One act of kindness can be life-changing. This platitude was reaffirmed recently in the most ordinary of circumstances that led to the saving of one veteran’s life.
In a chain restaurant in Modesto, a man was having dinner with his adult and teenaged children when he noticed an older gentleman dining alone. The man later said that he saw something in the gentleman’s eyes that led him to pick up his plate and join the lone diner.
The man’s act of kindness — offering companionship to someone alone — was more impactful than he imagined.
The older man was dining alone on steak and lobster for his “last meal” as he planned to kill himself that night. He told the kind stranger that he was a veteran and the holidays are always hard as they bring up bad memories of serving during Christmas time. He also had just found out that his wife, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, was being sent home on hospice to die. He just didn’t know how he could get through the next few weeks and decided to end it all.
A stranger taking the time to talk with him changed his plans. The older gentleman had tears in his eyes when the man offered to pay his dinner in honor of his service to our country.
I know of this personal act of kindness that led to the saving of a veteran’s life because my daughter was the waitress serving the men that night. The man’s act of kindness and the veteran’s gratitude made a lasting impression on her — and everyone else in the restaurant who overheard the encounter.
My daughter said she will now be more mindful of those eating alone. Are they in need of a kind word or gesture? Are they at the restaurant that night as a final grasp for connection with something other than their own desperate thoughts?
Thankfully, a man recognized the gentleman’s unconscious call for help — for he was also a veteran and said he could tell something was wrong.
But what about all those others seeking solace in silence?
Suicide remains a major public health problem, one that occurs throughout the year. It is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and was responsible for nearly 45,000 deaths in 2016, with approximately one death every 12 minutes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many more people think about or attempt suicide and survive. In 2016, 9.8 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, 2.8 million made a plan, and 1.3 million attempted suicide.
More than 6,000 veterans have killed themselves each year since 2008, according to information from the US Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Suicide Data Report. Veteran suicide rates increased 25.9 percent between 2005 and 2016, as suicide rates in the overall US population also increased.
I know that as I go about my holiday business, I will now be more aware of those around me. Instead of assuming the gloomy retail clerk is just bored at work, I will now wonder if what’s bother him or her is something more. A well-timed wish of “Merry Christmas” could make the difference in someone’s day. But if I do run into someone who needs more than a holiday greeting, I will also be prepared — and you should too.
Stanislaus County Behavioral Health has a 24-hour, 7 days a week on-site peer support line at 209-558-4600. The Regional Suicide Prevention and Crisis line can be reached anytime at 1-800-SUICIDE.
Veterans in crisis — or those concerned about one — can get free, confidential support 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, send a text message to 838255.