Over the past few weeks, the entire country, it seems, has been shaken by the suicides of so many of our young people. These tragedies create profound questions, and too often, leave us without profound answers to match.
I want to take a moment, however, and honor and thank the families, communities, and institutions so deeply impacted by these tragedies that have in turn created healthy and supportive spaces for open dialogue about suicide. While we may not find the profound answers we seek, one thing we do know is that suicide can never be prevented if we are unwilling to talk about it.
On April 27, 2006, my life (my context) changed forever. This was the day my father, a day before his 62nd birthday, committed suicide.
On April 28, 2006, my living (my process) changed forever. This was the day that my family (my Mom leading the way) decided the only hope in our situation was to share our story fully and openly. The announcements in the newspaper thus stated my father’s death as suicide – no euphemisms or glaring omissions in the “cause of death”. My mother asked them to make sure and share that he had suffered with deep Depression since his late adolescence and that he had been the victim of sexual abuse as a young child. In other words, she made sure that they told the whole story with full transparency, and thereby defied most of our cultural norms when it comes to Depression, abuse and/or suicide.
In being transparent and communicating honestly, my family chose to live with suicide in the hopes that others might do so as well.
The following weeks and months were astounding. Friends and neighbors we had known for years wrote notes to my Mother sharing their stories – many of which had never been shared with anyone despite being decades old. A brother’s suicide never to be spoken of. Strangers from around the city and even from other states who never knew my Dad or any of our family wrote to thank my Mom for her strength and to share their own stories, again most of which had never been told before. A mother’s suicide never explained. Children, siblings, husbands, wives, parents, best friends, the list went on and on, and the stories just kept flooding in.
My guess, based on this experience, is that someone reading this right now is a survivor of suicide. I also expect that someone reading this has never had the chance to talk about it and process it without the shame and blame that too often taint such conversations.
The unfortunate reality is that suicide is a part of the human condition and its presence is even more heightened in the adolescent years. In fact, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports that more than 19% of teens have seriously considered suicide and the CDC reports that suicide is the third leading cause of death (behind automobile accidents and homicide) for young people ages 15-24. While my father was almost 62 when he died, it was during these adolescent years that he began, or at least first recognized, what became his 40-year, daily battle to keep living.
Because of the strength of my Mom, my siblings and I grew up with some understanding of Depression and my Dad’s struggles with the trauma of abuse. When he died, while stunned in the moment, I cannot say I was surprised. If Mom had not had the strength to openly and honestly dialogue and educate and engage her children in a healthy way, I probably would not be writing this piece. I probably would not be effectively living with suicide, but rather powerlessly struggling against it.
Right now, many people in our country, riding a wave of emotion, are finally talking about suicide and right now we have a choice: We can choose to continue this conversation and broaden our understanding and deepen our education even after the emotion settles and the media moves on; or we can shove suicide back into the social and cultural shadows where its reach and devastating impact will grow unabated. Only when we commit to open dialogue and broader understanding will those of us who have survived suicide be able to live with it, and not live despite it. And, only by choosing to live with suicide will we as human beings be able to create and sustain the families, schools, and communities we need to help our fathers, siblings, friends and spouses (as survivors or those on the brink) find a reason to live and a pathway to endure.