Homicides and Suicides: Lessons Learned from Victims of Violent Deaths

I had a mental breakdown as I sat at my desk in February of 2020, breaking down into tears and unable to put my hands on the key board, let alone turn on the computer. I prayed and asked God to help me make it to May, because I won’t even make it through March. 

Though my agency title was “program analyst,” for the CDC, I was the National Violent Death Reporting System Data Abstractor in the nation’s capitol. There is now at least one NVDRS data abstractor in each of the 50 states plus Puerto Rico, and this position calls for individually reading through homicides, suicides and violent deaths of undetermined intent and collecting the who, what, when, where, why and how the death occurred so we could prevent more violent deaths in the future.

I had told my supervisor in October of 2019, that my last day of work was May 2020. (No, I did NOT see Covid coming) I deliberately added that time in between to give my replacement everything I never had. When I started, I was simply handed a 200+ page manual from him and had to figure it all out as I went along as I was the first NVDRS Data Abstractor in Washington, DC. Since there were no other official training documents regarding the inner workings of the agency, I decided to create them on my own. I made mock case files of a suicide, homicide and accidental overdose (I used Disney characters…yep…I developed a Morbid Sense of Humor.), pdf documents on where and how to find law enforcement variables, connected them to all the resources I had and highlighted the importance of self care, and that I will always be available even after I leave the agency if they needed support. I knew what it did to me, and I was determined to cushion the blow on the next person as much as I could.

Among the many reasons I found to leave (and stay) I fought to forgive a lot of the terrible parts of human nature after reading through files upon files of those killed by others and those who’ve killed themselves. Reading the suicide note of a teenager, a father who intentionally murdered his family, a barely in the age of double digits hanging themselves in their closet, bystanders killed in a shootout between rival gang members, lovers whose lives are taken by their partners…600+ stories of death replayed in my head on a regular basis. I can still tell you the names of some of the victims whose death occurred 2 years ago. Pictures of them and autopsy photos still haunt me sometimes.

It was particularly difficult looking at cases where I personally resonated with the deceased. If we had the same age, similar trauma and such. I saw myself in them. As matter of fact, that’s why I took on the career. I wanted to help people like me. Who suffered like me. In some strange way, it was as though they sat next to me as I was abstracting their cases telling me their broken hearts, estranged family ties, childhood trauma, substance abuse and more.

I took their narratives and performed a mini ceremony in my heart for them hoping to invite some form of closure. In some way, though I was doing statistics on their deaths, I inwardly aimed to be a conduit for their hurts, struggles, and fears in this life as they moved onto whatever eternity holds for all of us. I don’t know if it’s allowed but, I forgave the people that hurt them, acknowledged the suffering they had in this life and out of sheer consideration for each and every individual I read about treated them with dignity and respect. If it was me, and it very well could be, I would want someone to do that for me.

In the beginning I found meaning in my work. I don’t think anyone would disagree with me when I say the work was interesting. I felt I was helping my community, guiding it away from the terror of violence and death. I would often drown in the heaviness of the work and had to fight 3 times as hard to not take it home with me.

I learned to keep my sanity by performing 3 tasks: praying, developing a morbid sense of humor, and forgiving people on behalf of the deceased. It was more so for me than for them as I yielded to the fact that there was nothing more I could do for these people.

I took it all in to do my job, but I couldn’t release it as fast as I was absorbing it. After 3 years, contacting the suicide hotline (call and text) became a frequent occurence. I began to associate my desk with spells of spontaneous crying sessions accompanied by moments of blank stares into a computer screen and a brain that became overwhelmed with performing the most menial of tasks. I took long walks for my lunch break instead of eating just to pray, meditate and let go of the stories I read, but sometimes they followed me home. 

Very few people took me seriously between October and April since I didn’t even know what job I was headed to next (and I STILL don’t). What they didn’t know (and it didn’t matter what they thought as I was resolved) was that I didn’t care about the next job. I just knew that I needed to leave this one. 

I was told by a coworker that I could “push through” and to stay at the job and keep going because “I could be the solution.” I recall before October 2019, I had asked my supervisor for help in the form of another person to do the job to balance the workload and pressure, but I heard nothing more of my request until I after I told him I was leaving: “if we got you help, would you stay?” There was more effort to get me to stay than there was in advocating for my health, my sanity. 2020 also brought COVID19 which wrenched the global economy of resources, jobs, income, lives and more. With no job lined up in April 2020, I had a decision to make: stay where I know I will continue to deteriorate and suffer mentally or launch myself into the unknown and take my chances. I’ve taken a chance. To be honest, I still don’t know if it was worth it. 

I don’t know what happens after this. I originally wrote this on May 3rd, 2 days after I quit and I’m learning to breathe again. I feel like I can wake up and not have to anticipate death or carry 600+ lives on my shoulders. I definitely respect those who must work in that career field. I do believe they are unsung heroes and background frontline workers that the world still tends to forget. I wish them health, blessing and peace because the world may be at a standstill, but death is still running multiple errands at once.

On that, I did learn the power of forgiveness. I know it’s a touchy word, but just hear me out for a second. Forgiveness on behalf of the deceased helped me navigate the living. Believe it or not, it was not the dead that I struggled with the most. No, the hardest part of working there were some of my living coworkers. Along with them dealing out hurt like playing cards were family and friends and church people.

I’m glad God showed me when my best friend ghosted me that He would never do that to me. I’m glad when I discovered that I was being under-payed at a job that God exalted me despite that supervisor’s effort to reduce my position to his staff assistant. I’m glad when memories of my family members gaslighting me, told me certain things were my fault or that they wanted to have the last word that God showed me His blood on the cross ran thicker than the familial blood in my veins. I’m glad when I turned against myself in suicidal ideations or self hate that God showed me He had enough love and mercy to cover all of me. You may not believe in God and that’s fine. We all have something or someone we believe helps us get through hard times. It hasn’t been all bad, but I still had to heal from it all.

Prior to my arrival at that agency, I didn’t care too much for forgiveness at first. It seemed like a washed out bible term. Forgiving you feels like I’m excusing you thereby giving you permission, invitation and opportunity to do more damage to me. Now, however, forgiveness is just a major part of living unburdened for me. I don’t forgive you for you. I forgive you for me even if you never apologize.

That does NOT mean I blindly trust you or act as if you didn’t say or do what you’ve done, because though I forgive you, I must put up boundaries because I love myself and don’t want to be hurt again. At first I treated you as innocent until guilty, but when you prove with hard evidence, multiple offenses, and an unapologetic character unaccompanied by repentant actions, do not expect for me to still deem you innocent. Yes, you may change for the better later, Maybe, but for now, you cannot say that I didn’t first give you the benefit of the doubt when I have the heartbreak, scars and bruises proving that the faith I had in you was misplaced all along.

I know of the religious implications of Christian forgiveness, but sometimes that doesn’t resonate. Whenever it doesn’t and I honestly don’t feel like I can forgive, I ask God to help me to do so. Surely among the centillion of prayers beyond the millenia God has heard requesting for blessings of material wealth, social status, romantic relationships and more, asking God’s assistance in forgiveness is neither nothing new nor outside the scope of His power.

Tomorrow is not guaranteed and death is an equal opportunity entity, so I choose to not to carry the heaviness of hurt with me. Old hurt doesn’t deserve to follow me for years on end intruding in my relationships or self care. It doesn’t need to metamorph into new fears and get in the way of my faith or make me cynical.

Yes, the hurt did happen and I will hold onto its lesson like a healed scar not an infected wound.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my death to be the only time I let go of the hurt of life.I deserve to move on. I deserve to let it go. I think we all do. 

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