Today we bring you our third installment of “What Would a Humanist Do?”—offering multiple AHA staff opinions on the same question. As with our long-running “Humanist Dilemma” column by Joan Reisman-Brill, readers often ask what qualifies as a humanist problem. Our answer: humanists are committed to being good without a God, but sometimes they need a little advice on how to pull it off.
When I and other family members called my uncle to wish him a happy birthday, he told us that it would be his last. Most considered it a joke because we’re used to him saying odd things, but I don’t feel comfortable ignoring it. Is he done celebrating his birthday, or does he think he won’t live another year? If it’s the latter, I can’t help wondering (and worrying) if he is planning to end his life. While I know the best way to find out is to ask him, I’m not sure I’m prepared to handle his answer and how best to support him.
—What Would a Humanist Do?
In the years leading up to my grandmother’s death at ninety-nine years old, my family had a tradition of going out to eat on Christmas Eve at a restaurant that served the classic Italian-American feast of the seven fishes. For at least three years in a row, my grandmother—a woman who reveled in making people uncomfortable—would tell every host, waiter, and busboy that came her way that this year was her “last supper.” Like clockwork, the staff would stare in wide-eyed horror and my family would roll their eyes.
I’m sharing this anecdote because my family was in a position to fully understand my grandmother’s dark humor through the lens of her advanced age and declining health. We knew through decades of context that she truly didn’t know when her “last supper” would occur, and that the occasional morose joke was nothing to be concerned about.
Why do you think the rest of your family considered your uncle’s comment a joke while you are taking it more seriously? Are you aware of any physical or mental health problems that alarm you? If he truly is joking, then asking him about his comment should provide easy clarification. If there is a much more concerning situation going on here, then he must want to discuss his ailments with someone—or he wouldn’t have made the comment to close family members in the first place. Don’t let your imagination continue to run wild. The sooner you ask your uncle to explain himself, the better.
– Peter Bjork
At this point, don’t bog yourself down thinking about how you’ll handle what comes next. Most of the time we don’t get to mentally prepare for these conversations. (And for the rare occasions that we do get to prepare, it can backfire by making us overthink the many possible outcomes.) So just take it one step at a time. You seem to already know how to handle the next step: reach out and ask to talk. Only after learning what your uncle meant by that abrupt statement can you begin to think through how best to support him (and your family) moving forward. Something like, “I was really concerned when you told us that this birthday would be your last. Can we talk more about that?” would open the door for a number of responses and would show him that you were listening to him and that you care about him. Sometimes that’s what’s most important.
– Rachel Deitch
I want to echo both my colleagues’ responses; the only way to put your mind at ease is to let your uncle know that his comment worried you and that you want to understand why he said it. Although it very well could have been a random comment or joke, it sounds like you are mostly writing to ask how to handle the worst-case scenario. In that event, I want to assure you that simply expressing your concerns to your uncle—that you care deeply about him and want to support him as best as you can—will make a huge difference on its own.
You are not a therapist, nor do you need to be. Don’t feel like you have to say much at all. Calm, sympathetic, non-judgmental listening is usually the best way to help a depressed or suicidal person feel heard and cared for. Offer hope where you can; reassure him that he won’t always feel the way he does right now and things will get better. Lastly, encourage your uncle to seek help from a mental health professional. Getting a referral from a primary care physician is usually the best place to start, but you might offer to research options in the area since choosing a provider can be a daunting task. The conversation may not be an easy one, but if you keep these things in mind, both you and your uncle will feel better by the end of it. Don’t worry, you’ve got this.
– Brody Armstrong
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