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Posted: November 6, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Suicide prevention

Anyone whose life has been closely touched by suicide knows, all too well, the insidious nature of the associated grief that invades your heart. Sometimes it seems there's no escape from thinking about the event. You replay everything that led up to it, going back through the years, looking for signs that might have portended trouble on the horizon.
And sometimes you just think that no day will ever be as pretty again, no sun will ever shine as brightly, no sky will ever be as blue, no music will ever sound as sweetly, no fulfillment of any kind will ever be as enjoyable as it once was, before the suicide invaded and took away the innocent joy and childlike revelry which comes from relishing even the smallest and simplest of things that bring happiness to one's soul.
One sun-splashed afternoon in July of 1991 my wife and I took our kids on a San Francisco Bay cruise. The boat departed Fisherman's Wharf and took us out beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, at which point we came about and headed for Alcatraz Island to tour the old prison.
As our boat approached the bridge, however, tower fog horns began blasting though there was no fog, and no seagoing traffic entering the narrow passageway under the bridge.
Our captain told us that all traffic was being routed away from the south tower of the Golden Gate, as a person was threatening to jump off the bridge. A few tourists with binoculars and telephoto lenses spotted the jumper, but our tour continued without further incident.
The evening news reported, however, that not long after our encounter the individual became the 200th person to commit suicide in 1991 by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge.
 And it was only July.
 From time to time during the remainder of the summer, one of the children would ask me about that suicide. What could drive a person to take their own life like that? Why would anyone in a place as beautiful as San Francisco be unable to find a reason to keep living?
 I don't know how other parents answer those unanswerable questions. Don't really know if my way was a good one or not. But I told the kids about asking my own parents, when I was young, about living through "The Great Depression" as teenagers. As photography in the 1920's was mostly black-and-white, I asked if flowers still bloomed and if white fluffy clouds still made shapes that looked like animals and caricatures of people against a blue sky. Did candy taste as sweet in those dark days? Did people ever laugh? Was there any joy? Or was it all gloom and despair?
 My parents told me that joy still existed. People still fell in love. Mamas and daddies still loved their children. They had pets, birds still sang, and even if the pictures of those grim days of financial ruin and deprivation were in black-and-white, the world was still colorful and life still vibrant as at any other time.
 But some folks could adjust to hard times, while others could not. And whether it was true or not, some old folks maintained that New York City skyscrapers now have sealed windows because so many suicides jumped out of open ones when the stock market crashed in 1929.
 I talked about faith, and knowing what you believe. I talked of loving yourself, your family and your friends. I told them that no matter how bad things might seem, no matter how grim the situation, that the sun would rise tomorrow, and bring with it a brand new day and at least a chance for things to get better.
 I was teaching social studies and coaching whatever sport was in season in those days. I drew on motivational axioms and clichés coaches use in most any situation. When the wheels are off the wagon and you're getting hammered, that's when the coach - or the daddy - can make a vital point which, at a later time, might make all the difference in the world.
 So I talked a little, from personal experience, about being in a situation years before which seemed out of control. I didn't want to scare them, so I avoided specifics; in the end I hoped and prayed that the bedrock faith our children developed would carry them through any future ordeals of depression or anxiety.
 I was reminded of this last week, as my wife and I ate dinner at a local establishment. One of the waiters had been a student of mine in the 20th Century; during a lull he asked me to share with his friend why the answer to the first question on any of my tests was always "Arby's Beef n' Cheddar."
 I related how I'd once felt trapped in a job I could no longer tolerate, yet from which could not resign as there were bills to pay and kids to raise. I experienced sleepless nights, "cold sweats" and crying jags. The thought occurred that if I drove my little economy car straight into a bridge abutment I'd never feel a thing; my wife would get the life insurance and could pay the bills. And instead of seeking professional help or going to my preacher, I actually decided to hit a bridge.
 The next day, seconds from a high speed impact, I glanced away and saw an Arby's sign, and aborted the collision for just one more of my favorite "beef ‘n cheddar" sandwiches.
 When I got home, I told my wife the whole sorry saga, and with her support quit that job. I began sharing the story with my classes, in case they ever faced a seemingly inescapable mess, because the ironic thing was that I'd lost a friend to suicide, and for that very reason never thought I'd consider it myself.
 There are desperate people in our world today who think there's no way out of their situation, either. There is, of course, but they just can't see it. I was one of them, but luckily a sign changed my course. And the reason I'm sharing this with you today, friend, is because it's just possible that you - as an angel unaware - might be that very sign for someone desperately needing a reason not to jump from their own Golden Gate.

Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.

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