The Id DM

One Way I’m Saving vs. Grief

My first memories of Dungeons & Dragons were from watching the animated show on television and begging my brother’s friends to let me play in their game. My brother, Albie, was about five years older than me so I was forever chasing him and his crew. While my brother would rather be outside playing sports, some of his friends were into other hobbies – like listening to Iron Maiden and playing D&D. Every once in awhile, his friends would set up shop in our den and play through an adventure.

I was extremely jealous; I wanted to play as well!

I finally got my chance after I bothered my brother enough for him to tell his friends, “Let him play.” The first game of D&D I ever played featured me creating a Fighter. While I don’t recall the scenario, I do remember that we were exploring a cave and I was in the front line. Some monster attacked, and I took a swing at it. A member of the party threw a flask of oil toward the monster, and the oil spread to me as well. Another member lit the oil with a thrown torch, and just that quickly, my gaming experience was over as my Fighter died from burning to death.

It was clear my brother’s friends didn’t want this little kid playing in their adventure, and they found a clever (and cruel) way to get me out of the game quickly. My brother got me into the action though, and it allowed me to get a taste of the hobby. He didn’t have to go to bat for me with his friends. But he did.

Exactly one year ago today, my brother jumped in front of a train and ended his life.

I could write a book about our lives together, and one day I just might.

My brother (right) and I enjoying an elaborate party (long story!) for the Eagles/Bears playoff game in 2002. I’m wearing our father’s Army jacket.

There are portions of this post that will be difficult to write – and possible challenging to read. I’ll summarize first, and go into details second. For over a year, I have partnered with the creative minds at Limitless Adventures to update a collection of monsters I originally created for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. I previously interviewed Andy Hand of Limitless Adventures in 2016, and after that interview we decided to take the monsters I created for my No Assembly Required series, which was originally hosted by the site, This Is My Game, convert them to 5th Edition, and package them into a book to sell through the Limitless Adventures site.

Though it has taken much longer than originally intended, the book is now available for purchase.

Cover for No Assembly Required

Andy raised the possibility in recent months that we could use the sales from the book to benefit a charity, and I thought this was a brilliant idea. All money collected from sales of this book will be donated to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. We priced the book to cost $5, and each sale of the book will result in $5 getting donated to AFSP.

Preview page for one of the 10 monsters contained within No Assembly Required.

The book, No Assembly Required, contains 10 monsters of varying levels to use in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition complete with illustrations by Grant Gould, background on the development process, extensive biographical sketches, potential plot hooks to engage players at the table, suggested strategy for combat and roleplaying encounters, and flavor text for specific actions and powers. A few of the monsters even have unique magic items that tie into their story. While designing the monsters years ago for 4th Edition, I enjoyed pushing the limits of the rules to create unique threats for the players to face. Converting these monsters to 5th Edition meant we had to bend (if not break) some rules to effectively convey the type of encounters we wanted during a session. I hope you find the results to be useful in your game. You can hear Andy Hand from Limitless Adventures and I discuss the development process for No Assembly Required on the latest episode of my podcast, Ego Check with The Id DM.

It’s truly been a labor of love – and other strong emotions.

Life After Suicide

On June 26, 2017, my brother ended his life. Several days later, I summoned the energy to write his obituary, which I believe took years from my life much like The Machine from The Princess Bride. I have since written close to 40,000 words about my relationship with him and his suicide as part of my personal grieving process. My brother was 45-years-old the morning he jumped in front of a train. Leading up to that morning, I had many conversations with him that he had so much of his life left in front of him and that he had options. He could not see those options, and he felt like he had nothing to show for his life.

In the years and months leading up to his suicide, I saw his symptoms of depression increase. I listened and talked to him often – about his failing marriage and eventual divorce, about his schedule working two jobs, about political issues that resulted in him losing salary and benefits while being forced to work longer hours, about the struggles of staying connected with his two sons, about his habit of coping with negative emotions with alcohol, and about oncoming and unexplained physical symptoms. He was overwhelmed, and at times would say, “I can’t do it.”

Albie and I enjoying a hike in Acadia National Park in Maine back in 2010.

Even though I knew he was depressed and I asked him directly if he was considering suicide, I did not register his, “I can’t do it” as a declaration of intent to end his life. When a person you love commits suicide, the hindsight is brutally crystal clear and vivid. Knowing my brother all my life and having professional training as a psychologist allowed me to notice differences in his behavior in recent years. It scared me. I encouraged my brother to seek help. I asked him if he was thinking about suicide. I told him I was there for him. I tried to lighten the mood with humor. I shared my emotions and fears while shedding tears with him. I asked his friends to check in on him; I told them I was worried.

I noticed the signs, and tried to make things better. At the same time, I was a father for the first time and trying to hold onto the world as my wife and I adjusted to having a newborn in the house. My son was born in January 2017, and the energy that I previously devoted to checking in with my brother was shunted more and more to the little creature wriggling around in my arms. I know my brother’s suicide is not my fault, and I also have regrets that I did not do more to let him know that I wanted and needed him to be alive.

I know the answers to these questions though I ask them anyway:

Why didn’t I call and text him more often?

Why didn’t I fly out to see him when it was clear he was avoiding contact?

Why didn’t I have his friends or neighbors go check on him or drive him to treatment?

Why didn’t I do more?

The last 12 months have been filled in a rotating order with guilt, sadness, and anger – and the intensity of those emotions varies each day. There are stages of grief that are detailed, and I believe the misconception is that you only go through those stages once. I think of grief as more of a spiral where you pass through some stages only to loop around and start the process over again. A close friend that also lost a loved one to suicide recently compared grief to a series of waves, “If you think of going through the stages as riding up and down a wave, and the waves slowly getting smaller over time, that feels about right to me.” Overall, there is a profound emptiness in my world that is never going to be filled now that my brother is gone.

My brother (third from left) with his other brothers from the Atlantic City Fire Department in NYC days after 9/11.

I’m beyond the point of looking for answers about his death. Others in his orbit, which was large, wondered why and how he could do it. For most of the time he was on this earth, he was larger than life – the loudest and biggest personality in the room. He was a celebrated high school athlete, and later a dedicated and talented firefighter. He was loved by many, though perhaps never by himself. In recent years, the work and household routines he relied on for stability continued to change and get away from him. I knew he wasn’t himself.

I remember saying to many people the week after his suicide, “I’m shocked. I’m not surprised.” The symptoms of his depression were clear to me and a few others, but even the people close to him only had limited pieces of the puzzle. For example, his coworkers didn’t know he was withdrawing from his family. His family didn’t know he was sent home from his second job one day because he was sullen and “not himself.” His brother didn’t know he was spending less time with his boys and instead leaving them with a neighbor.

Had I known one or two things I found out about his behavior in the weeks following his suicide, I probably would have done something different before he ended his life.

Would it have even mattered?

These are the questions I’ll have for the rest of my life.

Albie and I at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, DC in 2015. Our father was shot and killed in the line of duty back in 1985; my brother was just about to enter high school and I was 8-years-old. Like I said, I could write a book….

There is definitely a piece of my brain that nurtures the thought that I failed him, and sometime that piece is very damn loud. I was his brother; he talked to me often and trusted me. And I was a psychologist; I spent the last 15-20 years of my life learning about and treating depression. I could have done more. I certainly made mistakes.

My last text to my brother. It will never be answered.

I’m not looking to silence that piece of my brain. There are louder pieces of my brain that understand his suicide was his choice, and that I tried mightily to reach out to him and offer support.

At the same time, I feel like we all failed him – friends, family, colleagues, community, society. His suicide is a microcosm of larger factors and forces in the world that remain a problem.

Albie and I enjoying a day on the beach in South Jersey back in 2009.

A suicide leaves a wake of sorrow and anguish behind. There is not only the grief for the death of someone you love, there is also the persistent questions related to how things could have gone differently.

And there are never enough answers.

I have an intense drive to do more about this; I’m still looking for paths to direct this energy. I know I impact the world in small ways through my professional work and by doing my best to be a good husband, father, son, and friend. My hope is this endeavor with Limitless Adventures raises enough money for AFSP so at least one less person in the world confronts the crushing wave of questions that come after someone they love completes suicide.

If you happen to be reading this and have suicidal thoughts, then please muster the energy to reach out to someone you trust. If you don’t have anyone you trust, then call 1-800-273-8255 for support and guidance.

If you know of someone that is down, depressed, or hopeless, then please don’t assume they will “bounce back” or “get through it.” Educate yourself about suicide. Reach out to the person you love, ask about suicide directly, find out what is still meaningful in that person’s life. Help them get connected to treatment. If unsure how to start a conversation with someone you care about, then try one of these questions offered by Seize The Awkward:

  1. Hey, we haven’t talked in a while. How are you?
  2. Are you OK? You don’t seem like yourself lately?
  3. Hey, you seemed frustrated today. I’m here for you.
  4. Seems like something’s up? Do you want to talk about what’s going on?
  5. I’m worried about you and would like to know what’s up so I can help.

If you are not aware of someone that is down, depressed, or hopeless, then become an advocate for mental health. Support policies and initiatives that fund mental health services. Reduce the stigma of going to see a counselor. Vote for politicians that want to improve access to preventative behavioral healthcare.

Overall, take care of yourself. Eat well. Sleep regularly. Exercise often. Participate in activities that you enjoy. Spend time with the people you care about.

And if it’s been a while since you’ve gamed, find a group and go roll some dice.

Be a hero. Buy some monsters to help prevent suicide. Our progress can be tracked through the AFSP Donation site.