For the sake of others: Emotional triage
“It’s my fault.”
“It’s my fault.”
Dave McKnight has heard those words repeated by many community members who he has been called to help in the minutes after they’ve lost someone to suicide.
The chaplain for the Steamboat Springs Police Department says he can’t solve that survivor’s guilt and grief in the hours or days after the tragedy.
He doesn’t try to.
But he does help to plant a seed that long-term help is available and that there are many people who will help them regain control of their lives.
“It won’t always be like it is today. It won’t always be like this,” he tells grieving families and friends. “There are a lot of people going to help you.”
He said most of the people he visits with are able to “redefine their lives” on the other side of the tragedy and grow from it.
“It’s the ones that never seem to fully move on that keep you praying and keep you hoping,” he said.
As McKnight explains, something inside breaks before someone takes his or her own life.
Humans are born with a natural instinct to protect themselves, using their hands to protect from a sudden fall and bracing for any other unexpected danger.
But when someone commits suicide, this natural instinct has broken down.
“If they’ve made up their mind to do this, chances are you want to say, ‘I should have known,’ but you can’t because they’re not thinking like you are anymore,” he said.
He likes to use an analogy of the community living around the track at Steamboat Springs High School.
Everyone lives their lives on one end, going in a circle.
But when this instinct for self-protection breaks and someone is resolved to commit suicide, that individual starts to live along a separate track, as if in a different reality.
During his 17 years of working with law enforcement, McKnight, the pastor at Concordia Lutheran Church, has witnessed the impact suicide has had on families and friends.
He is one of the first on the scene during tragedies.
“I love trying to help people in those worst moments,” he said, adding he does it because he feels he’s “wired” to help and because he loves the men and women in law enforcement who also are affected by the tragedies. “I don’t feel good about being there, but I want to be somebody that can help someone to take those first stabs at grabbing a hold of their life again. I’m trying to make that a little easier for them if I can.”
Knowing full well suicide’s toll, McKnight also is one of the leaders in the community working to prevent suicides.
He sits on the board of directors for Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicide and has watched it grow from a small group to a well-established nonprofit.
He recently got trained to teach an applied suicide prevention class.
“When it’s all said and done, a number of these are preventable if we are blessed with the opportunity to intervene,” he said. “We never get them all, but we can do more.”
He said a big part of that hope involves increasing the community’s awareness of suicide and also offering prevention classes to more businesses.
It’s gotten better since the start of REPS, he said, but talking about suicide still is a challenge because it’s not a “dinner table” conversation.
“We can all be a part of supporting each other, and we can make a difference in these statistics even if we never get them all,” he said.
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Editor’s note: The story was updated at 8:33 p.m.