The recent reports of well-known celebrities dying from suicide have brought this topic to our national attention. The statistics are stunning – 43,000 suicide deaths in 2016 make it the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., and in the 15-34 age group, the second leading cause of death. These deaths create an untold number of grieving and traumatized families and friends.
Suicide often creates a shadow of guilt, shame and stigma for those left to mourn their loved one. Several journalists, broadcasters and other public figures have come forward in these last weeks to tell their story of a loved one who died due to suicide, or their own contemplation of suicide. Their openness and honesty will be helpful to those who have felt their grief driven underground because of responses to suicide as “a selfish act” or “the easy way out.” The story of suicide is profoundly difficult and painful but like all stories of loss, it needs to be told and compassionately received.
I witnessed this long shadow of guilt, shame and stigma in my own family. My grandmother committed suicide when my father was 10. Her cause of death was covered up by a physician colleague of my grandfather so she could receive the rites of the church and be buried in the Catholic cemetery. Her death was never spoken of again. My grandfather chose secrecy over public shame. My father suspected how she died, but no adult confirmed what he had figured out. As a child he created a story that she killed herself because of a misbehavior on his part. He carried the guilt of her death throughout his adult life.
My father lived with this narrative of her death until his late 50s when he traveled back to his hometown and found the elderly doctor who lied about the cause of death. “I have one question for you,” my father said. “How did my mother die?” “She committed suicide,” the doctor said. “We should have told you boys. I have carried that with me ever since.”
My father came back from that trip a different man. A weight that he had carried since he was 10 years old was finally gone. He had lived with guilt and confusion for a lifetime because of the secret that was kept and the story that was never told. He could finally step out of the shadow and be more present to his life.