Fathom Mag

I wanted to ask. I needed to ask.

Suicide prevention required I ask the question I couldn’t seem to get out.

Published on:
June 20, 2024
Read time:
4 min.
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The sun had already set, and members of my rural community gathered for a meal and a public presentation on caring for our neighbors. Seated on metal folding chairs, two friends and I ate our dinner, casually chatting before the presentation on suicide prevention started. 

They encouraged us to push through the awkwardness and practice forming the words ourselves. Like muscle memory for saving a life.

Midway through, we were tasked with turning to the person beside us and asking the question the topic hinges on: Are you thinking of hurting yourself? The presenters knew listening to someone else talk about suicide intervention and using your own words to accomplish it were different things entirely. They encouraged us to push through the awkwardness and practice forming the words ourselves. Like muscle memory for saving a life.  

I turned slowly to my left, the slight smile and lift of my eyebrows communicating the only thought racing through my mind, I guess we have to do this? 

It was hard and awkward; I wanted to divert my eyes and opt out of this exercise. But as I stole glances around the room, others had obviously begun asking and answering the question. Looking into each other’s eyes, we took turns asking: Are you thinking of hurting yourself? 

Months later, the July sun blazed as my friend—the same one from the night of the presentation—and I sat under a blue canopy shade, we squinted our eyes against the sun while we kept track of our kids splashing and playing in the town pool. Usually the one to organize and invite and gather us all together, she’d been keeping to herself. At one point the pool canopy transformed into the safe space of a confessional, and she told me she’d spent days in bed. My friend was a shell of herself, and I knew then things were off. I knew she was depressed or sad or a mix of all the things that can’t be tied to just one word. After that day I took on the role of social initiator. Invitation after invitation, I kept in touch—at the pool, for a walk, at the park, and on the phone to talk. Some days she told me no, while other days I did my best to keep her talking. 

But that day, amidst the blazing sun, one question burned inside me. I wanted to ask. I needed to ask. But the words sat lodged in the back of my throat. The question we asked each other months ago under the security of the church building, the question we asked with a smile on our faces trying to ease the awkwardness we felt. That question that needed to be asked under the safety of the pool canopy confessional, but I couldn’t get it out. It raced in my mind but never out of my mouth: Are you thinking of hurting yourself?

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A few days later, my kids settled into an afternoon of quiet time. Popping back into the kitchen, I glanced at my phone and saw a text from my friend. I don’t remember the exact message, but I do remember the exact feeling coursing through my body when I read it. I knew I needed to see her in person right away; I had to get to her. She wasn’t home alone, but the need was there. 

That time I responded immediately: I’m coming over right now.

I texted another friend of ours, and she arrived at my house within minutes to accompany me. She didn’t need a lot of details—we’d both witnessed our friend’s spiral and had been at a loss for how to help. Before heading out the door, I grabbed the magnet from my fridge with the suicide prevention hotline number, vowing to ask her the question I couldn’t bring myself to verbalize earlier.

My brain had on repeat the question I had practiced saying months ago; I knew that this was a defining moment for our friendship and her health.

Her husband took us to the bedroom when we arrived at her house. We sat with her on the bed; I don't remember what words we said or how we stumbled over asking if she felt like taking her life. I do remember how my body felt: my heart raced and my mind bounced around trying to figure out how to help and the next steps needed to keep her safe. My brain had on repeat the question I had practiced saying months ago; I knew that this was a defining moment for our friendship and her health. The friend who came with me wrapped her arms around our other friend. At that moment we both knew what needed to be said. “You know we have to ask this—are you thinking of hurting yourself?” 

Tucked together on a bed, curtains halfway opened to the setting sun, love looked like showing up and holding on to one another, like asking a hard, but important question. 

Our suicide prevention trainers reinforced to us that asking the question is only one piece of helping others through a mental health crisis. So as the light waned outside the window and tears fell inside it, we grasped hands and committed to walking through the darkness together. We committed to finding a way back to the light hand in hand. 

Plans needed to be made. For hours, my friend and I took turns being present and making phone calls. 

Asking the question wasn’t the end of the suffering, but it was the beginning of the healing. “Are you thinking of hurting yourself” was the doorway to a different path we could walk together. 

Kimberly Knowle-Zeller
Kimberly Knowle-Zeller is a writer, pastor, wife, mother of two, and the co-author of The Beauty of Motherhood: Grace-Filled Devotions for the Early Years. She lives with her family in Cole Camp, Missouri. She believes in the power of words, unearthing the extraordinary in the ordinary, and encouraging others to follow their passions. Read more of her writing at kimberlyknowlezeller.com or sign up for her monthly newsletter.

Cover image by Melyna Valle.

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