The first time I was asked about my husband Peter’s suicide was in the emergency room, when the police questioned me as I threw up in a wastepaper basket. I remember one of the officers mentioning he recognized me because he’d been called to my apartment alongside the fire department a couple of years earlier when our carbon monoxide meter went off. He said something about how we looked like a happy couple. Maybe he wondered how a man who was so concerned about being poisoned by gas a few years earlier died by suicide.
The police questions were standard and they followed protocol. But the minute I left the hospital, mainly because I didn’t hide the fact that Peter died by suicide, I was flooded with other questions and comments I hadn’t expected.
Right away, for instance, a misinformed cemetery worker told me my husband couldn’t be buried in a religious cemetery due to the way he’d died. I’ve spent the years since fielding similarly ill-informed remarks from people who wondered if we were having marital problems or issues with our finances or if I had discovered he was keeping a big secret. It seemed to me that people wanted to have a singular, tangible reason to explain his death.
There was indeed a big secret that both he and I had been keeping from these same friends and family: Peter had suicidal ideations and was meeting with a psychiatrist. Due to the stigma, he was averse to the idea of hospitalization.
It seemed to me that people wanted to have a singular, tangible reason to explain his death.
Until Peter’s death, I never thought I’d be personally impacted by suicide. My education on the subject came from 1980s ABC after-school specials and one episode of “The Facts of Life.” All of these shows dealt with teenage suicide, not adult, and what I took from their narratives was that the main sign that someone was suicidal was that they started giving away their prized possessions (which given the materialism of the 1980s was a definite sign of being unwell). Peter, however, didn’t give anything away.
In fact, on the morning he died, he was getting ready for work. We had our annual summer vacation planned a week later and we had spent the weekend with the kids meeting his sister’s new baby. Outwardly, this was a fairly problem-free period of our lives. Privately, the most “salacious” thing I could tell you is that he was 10 days into starting a new antidepressant or that he was experiencing another bout of severe insomnia, a condition that had plagued him his entire life. Beyond that, there was really no mysterious “reason” of the sort that people incessantly asked about and seemed so keen to hear.
The storyline of Peter’s suicide wouldn’t track with today’s TV shows any more than it fit with 1980s television. In my experience, the current shows lack empathy and hope around the subject, both of which are vital when addressing any disease. Instead, they present suicide as a situational mystery to be solved and imply there are actually logical reasons for someone to take their own life — an implication that strikes me as grossly inaccurate and actually harmful to the discussion on mental illness.
In fact, I worry that consuming these types of shows has stunted our collective understanding of suicide and contributes to the idea that it’s OK to wonder “why” Peter — or anyone else who has died by suicide — did it. I’m not saying we have to go back to the ’80s world of moralistic, didactic and rather formulaic content on suicide, but at least those shows tried to address the issue of mental health in relation to suicide rather than effectively fetishizing and glamorizing suicide as a mystery. It’s important that real stories are told to help others empathize with families impacted by suicide, and also to show there is hope and treatment for those who are suffering.
It’s important that real stories are told to help others empathize with families impacted by suicide, and also to show there is hope and treatment for those who are suffering.
For me, one unintended consequence of the “what happened” narratives and questions was that even though I understood that mental illness is nobody’s fault, I found myself doubting that understanding. I began to wonder if I was being naive, and I fell prey to the pressure of wanting to know the reason why my husband took his life. During this time I searched through his laptop, his phone and all of his belongings to see if he was having an affair (he wasn’t) or if he was addicted to something I was unaware of (no, though he did drink a lot of Diet Coke). I even did a credit check to find out if he was hiding any debt (he wasn’t). The only thing I found was an old college journal chronicling a depressive episode that he’d had more than 20 years earlier. It was so painful to read that I had to put it aside.
Even after establishing that no secrets had been kept from me, I began to fixate on how I failed to save him. I entered a long period where I would replay the final days of his life and wonder what more I could have done to help.
In the days since then, I’ve often wished I had a response that would tactfully make those who (fortunately) haven’t been impacted by suicide understand that asking questions about “why” someone died by suicide inadvertently places blame on both that person and those closest to them. I still cringe inwardly when someone wants me to give them the TV version of my suicide survivor life, replete with tantalizing personal details. Instead, I usually talk about medication and therapy for mental illness — neither of which are in the recipe for a good storyline, but both of which are necessary tools to help people actually manage these awful diseases.
Even after establishing that no secrets had been kept from me, I began to fixate on how I failed to save him.
For the past few years, through a New York City-based nonprofit, I’ve been leading a weekly creative writing workshop at a psychiatric unit as part of its in-patient and partial hospitalization programs. I’ve been fortunate enough to read the writing of so many patients. When I tell people I am facilitating a workshop in a psychiatric unit, people are always curious ― though in reality, it has more in common than they think with any other floor in the building where people are trying to get better.
That said, each week, I’m inspired anew by the workshop participants’ strength and resilience, and their fearlessness when writing creatively. As a group, they are hopeful and embrace various therapies like writing, yoga and so on to help them on their journey. I’ve watched countless people find a treatment plan that worked for them in this way, even as others are still hesitant to be hospitalized. This has given me a deeper understanding of mental illness and also helped me find meaning after Peter’s death, but it still saddens me to think about Peter’s reluctance to go to the hospital due to the stigma.
Like many, I wish for a world where mental illness isn’t stigmatized. I know one step in attaining this is not burdening those who suffer from mental health issues with the expectation that they should hide their sickness or avoid hospitalization. In my case, I tried to get Peter to be open about his struggles, but ultimately I knew it wasn’t my choice. What was my choice was how I shared his passing with others. I could have told people he died of a heart attack, which is probably what he might have preferred. But I didn’t.
One positive outcome from admitting the way Peter died has been other people confessing to me that there had been suicides in their families, which they hadn’t wanted to tell anyone about.
One positive outcome from admitting the way Peter died has been other people confessing to me that there had been suicides in their families, which they hadn’t wanted to tell anyone about. My openness, they say, helped them realize mental illness and suicide aren’t something shameful. I understand their initial rationalization for hiding these stories of loss, but that option wasn’t for me, and I’m glad they are rethinking why they have kept those suicides a secret. I do warn them that acknowledging their family history will leave them vulnerable to insensitive comments and queries. But after eight years of enduring these myself, I have found the best way of explaining it is also the simplest: “He had depression and died by suicide.”
Stressing that he had depression, I’ve learned, appears to counter people’s impulse to ask any other questions. This is a hopeful sign to me. It means that people understand depression is a disease, one that can be managed and also one that sometimes can’t. That’s one step closer to removing the stigma. I hope we can change all the lingering misconceptions about suicide, although ultimately I can’t really blame the person who instinctively approaches suicide like a detective. After all, I am guilty as anyone of wanting this disease to make some kind of sense.
Eight years later, people seem more understanding of mental health issues than they were when Peter died. But I still get the occasional “what a selfish act” from some. I hear this same idea ― that suicide is somehow selfish ― from people who don’t know about Peter. It seems to be a commonplace response to suicide. And while Peter, like all of us, was pretty selfish at times, the day he took his own life wasn’t one of them.
When I think of him, I remember the caring father, partner and friend he was in life, not the way he died. And I’m making sure his death does not define his legacy. My hope for anyone else who has lost a loved one to suicide ― or encounters someone who has ― is that they can find the empathy and perspective to do the same.
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 the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.
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