Life Stories

Three Questions before you decide to help someone who opens up – Lessons Learned from a Tragic Death

“Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something, and has lost something.”

A few weeks ago, I received a random message from Bala (name changed), “Ma’am, Kaise Ho? (Ma’am, how are you?)” to which I simply replied, “Thik huh (I am fine),” and ignored his message.

A few days later, I noticed his friends commenting, “RIP Bala” on his feed. He had committed suicide.

I met Bala while working in the villages of West Bengal, India in the summer of 2013. I remember it was scorching, and I was using a local newspaper as a paper fan. Suddenly I noticed a news about the renowned Bengali filmmaker Riruparno Ghosh’s untimely death.

“He was such a great filmmaker,” I remarked to which Bala agreed with a smile.

Haan par woh baad mein waise the (But he was like that later on),” he commented, referring to Ghosh’s openly queer personality in the later stage of his life.

Haah waisa tah (Yes, he was like that),” I replied.  

” Ma’am, are some people born that way? He was a talented filmmaker, but why do people mock such people?” Bala asked.

Bala’s questions surprised me. He was a small-town boy who I had met in a remote village in Bengal. I did not expect that kind of response from him. Worse, I did not even bother to understand why he was asking such questions as I recklessly replied, “Haah hotah hain (Yes, it happens!)”

I tried to avoid any conversation about gays as I did not want him or others in the village to know about my accepting views about homosexuality. “Let me avoid making any controversial statement here. He cannot take my liberal views,” I assumed. He did not say anything to me.

We were Facebook friends too, and he closely followed my posts. A few years after our meeting, I had written an article about how we were dealing as a family when my brother openly came out as a gay man in Nepal and posted that article on Facebook.  Bala liked the article and commented, “Good Ma’am.”

I must admit I was surprised to see his comment as I perceived him as a boy stuck with the small-town conservative values.  And after he committed suicide, when I learned he was gay and was dealing with years of depression, all his questions and comments started to make sense to me.

Bala’s death was an eye-opening incident for me, which made me think about many gays from small towns who cannot be open about their sexuality, their despair, and frustration that drive them to commit suicide. I always imagined gay men living in an urban setting.  Never did it occur in my mind that thousands are growing up in villages and towns, with no access to information on sexuality.

Bala’s death also encouraged me to think about how I could have helped him.  Mental health is a serious public health issue, particularly among youngsters. While we are not trained professionals to provide help, nonetheless, we still live in a society where mental health is considered a taboo.  There are thousands of young people dealing with anxiety, loneliness, and depression, seeking some sort of conversation with anyone they think might understand them.  That could be us, for whatever reason.

There are several articles about dos and don’ts while speaking with a depressed friend (I have shared with you at the end of this blog). Personally, I think, before we even decide to help anyone who has approached us, we need to ask these three questions to ourselves.

Are we judgmental?

Yes, we are. Let’s first accept that we are all judgmental.  There is always that hidden bias somewhere inside us that blinds us every day.   

“I am not at all judgmental,” a person who thinks so, is a narcissist.

I was judgmental, too. I assumed Bala to be a narrow-minded and conservative boy from a small town. It was my elite mentality that actually blinded my judgment about Bala, who I labeled as a ‘small-town boy.’ So, I did not even see the need to talk about homosexuality when he had started the conversation referring to Ghosh’s achievement. 

We judge people based on their clothes, opinions, beliefs, and their ability to speak English (yes, we are that superficial).  So, we really need to be more conscious of our own prejudice and judgment; and ask this question, “What am I thinking of him before I decide to listen to him?”

Are we obsessed with lecturing?

Yes, we are. Let’s accept that we love lecturing, not listening whenever someone approaches us.  

“Oh, you will be fine, I think you should do this, you should get that, and so on.” 

I have a habit of lecturing too.  Anytime a friend approaches me with her problem, I tend to say, “You should travel, you will be fine. You need a break in life, you will be fine.”

As noble as my intentions are, these are my perspectives of life and my experiences, not theirs.  We tend to help by giving suggestions from what we understand life when we do not know the whole story of someone and their situation. When someone reaches out to us, we are so obsessed with ourselves that we simply miss asking a simple ‘why.’   Had I wondered and replied, “Why did you think of me after so many years, Bala?” it might have changed the situation.

Hence, anytime you find someone trying to open up with you, just ask, “why” or “what makes you.” Asking questions can give the person space to express how they are feeling and explain what they are going through.

Are we assuming we understand the other person?

Let’s accept that we all assume we understand others better. At least I fall into this trap every now and then, and we say, “Oh, I can imagine what you are going through.”

Reality is, we cannot imagine what the other person is going through. Everyone’s experience is different and unique, and we do not know what the other person is going through. Instead, if the person has decided to trust you, and you have decided to help him, ask questions like, “What does it feel right now?”

Psychologists think it is okay to ask, “Are you thinking of hurting yourself in any way?”  

Here is what is written in this article– “Many people are scared to ask this question thinking this would trigger the person into doing so – but crucially, it does help us to understand the level of risk and whether it’s appropriate to seek professional help immediately.” 

And lastly, if we are not sure about the right approach, a simple sentence, “Tell me, I am listening” might work.

Sometimes, life plays a weird game. We meet people, and for some odd reason, they choose to open up with us.  So, if our approach can help even one person, is it not worth doing so?  Personally, I cannot blame myself for not being able to help Bala, but had I responded to his message, would he be alive today?  I would never know.

I end this blog with a compelling quote by Richard Carlson,

“Being listened to and heard is one of the greatest desires of the human heart. And those who learn to listen are the most loved and respected.”

Amen!

Relevant Article

What you should (and shouldn’t) say when someone opens up about their mental health

Featured PC: Tom Swinnen, Pexels

8 comments

  1. Deeply pained after reading this… how can one drop this inherent judgmental bias…? Does it involve first removing the perception of self? Not many ponder over this aspect of life, Good Luck.

    1. We are all evolving, my friend. And I think it’s so important that we are honest with our own bias and tell the world what we are capable of.

  2. A close friend from my childhood searched for me in all corners of the world until he found me, i was delighted to meet him again until he told me he has tried to commit suicide 5 times, that was scary but the most disturbing part is when he told he thinks am the only person under the sun who understands him and knows him personally but honestly I was barely 5 when he changed school I don’t remember most the things he talks about, I know I want to help but most of what I’ve been doing is push him away. Just the other day he told me we wasn’t okay and I was meant to go spend sometime with him but admist my busy schedule it skipped my mind. This came as a wake up call, ama going to open up and really try to help my friend in whatever way I can. Thanks for writing😊

    1. Sometimes we weirdly get a message, I guess. And this post was meant to give that message. As much as you help him, please remember to take care of yourself too. It’s important. Give my love to your close friend ❤️

  3. Thank you for sharing this. And for opening up to all of us. Obviously, all of us who blog (or write, or paint, etc) are trying to communicate with more people on a deeper level. Thank goodness that doesn’t mean that all of us are suicidal! Deeper communication is a natural human desire, we are social animals. But you have written a very worthwhile piece about the need to check that the sharer is doing OK… as I trust you are!

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