I’m finally ready to start writing about suicide.
This year alone, I’ve read a number of books and hundreds of articles about it. My original plan was to write a single piece, but I found that I just have too much to say about that confounding and complex topic. Suicide. It evokes a range of powerful thoughts and emotions.
It is different than other deaths. Accidents, overdoses, and murders are also tragic and painful. In no way am I trying to diminish other ways of dying or rank them in some kind of ridiculous scale.
My mother lost three of the other four members of her nuclear family when I was 2 1/2 years old (she was not yet 40). Her sister, whom she shared a room with when they were growing up in Minneapolis, killed herself by drowning in the Mississippi river. I was immediately told what happened, despite my young age and the inability to really comprehend death at that stage of life. I think my parents did the right thing telling me. They explained that she was sick and took her own life and that my mother was very sad. Mom was a trooper though. She talked about it a lot (I was embarrassed as a child how often it came up in her conversations with others), but she was highly functional. I have no memories of her staying in bed, wailing away or silently brooding while looking out a window. I was a young adult before I really understood how much of an impact her sister’s suicide must have had on her. My mother’s process provided a model for the work I encourage others to do in the face of loss: talk about it, spend time with friends and family, and continue to move forward in life.
Earlier this year, my mom wrote about her sister for my first book. I was startled by something that I had never previously thought about: they shared a room growing up for over a decade (maybe two decades). That type of proximity over such a long period of time suggests a close relationship, or at the very least, a deep knowledge of one another. Late night conversations after the lights go out. Familiarity with early morning routines. Everyday exposure to what they are reading. Intimate understanding of facial expressions and physical gestures.
A couple kids in my high school committed suicide. I knew their names but I didn’t know them. It was a shock. I grew up in a time and place where nothing bad seemed to happen; put better, nothing bad happened to me. There were kids who had private hells that we didn’t know about. The morning in a high school after a suicide is an eerie place. The collective pep and bounce of teenagers has been drained. The day seems long and in slow motion. Laughing and planning feel guilty. The adults stumble with what to say.
There has been a lot of death in my life (that is eventually true for all humans, but usually weighted towards the end of our lives when we have more experience and wisdom to process it). My grandmother when I was 19. Fraser from an overdose when I was 26. Eric suddenly when I was 41. Dozens of students and clients. Soldiers and veterans that I have treated. I also work with the survivors. Hundreds of parents. A few young children of cops.
All of this is prelude to the only point I really want to make today, and one that I may have been able to get to in the third paragraph. I had a close friend complete suicide. I felt a deep sadness, confusion, and a bit of anger. That is almost the universal human response. There is something else though: a feeling of deficiency.
What is wrong with me and my relationship that someone I was so close with sought to kill himself?
It hangs on the edges of our brain and is rarely uttered. This was an invasive thought that popped into my head in the early weeks after my friend’s suicide. It must be far worse for a romantic partner or family member. I suspect that it is unfathomable and unbearable for a young son or daughter. “What is wrong with me?” Perpetually thought but almost never spoken.
It must be said out loud. It must be processed. Because I have an answer. There is nothing deficient about you. Suicide is terrible. Horrible. Do not make it about you, even if every waking instinct tells you to do so. It isn’t. This is why we must talk to other people about it.