknowledge how hard Jeff’s life must have been. It was helpful for me to know that Jeff was meeting with his Pastor on a weekly basis.
When one of Jeff’s daughters read portions of my tribute of her father at the service it gave me a sense of closure that not everyone had. It was important to me that his family truly understood his importance in my life.
I loved Jeff and I know he knew it.
I honor Jeff by doing what I do best and that is being an industry thought leader. I have expanded my efforts in promoting mental health and suicide prevention. I write and speak about suicide prevention in his honor. I honor Jeff by praying for his family and staying in touch with them. I keep them informed of major activities and successes. I honor Jeff by reminiscing with others about the friendship we shared. I share the funny memories I have. I remember his smile and laughter. I whisper his name when I see people enjoying fishing. I get teary-eyed when I eat walleye which was his favorite fish.
Before Jeff’s death I was partnering with Sally Spencer-Thomas. I served with her since 2010 as inaugural members of the Workplace Task Force for the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. In 2014 Sally invited me to return to the Workplace Task Force and lead an initiative for the Construction Industry on mental health and suicide prevention. When Sally invited me to join others at the White House to present on this topic at the “Dialogue on Men’s Health” in January 2016, I realized that I was truly making a difference. The nomination and subsequent appointment to serve on the Executive Committee for the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention has further empowered me. This is an opportunity to speak from a larger platform to more broadly amplify the need for funding, recruit helpers and build partnerships on mental health and suicide prevention.
Jeff’s widow Jane has been remarkably graceful in sharing with me how proud Jeff would be of my efforts to help promote the cause of mental health and suicide prevention in the construction industry. She tells me that Jeff is proud of my fight for the underdogs and for bringing understanding to this cause.
For anyone impacted by suicide, I encourage them to grasp for hope. Rely on faith to find firm footing. Seek understanding and avoid judging and blaming. Accept reality. Forgive yourself for any spoken or unspoken words. Reflect on positive experiences and memories. Pay tribute to your relationship. Remember and honor their memory. Share openly and often with others. Stay connected with people and do not isolate. Uncork your emotions: let tears flow freely and frequently.