Below is the text of my keynote remarks at this week’s World Suicide Prevention Day event held at St. Andrew’s on the Square (Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019). About 100 people attended the event to honour loved ones lost to suicide.
By MEL ROTHENBURGER
THIS PAST MARCH, the headline on one of my Saturday columns for CFJC was “We’ve got to talk about suicide.”
The column began, “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.”
I went on to discuss the issue of the stigma of suicide from the perspective of someone who has experienced it through the loss of loved ones. I’m far from an expert on suicide but I’ve become much more of an expert than I ever wanted to be.
What I’ll say tonight comes mainly from that personal experience — backed up with a little reading — and it might not jibe with the views and experiences of others but I’m confident there’s common ground on the way suicide affects us and how we deal with it.
One of the things I’ve read is an article co-written by TRU lecturer Rebecca Sanford who IS an expert on suicide. The article says traditional wisdom has been that for every suicide, about six people are affected, but that the real number is closer to 135 when you consider schools, workplaces, churches and so on to which the suicide was connected.
I completely agree with Rebecca’s numbers. She says it means there are probably up to 25 people for each suicide who suffer intense grief.
That’s certainly the case with Mykel and Edyn. Each of them had well over 30 immediate and extended family members and friends who continue to grieve, every day.
The loss of any loved one is traumatic. The loss of a loved one by suicide is even more traumatic. The loss of a child — or a mother or father or sister or brother — is almost too painful to even think about, and the loss of a child by suicide multiplies the grief exponentially.
But it’s of no value to compare one’s loss to someone else’s. It’s not a competition. Losing someone to suicide places a massive weight on both your shoulders. It remains there for the rest of your life. You feel it when you’re at home, when you’re at work, in private moments and when you’re out in public.
Not a single day goes by when you don’t think about it. It hits you when you look at a picture of the one or ones you lost — as you must — or when you wake up in the morning or go to bed at night, or when you’re driving or when you’re in the middle of a conversation.
Your life is forever less happy than it was.
This grief is made worse if we don’t talk about it, or don’t have opportunities to talk about it. But it’s not good enough to blame everybody else for this. Maybe suicide doesn’t get as much attention as other stigmatized events and conditions because it’s not a disease, it’s a consequence…. But it’s up to us to change attitudes.
In my opinion, we’ve got to be more blunt. Mykel and Edyn didn’t pass, or pass away. They killed themselves. Mykel went on the Internet for instructions on the best way to do it and then he did it. Edyn copied him a year later.
I know we’re not supposed to say people “commit suicide” anymore because it’s a term from the days when suicide was considered a crime. I don’t buy it. Suicide isn’t legally a crime anymore but it is murder committed on yourself.
It’s ugly, incredibly sad, incredibly tragic, violent and final. Neither Mykel nor Edyn killed themselves because they didn’t want to live. They killed themselves to escape their pain. Mykel was in pain and very afraid. Edyn was so deep in pain over Mykel’s death she could bear it no longer.
I remain angry about it, but not at them. Just… it. That it happened. We’ve got to talk about this.
It’s such a cliché nowadays to say there’s a stigma to something. There’s a stigma to drug addiction. We’ve got to talk about it.
There’s a stigma to mental illness. We’ve got to talk about it.
There’s a stigma to dementia. We’ve got to talk about it.
There’s no shortage of stigmas but, for the most part we ARE talking about them, as we need to do. We’re having conversations about opioids, and a range of mental illnesses, and dementia, and embarrassing physical illnesses. Slowly, we’re removing stigmas but still have a very difficult time figuring out how to talk about suicide.
When was the last time you read an obituary that said someone died from suicide, or even asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to suicide awareness and prevention programs?
Did the eulogies at the celebration of life mention that the person whose life is being celebrated took his or her own life? Did they tell the real story? Or are there instead vague references to struggles, or no hint at all?
When was the last time you met someone for coffee and the conversation began with “How are you doing since your son’s suicide,” or “How are you” with the answer, “Struggling a bit since my daughter killed herself.”
Why is this? I think the reason is a sense of shame and a feeling that families and friends must protect the one who committed suicide from embarrassment. And that we must not burden others with our grief.
Ten years ago, long before the suicides of Mykel and Edyn came along and hit our families like a freight train, I wrote an editorial why we in the media don’t publicize suicides as a cause of death.
One reason, I said, was concern for the privacy of friends and family. The other was the fear that it would generate copycat suicides.
I concluded with, “There’s no right or wrong in how the media report on suicides, no clear ethical lines. Each medium does its best to act in deference to the sensitivities of its own community.”
There’s still some truth to some aspects of that editorial but in other ways it seems so out of touch now. If we don’t talk about a stigma, we perpetuate it. How can we fix something if we don’t drag it out of the dark into the sunlight so we can see what we’re doing?
It’s not up to the media, or our friends or the vast public out there. It’s up to us, the survivors of suicide. We’ve got to stop dancing around it. We’ve got to stop trying to find more “acceptable” ways of describing it, like “completing suicide.”
Those kinds of things make suicide itself sound somehow more acceptable. It’s not acceptable. If we’re going to find ways to prevent it, we’ve got to face it head on. We’ve got to make it easier for people thinking about suicide to talk about it without glossing over it. It’s a tricky balance.
We’ve also got to recognize that sometimes, no matter what, we can’t see it coming, and other times, no matter what, we can’t stop it even if we do see it coming.
We haven’t figured it out yet.
Mykel was being helped as much as the system and Edyn and his family and his church could help him. After Mykel killed himself Edyn was working overtime on her own physical and mental health. Her family kept watch. Her friends, by and large, kept in touch. Her mom Irene and step-dad Jon were there for her 24 hours a day.
I loved our times together and I saw her bright side, I saw her amazing potential and her wonderful qualities and I was convinced we’d all get her through it. I don’t think everyone in the family felt the same way; maybe I was seeing what I wanted to see. Regardless, we failed.
That’s a tough thing to face. I want to find a way to stop it from happening again and again. I want to be part of a conversation about suicide, in a respectful but candid way. The overwhelming response I received after my column about Mykel and Edyn has convinced me that many, many others want the same thing.
This event tonight is important because it acknowledges the issue but what about the rest of the year? Do we go from here tonight and let it return to the shadows, do we leave it to suicide prevention groups and support groups or do we take it to another level?
Do we change the way we talk about it? And do we demand from our MLAs and our MPs and our City councils that they pay as much attention to it as they give to, say, the opioid crisis, because we have to stop kids and seniors and men and women and the marginalized and the rich from hanging themselves and purposely overdosing and drowning themselves in the South Thompson River and jumping off Peterson Creek Bridge.
The theme for today and tonight is “Working together to prevent suicide.” So let’s do that.
Thank you very much, and thank you to Jolene and her volunteers for their work in organizing this event in recognition of World Suicide Prevention Day.
Let’s keep talking.