Essay Caring

A Cry for Help

“It is remarkable that in a society like ours, with so many advantages and such valuable resources available to it, that the rate of suicide continues to increase. . . . Clearly, we face serious dysfunction as a society—with little evidence that our situation is going to improve. But this is not a moment to despair. Instead, we could understand it’s a call to arms—or a cry for help.” – Caring, Tarthang Tulku

I like to consider myself a helper, but when our son, Jon, took his life on Easter weekend of 2019, I could no longer think of myself as a successful helper. In my own eyes, I instantly became a failed one. The truth the Buddhists speak of—that everything is impermanent—has now swept into my life. The truth of this is so palpable that it feels strange that I am still living in comfort in a heated house with a roof over my head, and that I have whole days when I forget I was unable to save my son.

And yet, in an unfamiliar way I am still trying to grapple with, I am still evolving. It is difficult to articulate, but I took a giant step closer to being able to understand the experience of parents who are separated from their children at the border. I began to feel a kinship with those who wander rootless with no land to call home, or who live in constant risk of being hurt or killed.

I am gradually learning that when you join the ranks of people who have not been able to control the most important events in their lives, any lingering indifference to the fate of others starts to drop away—like the skin of a snake that has become too tight to allow caring to grow.

Our private losses open us to the plight of others; but even in that, there are differences. A parent who has their child torn from their arms, or a person who is imprisoned and tortured, suffer untold torments. Yet there is still the hope they will see their children again. But when your son commits suicide, there is no cause for hope. The sense of finality is so unbearable that you find yourself denying what has happened, blaming yourself for it, or trying to flee into the old life you led in your comfortable house with your freedom to drive to the store whenever you feel hungry, or to schedule a date to meet a friend for coffee. (Just for the record, none of these strategies work.)

I used to be able to tell myself that I was doing enough when I was involved with a nonprofit called Friends in Time, that I cofounded with a friend who has ALS. We helped hundreds of people with MS and ALS over the two decades we were in operation. We thought of ourselves as “friends” offering help in a “timely” manner to people feeling overwhelmed by their life situations. It was clear that we were helping, making a difference, and that the recipients appreciated it. And I don’t remember ever feeling then that the suffering was so great we couldn’t help alleviate some of it. I felt I was helping; that was part of my identity.

But I also notice that I do a good job of turning the other way when confronted with the kind of suffering I feel incapable of doing anything about. For example, the growing ranks of casualties of global momentums that show no sign of slowing down. Watching the unfair advantage some wield over those who cannot protect themselves leaves me deploring my own helplessness—and I turn away. And, in the aftermath of Jon’s death, I turn away even from awareness.

I am in the grips of ignorance, one of the three poisons of Buddhism, along with grasping and aversion, which are said to propel the Wheel of Life along the difficult thoroughfares of Samsara. Looking back, I see that I ignored how much suffering Jon was experiencing. And now I am in the grips of another kind of forgetfulness. I can hardly remember how much he was in my heart during the 27 years we shared together. It’s as if a moat has appeared between the past and the present—as I imagine will happen again when each of us dies. My memories of Jon seem to be hovering out of reach, too dangerous to approach.

I am not alone in this experience. Attending Survivors of Suicide (SOS) meetings, as my wife and I have done for the past seven months, I get to see directly how survivors—when our defenses slip—carry regret, guilt, and the threadbare cloak of “what ifs” as our new companions in time.

Then, there are those who push themselves even deeper into the issue or problem. But this can give rise to an ongoing sense that we are failing to do enough. It can be a recipe for exhaustion.

I, the helper, now need help. And now I know why caring matters.

This, I think, is the third place from which to view the world’s suffering: as one who also suffers. For years, maybe I only knew how to dole out help to others, like a Pez dispenser, but now I am suddenly in need of help.

If we can only let our private suffering sink into our hearts, we are in a unique and sacred position to empathize with those who are experiencing the same or similar pain.

There are many in the same boat, especially here in the USA. In many other parts of the world, suicide rates have declined between 2000 and 2012, but the USA has seen an increase of 24 percent. For young people between the ages of 10 and 34, suicide has become an epidemic: it is now the second leading cause of death for boys and girls and for young women and men—with only accidental death claiming more lives.

Why is suicide on the rise? Is it because our planet is being treated like a carcass to be chewed upon by the boldest scavengers? No wonder a new generation feels there is little purpose to their lives, little reward for trying to connect livelihood with honorable intentions.

Jon took his own life in part because he cared so much, and he despaired that his caring mattered.

Franz Kafka may have seen this epidemic coming when he wrote: “He ate the crumbs that fell from his own table and with time he forgot how to eat at the table; then even the crumbs ceased to fall.

As individual consciousness shrinks to preoccupation with getting our own share of the common good—without much concern for how that ‘good’ is flowing from Mother Earth, and even less concern for the illumination that makes our consciousness possible—Kafka’s vision of scrambling after crumbs is coming to pass before our eyes. As children who may not have eaten for days look on, we see container ships with their holds full of crumbs setting sail for parts unknown.

I am a writer, and so I am attracted to poetic metaphors. But of what value are they, really? Can they help bridge the chasm between those who have and those who don’t; between the desire to help and our sense that we are powerless to do much in the face of momentums that ensnare the human mind and put the least generous among us in the control room? Do they help bridge the efforts of those who act bravely in the face of injustice?

Can metaphor give us strength, or poetry help us heal? Kafka also said, “Let the face full of hatred fall on its own breast.” I take this not as an invitation for us to hate ourselves, but as a source of insight:

Unless we introduce our judgmental minds to our own suffering hearts, we will never influence the momentums that are spawning such suffering in our world; we will not be able to add the ballast of our presence to the sacred task of protecting the common good which Mother Earth is still struggling to provide to all living beings.

I’ve lost my chance to help our son see that his caring matters. And life has not yet brought into my orbit others of a new generation whom I could encourage to feel hopeful about a future we all share. But I am trying to look more closely at the people who are in my life and to see the suffering and confusion that I know is there, because so many have their own losses and must be mourning them. I am starting with myself, the one whom I have not yet learned to treat with enough kindness. Then I hope I can learn to be kind to others, guided by a deeper understanding of how it feels to receive my own kindness.

I dream of one day having something that is truly worth sharing with others, my full-hearted helpfulness. Because I know that the capacity to be truly helpful is the greatest gift that life can bestow upon us.

About Michael Gray

Michael Gray is the author of The Flying Caterpillar, a memoir, and the novels Asleep at the Wheel of Time, about whales, aliens, and humans, and Falling on the Bright Side, about his experience working with the disabled. He is the cofounder of Friends in Time (a nonprofit he founded with a friend who has ALS), and past board president of New Mexico Parkinson’s Coalition and Pathways Academy (a school for kids with autism and other learning issues). A regular contributor to various journals, Gray also writes a weekly blog on

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