Two Things That Helped Me Recover from Two Suicides | Dennis Gillan

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“A shared sorrow is half a sorrow. Every time I tell my story, I cut my sorrow in half”

Phone rings. Bad news. Life changes. Happens to the best of us, but this one was different. I had just learned that my younger brother Matthew died by suicide and he should have known what a suicide could do to a family. How could he have known? We lost my older brother Mark to suicide eleven years earlier. For those keeping score that’s two brothers in eleven years, once again, leaving me, my parents, and my two sisters to figure out why.

Had to get those traumas out of the way early because they still hurt to think about, but let’s review how I handled each one. When Mark died, I was in college and I tried to drink the pain away. I am not the first person to try that horrible coping strategy, and I will not be the last one to tell you that it doesn’t work, but as a reminder:  DRINKING AWAY YOUR PAIN DOES NOT WORK. Sorry for yelling, but I needed to get that point across and here is why. While I was trying to drink my pain away, I didn’t notice that Matthew was doing the same thing, and we lost him. It’s a bit different when it’s your younger brother. I should have been looking out for him, but I was too busy with this thing called life. F me and I am taking that grief to the grave. Please don’t try to talk me out of it, I just am.

When Matthew died, I finally made two smart decisions. The first one was to stop drinking. My ex-wife and I were trying to get pregnant when Matthew died and when I got home from the funeral, I made a deal with God that if we got pregnant, I would never drink again. We got pregnant and my oldest son is 24 years old and I am 25 years sober. Do the math.

The second smart decision I made was to go see a professional counselor, a practice I still use today. My company at the time had an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and I decided to use it. This is a big step for a dude because we don’t like talking about our feelings. In fact, the last time I got in touch with my inner self was when I bought that cheap toilet paper. I’ll wait for the visual learners…. yuck! Combine the sobriety piece with this newfound respect for professional counseling and slowly the fog started to lift.  

Years later and very slowly, the urge to help others started to rumble inside of me. It’s hard to explain, but it happens to us all and it basically goes like this:  You had some bad shit happen to you and you want to try to make sure it never happens to anyone else. I am sure there is some psychological term for it, but there is an inner yearning that desperately wants to turn your pain into a purpose, and I stumbled upon an opportunity. I met the director of the local suicide prevention hotline and I volunteered to work the phones. This was good for me because I could help others and remain anonymous. You see I never told anyone about my brothers, and I found myself in a new city and whenever anyone asked me how many kids were in my family, I would answer three. My two sisters and I. The truth is there were five of us, but I wasn’t ready for that discussion, yet. I felt the stigma, so I kept it a secret. I know, shame on me, but read on, it all works out.

After 12 weeks of intense training, I was put on the phone lines. Every Thursday night from 8:00 pm to midnight I was Marty on the helpline, and I truly loved it. Sometimes people just need to talk, and this lifeline fits the bill.

In case you need someone to talk to the number is 800-273-8255 or 800-273-TALK. Put that shit in your phone…. you never know.

I did this for a couple of years and then moved South Carolina for a new job opportunity and I got involved with a couple of charities that take on mental health and suicide prevention. One of these organizations does a walk for suicide prevention and passive-aggressive me signed up to do it. I say passive aggressive because I technically signed up to do it, but with the walk rapidly approaching, I had zero dollars and zero cents in my account. Translation:  I was doing squat to help the cause! I got called out on this, so I decided to at least update my page on the donor site. It is here where I spilled my guts about my brothers in a beautifully written full-page tribute to them. At the bottom of the form there was a simple question: Do you want to send this to your contacts? I figured I know about 20-30 good people, it’s much higher if I count the bad ones, so I said YES, and I waited. My computer seemed to be struggling, but here is what was really going on. In 2010, Google’s Gmail counted anyone you ever sent an email to as a “contact”. My computer was struggling because the system was busy sending out over 1500 emails.  F’ ME---my story about Mark and Matthew was out and in a big way. Anyone I ever sent an email to, got this tribute.

This story needed to get out. It was killing me slowly to keep it in and this walk helped jumpstart the healing process. A shared sorrow is half a sorrow. Every time I tell my story, I cut my sorrow in half. Because of the response to the letter, I was asked to speak at the walk and for five minutes I let the audience in on my little secret, and it felt good to finally get that off my chest. I thought I was done telling the story of Mark and Matthew, but I was wrong. Someone heard me at that fundraiser, and they asked me to speak to psychology interns at the local university. I thought I was ready to speak publicly about my brothers, but I was wrong, again (recurring theme in my life). During my introduction I had an out of body experience and started to feel really bad for the guy they were introducing. Man, this poor schmuck lost two brothers to suicide, what a shitty life he must have…then she said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Dennis Gillan”.  It hit me all at once--that poor schmuck was me. Well, I cried my way through that talk and was surprised when they recommended me to another school. I only cried half the time at that school, and they recommended me to another school. Third time's a charm as it was here that I hit my storytelling stride in front of a packed house, and now I can’t shut up about this cause.

The cause is simple: Reduce the number of suicides. I am focused on the USA because that is where I live and according to the latest data on completed suicides, we lost over 47,000 good folks to suicide. We are all in this together as 78% of all completed suicides are men, and women have three times more attempts. We are better than this.  So, what can you do to help the cause? First thing is to know the warning signs that someone may be suicidal. Here are a couple of the most prominent warning signs(1).

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself

  • Looking for a way to kill oneself

  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose

  • Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain

  • Talking about being a burden to others

  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs

  • Acting anxious, agitated, or reckless

  • Sleeping too little or too much

  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated

  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge

  • Displaying extreme mood swings

When reviewing the warning signs above there is this temptation to think about all the loved ones in your life, but the second thing you can do to help the cause is to recognize when this person is you. If you are exhibiting the above warning signs, can you do me a huge favor and tell someone? Just tell someone that you are in a rough patch and may need help. I wish my brothers did that, or maybe they did, and we missed it, that is water under the bridge. If you are reading this you are upstream. Get comfortable talking about your mental health and please be so obvious that no one can miss what you are saying. And please try the two coping mechanisms that helped me immensely: stop drinking alcohol and get professional help.

I am going out on a limb here because you visited a wonderful website whose mission is to raise awareness of the many mental health challenges faced and how people have overcome them, that you know that your mental health is just as important as your physical health. If you break your arm, you visit the orthopedist. If your thoughts are broken, please go see a psychologist or psychiatrist. We need you in this fight. We need you in this cause, and you cannot spell UNCrushed without YOU in it. Saved my worst dad joke for last.

My name is Dennis and I am UNCrushed.

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Dennis Gillan

Greenville, SC, USA

Learn How Dennis Can Help You

Dennis Gillan is the President of DGIF, LLC based out of Greenville, SC.  Dennis is a national thought leader on the topic of Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Advocacy. He travels internationally speaking, raising awareness, and taking on the stigma of mental health.

Dennis has been deeply touched by suicide after the losses of two of his brothers to suicide 11 years apart. After years of sitting on the sidelines, he jumped into helping those in need by working on the suicide prevention hotline when he lived in Chicago. After moving to South Carolina, Dennis got involved with several non-profits that take on mental health issues and this allows him to lobby lawmakers and raise awareness by sharing his story.  Dennis is an active member of the Workplace Taskforce of the Action Alliance and has spoken to several companies about mental health.


Please see our Suicide Prevention resources here.

(1) Source:  Rudd, M. D., Berman, A. L., Joiner, T. E., Jr., Nock, M. K., Silverman, M. M., Mandrusiak, M., et al. (2006). Warning signs for suicide: Theory, research, and clinical applications. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 36(3), 255-262.