Over lunch two years ago, just a week after my partner's sister jumped to her death, my friend Karen said, "I bet that's one club your partner hoped he'd never join." Karen and I already belonged to the "suicide survivors" cluband not by choice. Her elderly father had taken his life just months before. And in 1970 my father swallowed an overdose of prescription medication, leaving my mother with three young children to raise on her own.
How do you make sense of something as incomprehensible as suicide? From experience I know that you can't, but that doesn't mean you don't try. You search for answers, seek to place blameon others and/or yourselfand you wrestle with the complicated brew of emotions from shock and anger to relief and sorrow that follow in the wake of a loved one's suicide death.
Yet, even for a suicide veteran and semi-expert like meI wrote a question and answer book about suicide in the mid-1990s called Why Suicide?my sister-in-law's death left me asking the same questions almost everyone asks no matter what the circumstances. Why did she do it? What could have been done differently, but wasn't? And what might I have done differently, but didn't.
Once the initial shock of my sister-in-law's death had passed, I decided to revisit my book and write a new edition in the hope it would help me sort through my confusing emotions and make some sense of what I was feeling. My father's suicide was the original inspiration for my book, so it felt right to seek comfort in its pages and to use what I'd learned in the intervening years about suicide, and about myself, to improve upon the original. Perhaps some good, I thought, could come from this latest tragic death.
As I went about my research I was impressed by three things I found. First, there are more people now than in the past who insist on telling the truth about their loved one's suicide. Second, there's been an explosion of new resources for people who have lived through a suicide, from web sites and books to suicide survivor ( or "suicide bereaved" ) support groups. And third, while people often speak more openly about their experiences, many suicide survivors still struggle under the burden of stigma and shame.
Just as gay people once felt compelled to hide because we feared being judged, suicide survivors are often afraid of being judged, too. They're afraid of being thought defective in some waythat someone will consider them a bad parent, spouse, sibling, friend, or colleague. Or, as in my case, the fear is that someone will judge you as "less than," simply because you come from the kind of family where there has been a suicide.
I came by my shame honestly. I was 12 at the time of my dad's death and the adults around me acted as if my father had done something unspeakable. To that end they never said a word about him or his suicide other than to explain, when pressed, that he'd died of pneumonia. I took my cues from the adults, but rather than lie about the nature of my father's death, I told almost no one that my dad had even died. It wasn't that I'd taken a moral stand. I was so confused and ashamed that keeping quiet seemed like the easier path.
Now that I'm well into mid-life, I'm usually open about being a suicide survivor. Not always, because suicide can be a real conversation stopper and you can't tell just by looking at someone whether they're a member of the same club. But in recent years I find that when I come out about being a suicide survivor, more often than not if the person I'm speaking with lived through the suicide of someone close to them, too, they'll tell me what we share in common. And when that happens, I take great comfort in knowing that I'm not alone.
Eric Marcus is the author of several books on gay issues and is co-author of the #1 New York Times bestselling autobiography of Greg Louganis. For more information about Eric's recently re-published book, Why Suicide: Questions & Answers About Suicide, Suicide Prevention, and Coping with the Suicide of Someone You Know, please visit: www.whysuicidebook.com .
For information about National Survivors of Suicide Day, which is Saturday, November 20, please visit: www.afsp.org/survivorday/
IN THIS ISSUE [ LINK HERE OR FROM THIS ISSUE'S MAIN INDEX ]
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