Suicide: The Taboo Conversation

“Maybe your family talks about such things, but we don’t,” my mother-in-law said when I spoke to her about my husband’s siblings’ collective silence after our older son’s suicide.

Well, no, suicide isn’t a normal topic of discussion in my extended family, although we’re not untouched by it. Understandably, it’s a delicate topic.

Police found my older son dead in his apartment on January 20, 2021. The coroner confirmed what I dreaded: Matthew took his own life. That frantic 911 call sent us on a journey no parent should ever have to take.

First came the shock. No awe, just horrible, tragic shock. Our well-adjusted, well-liked, smart, ambitious, gregarious son was gone. Forever. He was only 24 years old. We’d just seen him a few weeks earlier over Christmas. He seemed his normal self.

Then came the many arrangements. I notified my husband. I notified our younger son, stationed thousands of miles away in Alaska. I notified Matt’s employer. I begged the police to make sure they kept track of our son’s puppy, as we’d be bringing the dog home to live with us. I notified our pastor.

After the funeral came the enduring trial of settling our son’s estate. Matt planned nothing beyond leaving a note to the first responders who would find him and a letter to us. His letter spoke of heartbreak and loneliness, lethal to a young man who’d recently moved to a new city where he knew no one and COVID-19 restrictions kept him isolated.

Nearly a year later, we’re still trying to get his estate settled.

I delved into fast research to learn that this modern plague (even before the vaccine was made available) has a 99.8% survival rate — comparable to seasonal influenza — and that suicide ideation, attempts, and completions had exploded among twenty-something adults. Over a third of “new” adults have seriously contemplated suicide as a viable solution to end the pain of loneliness. For this ultra-connected generation, social isolation kills.

I have my own suspicions regarding Matt’s words of heartbreak and loneliness.

The beauty of social media is the ability to inform multiple people of news without having to explain, over and over again, the horror of tragedy. Repeated explanation doesn’t dull the pain or become any easier. It’s hard enough to say a loved one died; it’s even more difficult to answer the questions of why and how.

Healthy, 24-year-old children aren’t supposed to die. There’s always a “good” reason: terminal illness, murder, an automobile accident. Our minds shy away from the “no good” reason: suicide. The very idea of taking one’s own life is anathema. Life, we are taught, is precious. Suicide is a sin.

Pain doesn’t care about social mores or religious dogma. It only wants relief. It demands relief. Regardless of the cause of pain, it saturates the mind, heart, and soul until there seems to be only one option for release: death. When the tunnel vision of despair convinces you that continuing to live only continues the pain, there is only one logical solution.

I know that, not because of Matt’s letter, but because I could have easily preceded him. My downward spiral into despair was caught in time only because I was not alone.

Except for his dog, my son was alone. His nearest family member lived over 100 miles away. He had no friends in his new city of residence, only the casual acquaintance of a fellow employee who lived across town. Work-from-home and shelter-in-place policies enforced his isolation.

Matt’s absence resonates with the horrible ramifications of loneliness. Hardly a day goes by without tears. My husband and I take refuge in the distraction of work and hobbies, new projects, and the dog.

We didn’t want a second dog. We’ve come to love Moose dearly, but he’s not a good fit for our household. Moose is young and energetic; we’re not. He chases cats; we have seven. Our other dog is getting old and rather resents having been assigned babysitting duty; she’d prefer watching over a new kitten than a rambunctious, aggressive German Shepherd.

Matt’s letter spoke of being a burden. He was never a burden, although his death certainly is. We are burdened by grief, by the loss of all those tomorrows we anticipated, by the loss of grandchildren we will never know. We are burdened by duty, trying to settle his estate, because our son left no will. We are burdened by our memories, knowing we will never add to their collection.

When the kids were young and embarking upon what I considered dangerous foolishness, I told them after admonitions to be careful, “I don’t have so many children I can afford to lose one.” I wish Matt had listened. I wish he had called. I wish he had sought therapy. I wish he had said something that triggered our awareness. I wish I had known. I wish I had realized. I wish I hadn’t failed him. I wish …

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. A herd thunders through me, a herd of wishes that my son was still alive.

Death is already hard to discuss. Even moreso, we don’t talk about suicide. We should, because the heartache of those left behind doesn’t go away. It doesn’t heal. It’s a terrible, deep pain with which we survivors must learn to live. William Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 116, “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, But bears it out even to the edge of doom.”

The Bard was wrong. Love endures past the edge of doom, as do the burdens of grief and regret.

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Karen Smith writes and edits fiction and nonfiction on a freelance basis and is a published novelist.