Our 21-year-old son died by suicide in 2019, a fact I tell people as soon as I can bring it into conversation, so that they’ll understand who we are as a family and as human beings. I bring the unmentionable into the light because it’s a fact of our lives, and his, that we can’t ignore or deny. I can’t bring my son back. But as a bereaved parent, I can ask one thing of the rest of the world. I can, in fact, insist.
Don’t say committed suicide. Please say, henceforth, that a person died by suicide.
We no longer presume people with schizophrenia are possessed by demons or that the chronically depressed are cursed. But suicide as the felo de se, crime against oneself, is still the ultimate taboo, even as we staff hotlines and share social media posts to prevent it. The prohibition persists.
I came into Austin’s life when he was turning 6, when his father and I started dating. We blended our family of five children, four teen girls and a wee boy, about two years later but there were bumps along the way. Blended families are complicated, mental health is complex, and childhood traumas can develop into something bigger even with therapy and interventions.
As our boy went through his teen years, he struggled with a growing sense that adults were against him, that we did not have his back, and that there were conspiracies around him. We went through some rough years but hoped, as he turned 21, that he would grow out of it. Instead, he took his own life.
We were sick with grief. We barely left the house for months. We tried to grapple with his choice and what was left of our lives. One idea became clear to me: We would never let Austin’s suicide be a source of embarrassment. We would speak of him openly and often.
But people get nervous when I talk about Austin. They seem shocked that I’m not mortified or embarrassed. (I’m grief-stricken, but not ashamed.) When I write about Austin on social media, my DMs are flooded with friends who tell me, “I wish I could talk about my sister, my father, my little brother, my cousin, but I can’t.” The heartbreak is doubled by people’s shame, guilt and social awkwardness.
Still, if Austin had suffered from cancer or diabetes, or died in an accident, we wouldn’t have said he committed cancer, he committed diabetes, or he committed an accidental death. We don’t say that our elders commit old age or commit death in their sleep. They die, of old age or heart failure. They die, by whatever cause. We don’t blame the one who suffers the disease.
When Austin took his life, he planned ahead. He left letters. He said goodbye, in his own way. And he ended his intense pain in his own way. How can such a desperate decision be considered a crime or a sin? I think saying he committed suicide blames Austin and stigmatizes his death. Haven’t we suffered enough by his loss without a side of ignominy and taboo?
Although this piece is really about the semantics, it also comes back to how we can speak of our dead with love and deep compassion. Saying that your loved one committed suicide seems like the ultimate act of betrayal ― blaming them for their own illness and suffering.
Bring them back to the light, your conversation, your family history, your mantel or photo album, with loving compassion, by proclaiming that they died by suicide, of whatever sadness or desolation, lack of serotonin or missed synapses in their brains that forced them into a corner. They were ill, they ended their pain, and we mourn them.
It’s time to stop hiding our suffering and to start blaming the disease instead of the afflicted.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.