Telling the Stories of Suicide

We don’t talk about suicide much. Frankly it’s an awkward topic that doesn’t lend itself to short conversation. Each person and the internal and external landscape of their life and death are unique and complex – nearly impossible to capture in a sentence or two. The story line is full of questions and heavily laden with emotion.

We don’t talk about it in the press because of the “Werther Effect” – the evidence that copycat suicides occur, particularly when the story has certain characteristics. It’s likely that in this day of instant reporting via social network that whether and how the newspaper reports a death is largely irrelevant.

There is some evidence in the research that indicates that how the news is told can provide some protection to vulnerable readers – we might even save a life. One of those protective factors is when the report includes resources where other people can find help. Since most suicides involve mental illness, I would like them reported that way. I wish that the First Story more often said something like, “John died of untreated/undertreated depression. If you have symptoms of depression, please ask your doctor for help today.” In cases where mental illness defies treatment (as all diseases sometimes do), the news could say, “Mary died from complications of her depression. If you have symptoms of depression, please ask your doctor for help today.”

In this day and age, the death has been reported many times before an obituary is published. And most of that first reporting is done by us, amateurs sharing our pain on Facebook or via text. So I guess it is we who can start changing how this First Story will be told. I also think as we begin to do a better job of telling the First Story, we will help survivors as they begin the long journey of telling the Full Story.

The Full Story never gets finished. Broadly it’s the story of how the disease arrived, carried in the genes or seeded by an addiction; how the disease spread, the ebb and flow of pain and hope and finally the sorrow of defeat. The storyteller has to slowly work through all of the hell of reverse fortune telling – maybe if this had happened it would all have been different. Or not. The narrator has to learn to balance enumerating the many joys of a life that was lived, without getting crushed by the memory of all that lost joy. Building this narrative is the work of the individual, a brother, parents singly and together, of families and extended family, and of communities.

I’m profoundly moved when I see parents mastering the Full Story. Perhaps because I can’t imagine being able to do it. Recently, I have seen two whose work I thought was notable and I wanted to share some of what they have shared. The first was written by a childhood acquaintance:

“We lost our beloved son in April 2011. Not sure how to relate his story. He had become addicted to pain medicine – didn’t think he had a way out and ended up taking his own life. Something so unfathomable and so alien that we still find it hard to believe. Sons don’t come any finer. He was a joy to our hearts from the moment he was born. We are still trying to find our way through our grief but are confident in God’s plan and hand in all of this.”

And more recently, by a family friend:

“Gabe would have wanted this to be a happy and fun event, so my comments will be in that spirit; but before saying a few words about his life, I think it is important to address the manner of his death, which as Gabe might say is “the elephant in the room.”

“There is a powerful stigma associated with suicide in our society and culture, which is understandable. Even from a biological and evolutionary standpoint, human beings, like any other creatures, have an innate will to survive, which is not only in the best interest of the individual, but necessary for the continuation of the society and for the species as a whole. So it is difficult for many of us to understand why anybody would make such a decision to end his own life.

“We are fortunate that Gabe left behind numerous messages and journal entries from over the past several years, which in addition to the many conversations we had with him, have helped us piece together his mindset and his attitudes towards a number of issues that he dwelled upon over the years. One of these was an individual’s right to his own destiny, including the right to die-or to “opt out of life,” as Gabe put it… …While from all outward appearances, Gabe seemed to enjoy life and all of the experiences that come with it-and those feelings were sincere and genuine, I can assure you-his restless mind and body made it increasingly difficult for him to enjoy what many of us take for granted. In Gabe’s own words, taken from one of the many memos he left on his computer, “I have thought this through time and time again, and have come to the realization that this is my most logical choice of action.” In fact, the one thing that kept him alive for so long was his intense love for his family and the devastating emotional impact that he knew his death would have on his loved ones. Even so, I don’t think Gabe had any idea just how many people would be so profoundly affected by his decision, as is evidenced by the friends and family gathered here today, and by the hundreds of cards and messages, and the general outpouring of love and sympathy we have received since his passing.

“Those of you who were closest to Gabe probably know that he was afflicted by various neurological conditions, including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Tourette Syndrome; these manifested themselves in exhausting physical tics and intrusive thoughts, but were also responsible in part for his seemingly endless quest for knowledge and his ability to analyze and dissect subjects at the deepest level. The fact that his brain seemed to be on overdrive at all times, and his frustration at his inability to just “turn it off,” is what led to the addiction issues he struggled with during the last few years of his life, and eventually to his final decision. For years, Gabe attempted to address his problems through a range of doctors and counselors, as well as various therapies and prescriptions, all of which
inevitably failed him for one reason or another. Alcohol and drugs-in addition to his rigorous regimen of various vitamins and supplements-were just his attempt to control and calm an uncooperative mind and body. In the end, he made a most profound decision; but in the aftermath of that decision-and through the wisdom shared by our friends and family-we have come to realize the bravery of Gabe’s choice, and especially of his noble efforts to stay alive for as long as he did, for the sake of those around him.

“…Finally, and in closing, Heidi and I would like to thank our son for the nearly 24 years of wonderful memories he has left us with. We love you, Gabriel”.

So that’s how strong people face the task of building The Full Story. It’s rarely easy work. It has moments of joy and celebration. And it hurts and sometimes you fall down and get stuck and you need help from your partner, your friends and your community. If you know someone who is doing this work and needs help OR wants to help others, Touched by Suicide has local support groups for adults and adolescents and links to national resources.

Touched by Suicide Website

Let’s tell the First Story better and help each other tell the Full Story in hopes that there are fewer suicide stories to tell.

Steven E. “Jake” Jacobson counsels individuals and couples at the CCD Denton office.

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