After receiving reports that several suicides have taken place in the Creston Valley in recent months we reached out to Mary Underhill, a local stress therapist and grief counselor.
What are the warning signs? What should we do if someone we know might be suicidal?
Now in her mid-eighties, Underhill is known for her boundless energy and enthusiasm, and for her warm hugs. Need a lift? Talk to Mary.
Underhill responded to our phone questions briefly, then within minutes visited the Advance office. She was taking a short break on a downsizing project as she and her husband, Harry, prepare to move from their three-bedroom house to a one-bedroom apartment. She’s been managing the project with the help of friends and family, with Harry due to return home this week after a three-month medical battle that kept him in hospital for most of that time.
“There are no hard facts,” she said. “Suicide is a very individual thing. A trigger for one person is very easy to handle for another—it’s very nebulous.”
Underhill has decades of working with people going through difficulties of one sort or another, but she also speaks from personal experience. Twice she set out to end her own life.
“I don’t call it ‘committing suicide,'” she said. “It sounds like someone is committing a crime. They are not.”
Her first suicide came when she was in “a bad second marriage.”
“It was not a happy situation,” she said. “I just wrote a note one day—’Please look after the kids’—and started walking to the river. I couldn’t swim.”
Her husband returned home, saw the note, and found her before she reached the water’s edge. A few weeks later she packed up the kids and left.
“Almost everyone—probably 99 per cent of us—contemplates suicide at least one time in their life.”
She described a suicidal state as having no emotions involved.
“I knew I was in a black hole,” she recalled. “There was no fear, no emotion, no panic. I just wanted out. I’d had enough.”
Her next marriage was to “a true Jekyll and Hyde.”
“When we crossed the threshold to his house for the first time he started calling me by his first wife’s name. And he hated my Siamese cat, my beloved companion.”
One day Underhill was driving along a straight road, approaching a bridge spanning a coulee. She knew the spot well, and the approach to the bridge became a lure.
“I swerved to go off the road and into the coulee, but as I did my cat’s image appeared in front of my eyes.”
That image was enough to snap her out of the non-emotional state. She slammed on the brakes and stopped.
“It couldn’t have been more than six inches from the edge.”
Her emotions returned.
“I left a week later.”
“When there is no emotion, you are not thinking of what you could do to get out of a bad situation. It’s just a dead feeling You just want to end it.”
Underhill began sharing her experiences when she was president of the Creston Valley Hospice Society many years ago, with founder Dr. William Mitchell-Banks holding the secretary position. During a meeting of volunteers, one stated a sense of disgust for “stupid people who commit suicide.” They do after all, leave behind a whole new set of problems for family, friends and community.
“But they want out of their own problems and they can’t see a way out,” she said.
What to do when a person you know might be suicidal?
“The most important thing is hugs, letting them know that somebody in this world cares. Be aware. What they need is someone to ask, ‘Are you okay?’ And to listen to the answers.”
There is no magic solution, she admits, but the effort to make an emotional connection through hugs and an offer to listen is worth it.
“You might save somebody’s life. If not, you will at least know you tried.”
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts take a few minutes to reach out. You are not alone. http://www.crisislines.bc.ca/