My Partner Died By Suicide. Here’s How A Mismanaged Pandemic Contributed.

by Joseph K. Clark

“911. What’s your emergency?” “My boyfriend shot himself in the head.” It was 2:52 a.m. on Feb. 6, 2021, and I was petting his thigh and holding his limp hand when three police cars arrived, but no ambulance. He’s the love of my life. “Where’s the gun?” It hit me that they wouldn’t try to save him and hadn’t even looked at his body yet. “Um, in the truck, probably?” I responded. He was 31. We’d been in love only 1,564 days. Gun suicide accounted for 60% of all deaths in 2017, more common than mass shooters, homicides, or self-defense shootings combined. In 2020, the percentage was about the same.


When a loved one dies by suicide, it’s common for mourners to blame other people or themselves and struggle to understand “why they did it.” I don’t hypothesize the “whys” or “hows”: We talked many times about why life was painful for him, and he didn’t believe anything would change to allow for healing. Brian’s death is the most painful thing I’ve ever felt, but it was not shocking. (To protect the privacy of his family and friends, I’m not using Brian’s real name.)

A mental health crisis existed before the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in 590,000 deaths in the U.S. thus far, and 29% of those unemployed this spring had been jobless for at least a year. Still, the mismanagement of a pandemic compounded stressors that led many people to die by suicide.

I know what needs to change to prevent more suicides because Brian regularly told me what he needed to save his life and feel better: living labor wages and affordable resources to heal his existing trauma. And hope for a better planet. 

When 2020 arrived, many people’s circumstances worsened.


Like many Americans, Brian had been battered as a child. He suffered more than occasional spankings. Child development experts agree that children’s physical “discipline” often results in cognitive, social, and emotional problems.

“I don’t have any memories before the age of 9,” he said sometimes. His journals echoed the same stories and attributed that abuse to his adult experiences of self-loathing and uncontrollable trauma responses in his body and mind.

After leaving his parent’s homes by the age of 16, Brian had found community and catharsis in punk music as a lyricist, frontman, film photographer, and meme-maker.

He was 26 when we started seeing each other, and he said he was the happiest he could ever remember in his entire life. The feeling was mutual; we were best friends, partners, and lovers. He was a friend to my daughter and her dad; he was our family. I’d pour coffee into his mug, and he’d quietly doodle in black ink on hardbound notebooks at the kitchen table. He found it therapeutic to draw out his nightmares.

Like many Americans with complex post-traumatic stress disorder from child abuse or wartime violence, domestic instability, or sexual assault, his body and brain were dysregulated, and his life was full of insomnia, nightmares, chronic pains, depression, and anxiety. 

From our first date on Oct. 26, 2016, until the Feb. 5, 2021, morning before he died, Brian very specifically and regularly talked to his close friends and me about his untreated trauma history, his inability to find affordable, shame-free help, and resources, and his fears about the future of the planet and human suffering on grand scales: pollution, increasing poverty due to inflation and low living wages, police brutality, high-tech government surveillance.

Throughout our relationship, He told me why being alive felt painful and why he feared growing old in America.   By the age of 27 and at my urging, he had finally sought talk therapy, which he seemed to like until his therapist changed offices and raised his cost. Brian’s jobs rarely offered insurance options, and he couldn’t afford to pay for it himself. “I guess I’m done with therapy,” he said. Like many people with complex PTSD, the medication did not work for him.

Brian tried to self-soothe and make it through daily with caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and energy drinks. When he died at 31, he suffered chronic pains from hard labor for years. I felt and saw the knots in his back and feet and the twists in his spine, which he tried to manage with stretching, ibuprofen, and the massages I lovingly doled out.

He woke up in pain every day and couldn’t afford physical therapy as it would have been prescribed to him. He was afraid of getting older and his pain getting worse. Doctors usually prescribe addicting opiates instead of affordable physical therapy or holistic treatments, and he didn’t want to be one of the millions of Americans addicted to pain pills.

Once COVID struck, and the Trump administration refused to create infrastructure to manage the pandemic, Bryan lost his bartending and kitchen manager job due to closures. His student loans didn’t stop, and he didn’t qualify for unemployment due to bureaucratic loopholes.

Being poor had always been a source of stress and discomfort for him. Still, after the pandemic started, I watched my lover’s mental and physical health deteriorate, and he spoke of being trapped in a capitalist dystopia.

Bills ate up his savings. More of our friends stayed in abusive or unsafe living situations because they couldn’t afford to move. Other folks lost family and relatives to the virus. Different countries sent their at-risk citizens funding to survive and mandated cohesive masks and distancing policies; Americans like Brian received $1,800 in six months while elected leaders scoffed at health experts.

Survival is stressful. His current issues got worse, and new topics appeared. Our libidos decreased; his insomnia and nightmares increased. Stomach issues, digestion, and keeping food down were complex, and we both lost weight on our slender frames.

His last dated journal entry read, “Eleven months of under-employment, everything lost, nothing gained.” Jan. 31, 2021. He owed $18,000 in college debt and had a few hundred dollars in his checking account. When he died

Like many Americans, Brian worked at least 40 hours a week for half of his life and typically received minimum wage as payment. If hourly wages had increased with inflation, minimum wage workers would earn $24 an hour today and could afford food, medicine, and transportation. But wages did not improve, so more Americans live on the streets yearly or die from unaddressed medical needs.

“I need money,” he would say. “I can’t afford to go to the doctor or the dentist. I can’t afford to fix my truck. I can’t afford therapy, and I can’t afford insurance. I can’t afford to do any of my hobbies.”

The morning before he died, he told me again that these things would never change. “This pandemic will go on another year, openings and closures; just watch.” Aging looks bleak when you’re young and have been told, “These are the best years of your life,” it’s been hellish. 

We lived together, and I tried to help when he’d let me. “You have enough to worry about,” he would say. Like many depressed people who have been abused, he felt like a burden and guilty for expressing his emotional pain.

“What was your last day together like?” folks have asked me. It was very average. I didn’t know he would die that day, and I don’t think he did either. 

“Good morning, handsome,” I whispered as I brought him coffee, like every day preceding it. “Good morning, beautiful,” he whispered back and sniffed due to allergies.

Brian did dishes and vacuumed, changed a fluorescent bulb, fretted over news articles, and asked if I wanted to watch a movie on the couch after we finished work in the evening. Instead, we visited a pandemic-pod friend’s house on a whim and did shots of whiskey for two hours.

Alcohol is a depressant, and regular consumption of it usually makes depression worseAnybody who has worked in bars or grown up with alcoholics knows that heavy drinking can lead to emotional people who can’t be reasoned with.

And on this night, at this time, Brian suddenly became paranoid that I was mad at him, that his friends were mad at him. I’d seen this before and believed it was a byproduct of his low self-esteem due to his childhood.

I assured him to sleep it off, nobody was mad at him, I loved him, and we’d talk in the morning, and everything was fine. He was slurring his speech and repeating himself, and I realized he was the drunkest I’d ever seen.

We got home, and I remember how patiently and quietly he waited behind me in the garage as I unzipped my boots and kicked them aside. I went to the kitchen and heated up leftover macaroni while I heard him rummaging through our bedroom drawer. I now believe he was looking for the gun he’d purchased two months prior “for self-defense.”

He strode out the front door, where I figured he was having a cigarette. It was 2:49 a.m., and he called the friend we’d been with, asking if anyone was mad at him.

“Love you, man. It’s all good. See you tomorrow,” he was assured. But it didn’t matter. It was 2:51 a.m. when he hung up, sat in his truck, lit a cigarette, and shot himself in the left temple.

I heard the shot from the kitchen, ran out to the driveway, and heard him gasping his last breaths. The 911 operator must have heard me telling him that he was a good man, that I loved him, that I was sorry, that help was coming, and that I wasn’t mad at him.

Now that I’ve learned that suicide-by-gun is the most common type of gun-related death, I better understand the decorum of the cops who processed the scene. I stood in my yard, as close as they would allow me, near his body for two hours while they photographed, measured, and collected evidence.

I shivered, dry-heaved, cried softly, and tried not to absorb the sounds of chuckling and small talk among the cops like it was just another suicide at 3 a.m. or a barbecue. “Wow, I’ve never seen a bullet do that before!” “Are those hops growing in your yard?”

Two officers offered to call Brian’s next of kin and inform them of his death so I didn’t have to. I gave them their phone number, names, and the towns where his parents lived.

“I’ll try to get to it before my shift ends at 6:30,” said one. They didn’t call. When I hadn’t heard from his blood relatives by that afternoon, I picked up my cell phone and had to tell his mother myself.

Like most chronically depressed people, Brian didn’t want to die and didn’t anticipate how his death would traumatize his loved ones: me, my daughter, his friends, and co-workers who loved him. He wanted to get better, but he didn’t have the tools or social support. 

After he died, I found vintage rings he’d been hiding. “He wanted to marry you so hard,” his friends told me. He wanted to start playing music again and return to bartending and photography. We had plans to fill his truck bed with plastic bags and make a pool in the summer. He’d repainted his skateboard that week. 

Suicides will continue to happen on a massive scale until there is direct action to heal people, help us survive, and fund our rehabilitation. Brian hated it when people offered “thoughts and prayers” to death and destruction: He was a fan of direct action. 

Individually and collectively, we must lobby and fight for real living wages and affordable and accessible trauma-management tools. Trauma researchers know that different types of therapies work for other people: eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy and sensorimotor treatment is recommended for war veterans and survivors of childhood and domestic abuse when medication has failed to help them, but at this time, about half of the war veterans with PTSD take medication as their primary form of “treatment,” even though some medications are barely more effective than placebos.

Poverty has been demonized as laziness or a moral failing, and suffering in silence is what some men are told is “strength” until they explode on others.

Our government could afford to fund advocates who call their patients and remind them to take their medication, stretch, cry, eat, or get fresh air. Our government could have sent personal protective equipment to low-income housing and greater-risk areas when this pandemic started 15 months ago. Our government could fund PSAs on TV and social media, advertising therapy, and mediation opportunities in every city. Our police budgets could afford to reinvest in their communities. Our government could afford to train social workers to disrupt generational cycles of violence in the home and teach accountability for people re-enacting the violence normalized to them as kids.

Our society can still do these things.

I cocouldn’tave Brian because he wawasn’tble to love himself the way we loved him and because the structural and social support wawasn’tttainable for either of us. ItIt’soo late for him, but it’s too late for everyone else. 

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