Kate, Tony and My Mom
The news about Kate Spade saddened me, but Anthony Bourdain did me in. I felt more connected to Bourdain, an irresistible truth-teller with a sharp wit. Their deaths are a terrible loss, but it was their families I thought of almost immediately. I know very well the lifetime of difficulty ahead for them.
My mother shot herself when I was thirty-three. I try to tell people this as evenly as possible. As if it was an interesting fact of my life, and not a deep and central nerve. A thing woven into flesh and bone.
Children left behind by suicide carry the persistent ache of a parent erased. They wanted to die (supposedly), making our grief secret and complicated. A grievous injury not only to its intended victim, but flattening everyone in its vicinity.
My mother’s suicide is over for her, but lives on in us.
Sometimes, it’s a blinding, searing pain. Most often, the hum of a steady sadness. It’s left me wondering about my value as a person.
It’s a hell of a thing to look and sound like a woman who no longer wanted to exist. I’ve continued to get out of bed in the morning and do my best to carry on, but it has broken me in some permanent ways.
The worst legacy of suicide is the corridor it opens in other’s minds. An unthinkable choice made possible. In fact, two risk factors for suicide are a family history of suicide and exposure to another person’s suicide. Pain begets pain.
Suicide is a public health crisis that repeats and perpetuates. The cost of shaking our heads and believing in its inevitability is more death.
I can’t state this plainly enough, it’s a terrible myth that nothing can be done for a suicidal person. Data and common sense don’t bear it out, and yet our health policies and societal behaviors support aversion and denial.
It’s still taboo to examine it with clear eyes, talk about it, admit it happened in your family, or even offer condolences. When my mom died I didn’t receive a single card or call from extended family. Years later one admitted to not knowing what to say. ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ works as well for people who lost a loved one to suicide as cancer.
Survivors have to deal with the death, and then in a double whammy are expected to quietly slink away with their shame. I’m angry about this treatment, and I’m not alone. Rates of suicide are rising sharply, nearly 45,000 Americans took their own lives in 2016 alone. Each year hundreds of thousands of people are left to deal with the aftermath without psychological counseling or societal support. The very people most at risk.
I refuse to shame any suicide victims, nor will I live in shame. My mother had severe mental illness and took her own life. I could cry an ocean of tears and it wouldn’t be enough to purge that grief. It’s been made worse by the stigma of suicide which I am choosing to shed on this day.
What can you do?
Get educated about the facts that lead to suicide, destigmatize discussions of mental health, insist on gun policy that accounts for suicide, support affordable access to mental healthcare, make it ok for people in your life to be seen struggling in front of you, and for god’s sake, send a condolence card.
I’m dedicating this piece to Brandon Robertson, who took his life with a firearm June 27, 2019. He was loved, he will be missed.