We’ve got to talk about suicide, but how do we do it?

Armchair Mayor
By Mel Rothenburger
March 9, 2019 - 7:06am
Image Credit: Pixabay
Edyn and Mykel Rothenburger
Edyn and Mykel Rothenburger Image Credit: Mel Rothenburger

A YEAR AGO on Thursday, my daughter Edyn killed herself. She was 38.

A year before that, in the same month, her son, my grandson Mykel, killed himself. He was 16.

We need to talk about suicide.

I promised Edyn that, one day, I’d write about Mykel. One day. “When you’re ready,” she said.

I didn’t know, of course, that I’d be writing about her, too.

We’re not supposed to say people “committed suicide” anymore, because it goes back to the days when suicide was considered a crime or a sin. We’re supposed to say “completed suicide.” As if it were a project.

We spend too much time talking around suicide and not about it. They are victims, not criminals, but the reality is, some people kill themselves. Suicide is a shocking, tragic, final thing. Let’s not gild our words.

Think about the number of times someone you know, or know about, dies, and through the gossip mill it quietly gets out that they killed themselves.

“I hear So-and-So committed suicide,” a friend might say over coffee or on the phone. “It’s terrible. I just saw him a couple of weeks ago and he seemed fine.”

I went to a celebration of life not long ago where one of the eulogists mentioned that the person who died had been suffering from depression and we really need to talk more about mental illness. He couldn’t bring himself to use the “suicide” word.

So that’s usually as far as it goes. Someone was ill; “We really should talk about it more.”

Psychological disorders are said to be linked to 90 per cent of suicides. It seems logical that anyone thinking about suicide, or who “completes” it, must be suffering from intense mental stress.

Fortunately, we’ve covered some distance in our willingness to talk about mental illness. Though we have more work to do, we discuss clinical depression, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses more easily than we used to, but suicide remains off limits.

Why? Because there’s still a stigma, both for the suicide victim and for his or her survivors, and there shouldn’t be. How can we ever hope to do anything about it if we can’t stop acting like it’s something to be embarrassed about?

But if we’re going to talk about it, how will we do that, what will we say, and what good will it do? I don’t have all the answers, but here’s what I think.

There’s the part about trying to stop it, and the other part — living with it when it happens to someone you love. And there are different conversations to be had between suicide loss survivors, those survivors and their friends, and by the public at large.

Suicide is an awkward subject for small talk. Conversations that usually begin with “How’s it going?” take on new meaning, and avoidance can become the default approach. Suicide loss survivors often say that in their greatest time of need, friends stop calling.

It seems obvious that removing the stigma of suicide would save lives because those who feel suicidal — or might have already tried — would be less reluctant to seek help.

Without condoning or glamorizing it, we need to erase the shame. In working on prevention, we also need to admit we can’t always see it coming. Just as importantly, we need to recognize that sometimes we can’t stop it no matter how hard we try.

When it does happen, we’ve got to learn how to grieve better, and to help others grieve better.

The loss of any loved one can be crippling. Losing a child or a spouse, brother or sister, especially by suicide, is in a class all its own. It breaks you in half. There is no closure. It’s like carrying a 100-lb. sack of sadness on your shoulders for the rest of your life. When there are few or no avenues for sharing the weight, it gets heavier.

Talking about it more openly could make the pain more bearable and might even lead to some new ideas. It could make survivors feel a little less abandoned. And it might soften the inevitable feeling of guilt that “maybe I could have stopped it if I’d done something differently.”

We’ve got to understand that suicide victims lose sight of what they have to live for. In their despair, they see no future. Their final act makes them no less worthy.

Mykel was in pain and afraid; Edyn couldn’t bear life without the son she loved so much. There was no shame or weakness in that.

Maybe most of all, we need to stop thinking we’re somehow protecting our loved ones, or someone else’s loved ones, by keeping the manner of their dying a deep, dark secret.

I’m proud of the way Edyn acknowledged Mykel’s death. She had much to teach us. I’m immensely proud of our family for not being afraid to face this thing head on. I’m thankful to friends who have gotten past the discomfort and are willing to bring it up, to talk and to listen. So these words are not only for all those who loved and will forever love Edyn and Mykel, but for the many others who have lost someone to suicide, or know someone who has, or wonder about it.

As for me, I grieve mostly within myself, so talking about it is something new. Maybe the “how” part of the conversation will reveal itself more clearly as time goes on.

In the meantime, if you run into a friend who’s lost someone to suicide, don’t be afraid to ask, “How are you doing?” And if their eyes tear up and their voice breaks, don’t be put off.

Keep talking.

Mel Rothenburger is a former mayor of Kamloops and newspaper editor. He publishes the ArmchairMayor.ca opinion website, and is a director on the Thompson-Nicola Regional District board. He can be reached at [email protected].

Editor's Note: This opinion piece reflects the views of its author, and does not necessarily represent the views of CFJC Today or the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group.