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This week there were two high-profile suicides in the news: Kate Spade, the 55-year-old fashion designer, and Anthony Bourdain, 61, a professional chef-turned-bestselling author and television personality. But if you ask around in your office, your school, your church, you’ll find far more people have been affected by the suicide of a friend or loved one, too. Most of us don’t readily admit it.
Suicide has a strange place in the realm of how we deal with death. I never volunteer that friends of mine have taken their own lives. Because for me, it occupies a bizarre place between the sacred and the shameful.
While there are mental health issues underlying suicide, it’s not like any other disease we’ve become familiar with. There’s no valiant battle against a terminal illness that allows us to cheer for our friends and loved ones posthumously, there’s no Ice Bucket Challenge that will fund research to miraculously find a cure.
But unlike those diseases awaiting treatments that may take years to develop, we know a lot about the warning signs of suicide and the support people need to recover. Yet often, we are unsure of exactly how to help on our own.
Unlike other causes of death, there are concentric circles of guilt that increase the closer you are to the person. How could I have not spotted it? He came to my house just a week before…. Was he saying goodbye? Were there non-verbal clues? What could I have done? The echoes usually end with a shameful and erroneous conclusion: I was a horrible friend, spouse, parent. It takes time and someone with training to help you understand that you are not to blame, to allow yourself the permission to stop bearing this invisible cross.
Along with the grief, and the loss, there is an unspent rage which might come from the fact that there was no criminal for this crime. The victim and perpetrator are one and the same. Your brain fights dueling emotions of love and loss while simultaneously the anger and hate you feel toward them for leaving you and so many others behind. A year or more after the suicide of one of my friends, I joked with his widow how I’m angry I’ll never see a gray hair on his head or a wrinkle on his face. She agreed. We laughed. The joke of course is rooted in the grief that he and I won’t get to be old men together. I bring up the joke, not to say suicide is funny, but to point out it is possible to let go of that anger.
These tumultuous emotions can lead families, with the willing aid of coroners and medical examiners, to alter the cause of death. There are few if any cultures in which suicide is an acceptable death. It is often described as an act of cowardice that can bring shame to families.
It should not be shameful. It was only because a colleague shared a story of someone else she knew who killed himself this week that I even admitted it at work. Before this, my own experience was something I only offered to people who I knew were going through the loss, a private empathy. Surviving someone who died by suicide is a horrible club to belong to, but according to the CDC, the membership is rising. More people died by suicide than in car accidents in 2016.
All my words are far too familiar for military families. They are a smaller, tight-knit community, and they are losing veterans to suicide at the rate of 20 a day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The PBS NewsHour has had a long tradition of honoring in silence the memories of those killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as their names are made public and their pictures become available. The true number of casualties from those wars, including veterans who take their own lives due to the long term mental health effects, may never truly be known.
For every suicide there are 25 attempts (that we know of). More than half of suicides include a gun. Suicide is most common in middle age, among those between 45 and 54 years old, followed by those 85 and older. There are other trends, too. I say all this to point out that there is much we do know about suicide, but we will never be able to help those who need it if we keep it hidden. Our silence contributes to the stigma.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).
Hari Sreenivasan joined the PBS NewsHour in 2009. He is the Anchor of PBS NewsHour Weekend and a Senior Correspondent for the nightly program.
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