Sunday, July 22, 2018

A Legacy Achieved

If I had my wishes about a legacy I could leave, 
it would be one of helping others at their darkest times. 
-Kevin Briggs

Kevin Briggs arrived early at the coffee shop where we'd agreed to meet, and when I got there, he was quietly sitting at a table. He wore reading glasses and was studiously researching something on an open laptop in front of him. At first, I wasn't sure it was him. I'd seen photos of him of course, and I'd seen him on video. The thing is, in person he looked so unassuming.

In the dictionary, unassuming is defined as 'not pretentious or arrogant; modest.'  In fact, this is the perfect description of the man who I would spend the next two hours speaking with.

I was really honored to be able to speak to him, and I am equally honored to be able to share his story with you, now.

"I'm actually an introvert," Kevin told me when we began to talk. 

Knowing his story, I would have found that hard to believe, had I not been talking to him in person. What his temperament and demeanor don't belie is the fact that he has saved hundreds of lives. 

He may not wear a cape, but Kevin Briggs is a hero.

Kevin was raised Novato, California. Novato is in northern Marin County, in the San Francisco Bay Area. With a population less than 55,000, it is a relatively small town. Today, Kevin lives in Petaluma, a town that is only fifteen minutes away from where he grew up. Only slightly larger than Novato, Petaluma boasts a population of just under 60,000. Perhaps it is for these reasons that in many ways, Kevin has remained a small town boy at heart. He enjoys country music, Randy Travis is a particular favorite. He enjoys traveling but says that hot weather is not his favorite. More than anything, Kevin says spending time with his family and especially his two sons, is what means the most to him.

In 1981, Kevin joined the army. Afterward, he followed a career path into civilian law enforcement. He worked as a correctional officer at both Soledad and San Quention prisons. In 1990, he went on to join the California Highway Patrol. In this capacity, he frequently dealt with the aftermath of car crashes and he handled numerous other law enforcement calls. Undoubtedly he saved and changed lives while doing so.

However, supporting victims and witnesses of car crashes is not where his heroism lies. His heroism has more to do with the actual location where he worked. You see, Kevin Briggs patrolled the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Golden Gate Bridge opened to the public just over 80 years ago, in 1937. It spans a narrow 400-foot deep strait that opens up to San Francisco Bay. The bridge connects the San Francisco Peninsula with the southern end of Marin County.
The bridge is a worldwide tourist attraction, known for its extraordinary beauty and distinctive golden arches. Unlike the nearby San Francisco Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge has a public walkway that can be accessed by tourists and other visitors. 

It is because of this easy access to the edge of the bridge, that it has another less beautiful reputation, as well. The Golden Gate Bridge has the second highest number of suicide jumps in the world. (Only the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge in China has more recorded suicide related deaths.) Since its opening, the number of recorded deaths attributed to jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge is now nearing 2,000. However, the number is likely higher, as not all jumps are witnessed and many bodies are washed out to sea. It is impossible to know the actual number of people who have lost their life to suicide by jumping. 

A fall from the bridge is extremely lethal. 98% of the people who jump, lose their life. It is for this reason that intervening during the time that a person is preparing for a jump, is critical. When Kevin Briggs began his career with the CHP, this critical component of saving people's lives was a part of his job.

In 1990, there wasn't a lot of suicide prevention training for officers. When Kevin began making his rounds on the Golden Gate Bridge, he only had his instincts to rely on when he was faced with a potential suicide. One thing that stood out about Kevin right from the beginning, was that his instincts were different than what one might assume.

He never felt compelled to yell at a suicidal person in order to try to stop them from what they were doing. He understood being physically aggressive in an effort to 'grab a person' wasn't going to work. He also knew that telling a person that they they were being selfish or were hurting others wasn't going to help the situation, either.

When I asked Kevin how it was he knew what to do, he didn't describe a thought process to me. Instead, he referred to something much more personal. He said that when he would confront a person who was close to jumping from the bridge, he would look into their eyes, and what he saw was pain. He knew he didn't want to increase the pain. He didn't want to lecture the person or scare them. Instead, he recognized that what a suicidal person needed most in that moment, was for someone to care.

Despite the machismo that is often associated with police officers, Kevin says he has always been a sensitive person. His own personal history has also allowed him to understand how painful life circumstances can be. He is very open about the fact that he has faced challenges. He dealt with a cancer diagnosis when he was still in his twenties. He's gone through a divorce. He has faced mental health challenges of his own, including depression and PTSD.

Over the course of his career, Kevin Briggs has encouraged literally hundreds of people to not follow through with their plans to jump from the bridge. One particularly powerful story involves a man who shared Kevin's same first name. Kevin Berthia was despondent and had already climbed over the railing, when Kevin Briggs got to him.

These are the words that Kevin Briggs spoke. These are the words that began to save a life:

"I know you must be in tremendous pain. If you want to talk, I m here to listen."

Earlier, I mentioned that Kevin Briggs is a hero. It is true. Undoubtedly, his superpower is empathy.

Kevin Briggs and Kevin Berthia 
at the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge in 2005.

Kevin has advice for those who are trying to support a person who is despairing, and the lives he has saved are proof positive that he is on the right track.

"Listen to understand," he tells us all.

Kevin says that he spent far less time talking than listening. He asked questions instead of dispensing advice. He understood that on a human level, we all want to feel a connection. If the person on the other side of the railing was not wearing a jacket, Kevin would forgo his jacket as well. They'd be cold together, as they spoke. If there was anything he could do so that the person he was talking to felt more comfortable, he would do it. He knew that telling a person that 'everything was going to work out,' might not be the best tactic. In that critical time when someone's life is on the line, trying to convince them that their despair is unreasonable, is not helpful.

However, encouraging a person who is on the verge of giving up to remember that they have a life that they can continue living, does make a difference. Instinctually, he understood that encouraging a person to consider the possibility of a future, had the power to save lives. What else did Kevin often ask the people he spoke to?

"I'd ask them what their plans were, for tomorrow."

Kevin says he was always careful not to try to 'cheer a person up' or to tell them that 'everything was going to be ok.' He knew enough about life to know that sometimes things aren't ok, and sometimes problems don't resolve themselves right away. He didn't want to give a false reassurance. The suicidal person wasn't going to respond to that kind of feedback.

During his time with the CHP, Kevin talked to hundreds of suicidal people, and only two of them ended up taking their lives. It turns out that his instincts were spot on, and we can all learn something from his efforts.

According to Bentham Science's publication, How to Help the Suicidal Person to Choose Lifeempathy is seen as an indispensable tool for intervention.

'People who are experiencing suicidal thoughts feel especially alone in their experience. If we can help them to know that we genuinely care about them and their situation, we may be able to convince them that their life matters. This is the essence of the ethic of care in action. Empathic responses, in the form of validating another’s experience, can also save lives.'

In other words, we shouldn't be telling the suicidal person that we know exactly what is going to 'fix' their problems, and we shouldn't be telling them that their problems aren't as bad as they think. 

What a suicidal person needs to hear is that we can see that they are in pain, and that we care. 

Because Kevin has been witness to more than one person jumping from the bridge, he understands first hand the importance of compassion for those who are left behind.

He has a unique understanding of what is important when loved ones are confronted with the tragedy of losing someone to suicide. When I asked him about this, he began by telling me what he thought was the most important thing for loss survivors to know.

"Do not blame yourself or others. This is no one's fault."

Kevin says he has seen the greatest support come from families that have made a purposeful decision not to blame each other.

Perhaps part of why he is able to comprehend the grief endured by survivors of suicide loss, is the fact that Kevin lost his own grandfather to suicide. Despite the fact that he never met his grandfather, he knows that the impact of a suicide in the family reverberates long after the loss has occurred.

"It's a lifelong process," he says, of managing the grief.

Today, Kevin is retired from the CHP. He spends his time now, travelling the country and speaking to large groups about his experiences working on the Golden Gate Bridge. He has expertise in mental illness awareness, suicide prevention, as well as the PTSD and compassion fatigue that often impacts first responders. He speaks to police groups, mental health organizations, schools, colleges, and the general public, as well. He has written a book, Guardian of the Golden Gate. He also received a coveted invitation to give a talk via Ted Talks - The Bridge Between Suicide and Life.

Given that Kevin is a self described introvert, I asked him how he manages to speak to so many large groups. His answer was simple.

"I believe in what I am talking about."

Indeed, when you meet him, the strength of his belief in the importance of empathy shines through.

Kevin Berthia, the man who he talked down from the bridge over a decade ago, says this:

"Kevin Briggs is my friend, my hero, and the reason my children have a father. His spirit, kindness, and compassion gave me a second chance when I wanted to die."

What could be more important than to have that kind of an impact on someone's life?

Kevin Briggs was once asked what he would like his lasting legacy to be. He responded without hesitation, and said this:

"What I would like is to be remembered for helping others at their darkest times."

On that note, I hope he knows that part of why he is so inspirational to me personally, is because he exemplifies a legacy achieved.

 Chelise Stroud and Kevin Briggs
July 14, 2018, San Rafael, California

You can find more about Kevin Briggs online.

He has a website, here:

You can find Kevin's book, Guardian of the Golden Gate, on Amazon, here:

You can find Kevin on Facebook, here:

Sergeant Kevin Briggs

You can find Kevin on Twitter, here:

And finally, you can hear Kevin share his experiences himself, by watching his Ted Talk, here:

Kevin Briggs - The Bridge Between Suicide and Life

Post Note:  A number of measures are in place to discourage people from jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge, including telephone hotlines and regular patrols by emergency personnel and bridge workers. In 2014 the Bridge's directors approved a proposal for a net below the bridge's deck. The net is expected to be completed by the year 2021.