It was so sad. I’m sure there are other words to describe what I saw Wednesday morning. But that word comes to mind.
The body was covered with a white sheet. It was lying on a grassy area beneath the Duke Ellington Memorial Bridge that carries Calvert Street NW. Portions of Connecticut Avenue NW and Beach Drive were cordoned off.
The only movements were the flashing red lights of police cars and motorists directed around the scene by officers.
Otherwise, stillness, silence and the lonely body.
Later that day I learned what had happened. As I suspected, someone had committed suicide by jumping off the bridge.
A life gone just like that.
Of course the adult woman’s life was more than that leap to her death. A lifetime went with her. So many days and years of living, of talking and being talked to, and touching and learning and feeling. All of it had to have added up to something — at least enough to want to keep on living.
That it apparently did not is what brings on the sadness and sense of loss, even though she was someone I didn’t know. Our only encounter was in those moments when I drove past where she was lying.
I knew nothing about the soul beneath the sheet. What mattered is that she was one of us. I wished I had known her, at least long enough to have had a chance to try to do something: hear her out, help her out. To try to undo whatever damage had been done, to dispel the desperation that drove her to that bridge. So I was left to say a silent prayer for her and her survivors. Don’t ask what I said; it was jumbled and on the fly. I just wanted God to know what happened. Maybe He could put things right for her.
That body under the white sheet changed the way I look at things. Activities like campaigns, politics, the NFL and baseball playoffs pale in significance to what took place on Wednesday morning.
Some things had happened in her life. She gave up, not knowing or perhaps not believing that she was precious — that her life was priceless.
I don’t know the woman’s family, or even if she had one. If she did, the toll of her suicide must be overwhelming.
The thought that a loved one may have reached the point of believing that she has no reason to keep living must be devastating.
But there, without warning, was the evidence at the foot of the Ellington Bridge.
Could there have been warning signs? If I had known her, would I have seen it coming?
Questions like that concentrate the mind. Professional groups such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) offer some answers. And we need answers. Suicide rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are rising.
The AFSP says there are some warning signs that can be detected in what someone says and does.
If you hear people talk of killing themselves, of having no reason to live, that they think they are a burden to others, or are seeking revenge, or feel trapped, or are bearing unbearable pain, pay attention.
Be alert to changes in behavior as well, they say. Especially if the behavior is new or related to a painful event.
Indicators to watch for: increasing use and abuse of alcohol or drugs; Internet searches on suicide methods or purchasing weapons; reckless behavior; withdrawal from activities; visits or calls to others to say goodbye; giving away prized possessions; panic attacks — things like that.
And the AFSP notes that there are risk factors, such as medical and family histories, that can increase the chance that someone will take his or her own life. And there are environmental triggers, too, such as access to a gun or other lethal instrument, prolonged stress, harassment, relationship problems and crises such as death, divorce or job loss. Any of these can set a suicide plan in motion.
The important thing is that if you think someone is at risk for suicide, the AFSP emphasizes, take it seriously and seek help.
Would any of this have made a difference had I known the woman lying under the white sheet? I can’t say because I entered way too late to find out.
This I know: The sum of her life is not what she did Wednesday. And that makes the whole tragic episode so deeply and abidingly sad.
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