My brother killed himself about four years ago. As you might imagine, that fact doesn’t make for very pleasant dinner conversation.
Death is rarely an uplifting topic, but it is a universal one. Usually people talk about it, or at least acknowledge it. If someone dies of a heart attack, for example, people offer their condolences or a loving gesture.
Once you introduce the word ‘suicide’, however, people get uncomfortable. They look away. Change the topic.
Such was the case with my brother. After his death, many people didn’t want to talk about it. Perhaps they didn’t know how. Regardless, because I represented this thing that could not be discussed, I, myself, became the elephant in the room, alone and isolated.
But I refused to feel ashamed. Because my brother did nothing wrong. He was sick-mentally and emotionally. He suffered for years as mental illness ravaged him. And when faced with his greatest life crisis, suicide was the only option he saw.
I think suicide is misunderstood. Some people think it’s a sin or it’s voluntary or that it just doesn’t happen to “good” people.
In fact, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death, right up there with heart disease and cancer. Suicide is most often accompanied by a mental illness, like bipolar disorder or depression.
Like most survivors of suicides, even though I understand the disease, I’m plagued by guilt and regret. I’m haunted by the fear I could have done more to help my brother, maybe even prevented his death. But if no one wants to talk, if you can’t share your experience with those closest to you, how can you heal?
Those who suffer from mental illness, those who are survivors of suicide, need support, not stigma. Compassion, not silence. Fortunately for me, I found solace in a support group.
Suicide is not a bad word. The more we understand and discuss it, the more we can help those affected by it-and potentially save lives.
With a Perspective, I’m Kathryn Leehane.
Kathryn Leehane is an author and storyteller. She lives in the South Bay.