Suicide Stigma

I’m going to start off this mornings blog post on a pretty light note because I’ve got a client, I’ve got a new coffee cup, a plate of cookies and the weather definitely feels like fall. For September, it’s exactly what I would expect and being out in the country, where the wide spaced trees give glimpses of the soybean field on the other side of the road, shedding the color of green for shades of gold, yellow and red, it’s exactly what I love.

That being said, September is a very important month to me for another reason. The month of September is Suicide Awareness month. And today, specifically, is World Suicide Prevention Day.

I saw someone post the other day, asking why there needed to be a day, a week and a month dedicated to the idea of Suicide Awareness and Prevention. And my question to that is why not? It’s the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. That’s a scary statistic. And it’s not just specific to teenagers or young adults.

I’m a firm supporter of this cause…even if I didn’t used to be.

Although I suffer with slight anxiety and had my ass handed to me on more than one occasion by depression, I looked upon suicide with a certain level of disdain, thinking it selfish and pointless. Of course, when I was thinking this was around the time that the number of teens committing suicide was drastically on the rise and there was a round of several that all happened very close together not far from where I was living. There were whispers of some kind of suicide pact.

In February of 2011 my opinion on the matter was drastically altered.

I was sitting at my brother’s house and we were getting ready to go out for the night. My daughter was spending the night with my husband’s sister and we were all in great spirits, ready to kick back, play some blackjack and have an amazing night. We hadn’t even started making our way out the door yet when my dad called. I was sitting beside my brother on the couch, talking to his girlfriend (now wife) and the conversation sounded like the norm.

Then my brother said “what?!” in a way that had us all turning to him, paying avid attention to what was going on. My brother is not a dramatic person. He’s more laid back than most people I know. So, when he says the word “what” in the tone he used that night, you pay attention.

He was shaking his head, a look of horrified disbelief on his face. He looked at me and said, “Grandpa killed himself.”

I was in complete shock. We all were.

My grandfather had been unhappy, which we were all aware of. Five months prior to his death, my grandmother had passed away due to complications with cancer. Quick insert – screw you cancer, I hate you. Anyway, she had battled cancer for longer than I can even remember, going through remission just to have it come back again repeatedly. She wasn’t given long to live after it was diagnosed as inoperable and managed to exceed the expectations of the doctors by a long shot, but in the end, it took her.

My grandparents had that kind of comfortable love that you couldn’t help but admire. When I would stop by to visit, they would be sitting at the dinner table playing Yatzee or Boggle with the TV going in the background, usually on Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune. They hosted every Thanksgiving, every Christmas. We would spend days out at their lake place outside of Hawley at Lee Lake where I have fond memories of falling asleep to the sounds of dice rolling, burst of laughter and distant, intermittent loon cries off the lake.

And my grandpa was a hell of a man. He was quiet but when he spoke, he would usually say things that were profound. At least, that’s how I remember it. We stayed with my grandparents for a while after moving to Fargo from Waseca and I was in bed one morning, not ready to get up and face a morning of swim practice when my grandpa walked by and, without stopping, said “People die in their sleep, you know.”

Point taken, Grandpa. I’m up!

He would sit at the kitchen table, staring down our cat who was curled up on the chair across from him and grumble under his breath, the occasional “damn” making it’s way into his muttered tirade.

And he had a wonderful, twisted sense of humor. The squirrels at their lake place would get into his bird feeders and he didn’t care for that one bit. So he attached a rod to a branch, ran electricity through it and had a remote control that he would hit every time a squirrel wandered onto that branch to make a go at his bird feeders. The squirrels learned pretty quickly to stay away.

I’m pretty sure, to this day, that even though I asked for a non-alcoholic Tom and Jerry at Christmas when I was fifteen, he doused it with a hint of liquor. He was a firm believer in Hot Toddies to battle common colds. And when I’m sick and my throat hurts, I mix one up, thinking of him the entire time.  

It was very difficult for him to take the news of my grandmother cancer turning terminal, to listen to the number of months the doctors were assuming she’d make it through. It was even more difficult for him after she passed. His struggles were not obvious. For myself, it was hard to tell just how deeply he was being affected by the loss of my Grandma. And even though I once told my sister that if Grandma went before Grandpa, he would die of a broken heart, I had no idea it would be by his own hand.

In the days that followed his death, I had to stop being so narrow minded towards the idea of suicide because I could not ever picture my Grandpa as a selfish, weak person. Not at all. He and my Grandma made so many things in my life possible, helping out when they could, being there when I needed them. They were supportive and although they may have not agreed with a lot of the things anyone in my family did, they still firmly stood by us.

And it was difficult for me. I was furious with him, confused, scared out of my mind and eventually just sad because the world lost a wonderful person that day. But my mind was opened. A door I didn’t even realize was locked had been broken open, ripped from it’s hinges and among the shattered debris, I had to find understanding.

I needed help finding it, though. And as per usual, my mom knew exactly what to say. We were in the car and I was telling her about the problems I was having accepting what Grandpa had done and getting over my anger. She told me “Your grandpa was a fixer. He was always fixing things. Maybe what he saw was a way to fix a lot of problems, including his own.”

There were a lot of things, mentally and physically, my Grandpa was dealing with that I’m not going to get into. But the point is, my mom was right. There was a lot of room to fix problems my family was facing, to make breathing a little easier for a while. And there was a chance for peace on his part.

Looking further into the causes of suicide and forcing myself to think beyond something as one-sided as a “selfish, life ending act” I started to see that I was wrong to feel the way I did. I opened myself up to looking at the whole picture, to understanding the events that lead up to something so drastic. I felt ashamed for being so closed-minded. A few days later, I went to visit my Grandpa’s grave and I told him how I’d been angry, how I’d been furious with him…and then I asked him for forgiveness because thinking like that was not fair to him. I left feeling a lot better.

A little over three years later, news of Robin William’s suicide exploded all over the internet. People started talking, posts about suicide prevention and awareness took over my feed. Three years before that my Grandpa died and no one knew what had happened, no one knew of the demons he was facing. And I thought…that’s really backwards.

I love Robin Williams and was very saddened by his death. But here was an entire nation speaking out after a celebrity committed suicide when they should have been speaking out a lot sooner. When I should have been speaking out a lot sooner.

Suicide is a scary, confusing, taboo subject that people tend to avoid. There’s a stigma attached to it that’s about as unhealthy as the diseases that cause people to make that final decision. And there shouldn’t be.

If you look up an obituary for Robin Williams, it states outright that his death was ruled a suicide. In my Grandpa’s, it says died at home. There is no mention of how.

I’m not saying we should flaunt what happens when people fall victim to things that are out of their control, but we shouldn’t hide it either. It’s shaming behavior to tuck away something ugly and frightening, to treat it like some huge secret. There’s a shame attached to it that maybe shouldn’t be. Hell, maybe the shame attached to the act is half the reason people suffering from physical or mental ailments leading up to their death don’t talk to anyone or reach out. Because they know a majority of people feel this is not something that should be talked about.

But it should be. It should be talked about. It should be looked at, dissected, understood on a level that a lot of people are afraid to understand it on, like I used to be. We may not understand the series of events or thoughts leading up to an act of suicide but that doesn’t mean we have to turn away from understanding it and making a larger push to help those who need help, to let them know that we’re okay with the person hurting on the inside that doesn’t at all mirror the person on the outside, to relieve the pressure they feel to live up to stressful expectations.
So, for any of you reading this, for any of you thinking those thoughts -. I’m here, I want to listen and with an open mind, without caring who you force people to see on the outside. I want to help the person hurting on the inside, I want to understand and I want to help. And it’s okay to let me. It’s okay to let anyone.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

3 thoughts on “Suicide Stigma”

  1. If you wouldn’t mind, I would like to carry your grandpa’s name with me when I walk in an out of the darkness walk in a few weeks for suicide prevention. More information here: afsp.donordrive.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=donordrive.participant&participantid=795651

    1. Stephanie, that would be amazing. I’m so sorry I didn’t see this until now. I haven’t been receiving notifications in my mailbox. My grandfathers name is Merle. And thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for such a kind gesture.

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