Thursday, September 26, 2013

Suicide Loss Rights #2: Stigma

Here is the second Suicide Loss Right by Tony Salvatore with my commentary: 
2. We have the right to be free of stigma. In our society suicide has a negative connotation. This afflicts us as it did those we lost.
Even as I write this, I feel like I am breaking a taboo.  I hear voices telling me not even to use the word "suicide" because I am exposing myself, my family, and Zach to shame.   I remember in broadcasting school we were told that it was inappropriate to use the word "suicide" in newscasts.   Since that time, the media has become more sophisticated.  Here is a media guide for reporting suicides.

I didn't want to talk about Zach's death as suicide.  I still don't.   I want to remember him for the fun, kind, intelligent, handsome, playful, caring boy and man he was.   He also struggled.  That is part of who he was as well.  I remember reading about those who had lost adult children through accident and realizing that I could not fully relate.  It wasn't until I could hear from those who lost someone, especially a child or adult child through suicide that I could start to name my own feelings.    Thankfully, there were suicide survivors who did talk and write about their experience and that encouraged me to do the same.     Doing so has helped me begin to lift that stigma of blame, shame, and judgment.

I am not going to describe the details but at the time the police told us it wasn't a suicide.  I remember the officer at first telling us that we could find some comfort that it wasn't.    That reflects the stigma that it would be "comforting" not being a suicide.    Later the detective and the coroner did come to the conclusion that it, indeed, was suicide.

As time went on we were asked innocent sounding questions like, "Was he getting help?" and "Did you notice any signs?" that just furthered the judgment that we were class A fuckups as parents.  We were "on watch" with him for five years after he had made his first attempt in college.   We brought him to live with us.  We were alone in this.  We didn't tell people why we had brought him home.  We didn't want to make it harder for him.   Yes, we saw the "signs."  We lived with the "signs" and yes he did get "help" and it simply isn't that simple no matter what the "experts" say.  I suppose if I were Dr. Spock or perfect Rev. Lovejoy this wouldn't have happened?  It isn't that simple either.  But that is the stigma that parents are somehow at fault and that if we were "good" parents it wouldn't have happened.  

I have no idea and no one else does either what my son's experience of life was like.    I can guess.  I can partially fantasize about what went on inside him but I cannot know.   One thing that has been helpful regarding the stigma is to use the passive, "He suicided" rather than "He committed suicide."    He was a victim of illness, not a killer of himself.  I am not ashamed of him.  I don't want his memory, to the extent that I have control over it, to be one of shame.   As I see it, he bravely fought demons day in and day out that I will never know.   Finally, they got the best of him.   Ultimately, I can only honor his life and his death.   I wish there had been other options and other choices that he felt he could trust.  I wish he were alive.  I wish he were well.   I am grateful to have had him for as long as I did.

I know the reality of stigma.  I choose to rise above it.  I will choose to hold my head high.    I will choose to talk about his life and his death as I need to do as I feel it is safe for me to do.  I will choose to remember him with pride.  I will remember him with laughter and with tears.  I will honor my son.


  1. Here's another helpful media guide:

  2. When my daughter and I hosted a table for AFSP and the Out of the Darkness Walk at an event last week-end, we got some of the most amazing looks from passers-by. At one point she said, "They act like we're promoting suicide!"

  3. Thank you for opening up your heart and soul and letting us mourn and heal with you. You are able to put in words that very few people can.

  4. I'm so sorry you've had to deal with stigma in addition to the deep grief of losing a child. Some people don't think before speaking. I pray you constantly feel the loving arms of our Heavenly Father.

  5. I like this piece, John. It's both painful and healing.

  6. So sorry for your loss. No man knows all that another man experiences. That's why we have to have compassion. Because we don't know. This is close to me as sister recently lost her daughter, 25, to drug addiction. It makes no sense. There are no answers. People ask...was everything done that could have been done? We'll never know. We just deal with living now...however we can. If it will give you any peace...feel free to read my thoughts as well. Be well... A. :)