Learning about suicide from an authority before learning it from life
“A rich contemplation of death and dying makes that much richer a full participation in life and living.”
That quote comes from one of my professors at UCLA. I had to take a sociology class as part of my requirements the first year I transferred in and, being the ray of sunshine I am, I enrolled in a 101 level class titled “Death and Suicide.”
I didn’t realize until I sat down to write this piece and fired up the Google that I had had the privilege of learning from a true and early authority on suicide. Edwin Shneidman “founded the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center in the 1950s. The center, where he was co-director, offered research, training and suicide prevention services and became the prototype for such centers in the United States and abroad … [He was also] the chief of the first national suicide prevention program, at the National Institute of Mental Health; founded the American Association of Suicidology; and was the first professor of thanatology (the study of death) at the University of California, Los Angeles.”
He was also a member of the team that performed a then new practice — psychological autopsy — on Marilyn Monroe, ruling her death a suicide.
I’m sitting here at my dining room table with two of his books. They were, of course, required for his class (smart author.) Although I’ve gotten rid of hundreds of books over the years, I have carted Voices of Death and Definition of Suicide from LA to Portland to Vermont and between more apartments and houses than I can reliably count. I remember feeling like my brain was continuously shifting and being molded in his class. He tackled perceptions and reactions surrounding suicide, including “How could a parent do that to their children?” He discussed how in suicidal ideation a person could think “I’ll show them” — without fully grasping they wouldn’t be there to witness the fruits of their revenge. He approached suicide and death as final as final gets, no white light, no seeing your dead grandpa. End scene.
I loved that class.
I have pulled these quite-literally-dusty books off my shelf and am digging back into Definition of Suicide for the first time in 31 years. It feels like suicide is everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. I feel like I’m trying to learn or listen or read my way out of the despair it keeps bringing.
My first encounter with suicide came a couple years after that class. My roommate and I were driving in her convertible VW Rabbit to our first ad agency jobs on Miracle Mile in LA (truly, Mad Men could not pen a better location.) No doubt we were yakking it up and listening to some truly dumbass music — no partners, no families, no idea what life would hold, the proverbial not a care in the world. I remember us zipping down Wilshire when it suddenly felt like we hit a pool of cartoon molasses, driving in slow motion. We approached then drove past first responders arriving for a man who had jumped from a high rise. He was on his back, his hands curled permanently into talons like a bird off its perch. I don’t remember if I saw his face, I don’t remember much else, I don’t want to remember. As we sped down the block I craned my head to look up at how tall that building was; I tried to pry my way into his thoughts as he leapt. For days and weeks and still now I wonder why, why, why. All these years later I imagine him whispering back because I had to, because the pain was unbearable, because what else could I do?
Three decades later I worry over that word — why — often. Those of us who live here in Vermont have a dark sense of humor when it comes to surviving this place. Even the idea of referring to it as “surviving” is its own bleak joke. But truth be told, it’s a brutal landscape with brutal weather and brutal economics. It’s rural and isolating. Addiction and poverty don’t just exist in pockets here and there, but everywhere. You won’t see that on a postcard. And sure yes, we are greeted with glorious fall foliage and summer swimming holes and fresh blueberries to pick straight off the bushes in the blanket-thick hot days of August. But that doesn’t mean it’s a forgiving place. Vermont has one of the highest suicide rates in the country.
In contrast to my own experience of first knowing of a suicide — and a suicide of a stranger at that — in my twenties, my kids have been aware of suicide since they were in the 2nd and 4th grades. The mother of my daughter’s classmate died by suicide the summer before they would enter third grade. “Shock” doesn’t begin to describe the ripples of disbelief and despair that rippled out from that news. She was successful, a law professor, a commentator for VPR, a capital S success. She was the only parent I regularly had this thought about: “No one has it more together than her.” She wasn’t just high powered but present — warm, engaging, there for literacy breakfasts in the morning and school events in the evening, and one thousand percent polished. She was one of the few adults who dressed like an actual adult with a real job while the rest of us rolled into school drop off with our sloshing coffee mugs and unbrushed teeth.
I’m not providing these details about her because I knew her well (I didn’t.) It’s because her husband chose to be publicly open in the wake of her death — specifically about her depression and by questioning if a waiting period for purchasing a gun would’ve prevented this tragedy.
Suicide, depression, guns. It is a Hell soup. But his openness? A gift.
Since her death there have, of course, been more. The first co-worker and friend my husband had in Vermont died by suicide a little over a year ago. Another parent at my kids’ former elementary school, only months ago. And less than two months ago, a suicide still too tender for me to process. Perhaps it always will be.
This has all sent me down a fairly obsessive path of reading and clicking and talking. My kids and I have talked more about suicide in the past several weeks than we did in the previous fourteen years combined. I have cried as I’ve spoken, I have begged them to keep talking to me, to connect with someone/anyone because it doesn’t have to be me, to never consider hurting themselves (knowing full well if they find themselves in the grips of depression, “considering” what to do would certainly be a luxury, wouldn’t it?) I have tried to emphasize to them that so much of what they’re experiencing right now — middle school, hello — while being intense is also temporary. But isn’t every experience in life, no matter your age, temporary when you get right down to it? We’ve attended a documentary and panel discussion on suicide. And now I’m putting my old suicide books (there’s a phrase for you, “my old suicide books”) back in rotation.
Lately it feels like the specter of suicide surrounds us. The stories that fill us with despair so profound we find ourselves weeping for strangers. The high-achieving, happy-seeming, fully engaged high school student with her whole life ahead of her. An Olympic athlete, just 23 years old. Students who survived the Parkland shooting then die by suicide a year later. The father of a first grader who died at Sandy Hook, who turned his grief and pain into advocacy.
I don’t need to continue this grim list. We all have our own lists. What I’m here to do is share some of the resources I found in my (somewhat) obsessive research over the past month. Perhaps you’ll find them helpful. Perhaps, like me, you’ll dig into the YA reading list first and discover the fantastic The Astonishing Color of After.
In the meantime I offer a heartfelt 30-years-later thank you to Professor Schneidman, one of the very few professors who actually managed to teach me something about life, through death. He opened my eyes to a new perspective I was able to take with me, far beyond that oppressively sunny UCLA campus. It’s because of him I have never said of a parent who died by suicide, “How could he/she/they do that to their children?” He died in 2009 at the age of 91. I suppose he knows all the truths now, including if it all really just goes to black.
- An excellent and specific article full of insights and advice in The Washington Post, “Teen suicides are on the rise. Here’s what parents can do to slow the trend.” An excerpt: “When talking about adolescent suicide, half the time we’re talking about kids who are depressed, and half the time we’re talking about kids who are impulsive.”
• The documentary “The S-Word.” Didn’t quite expect to laugh as much as I did (don’t worry, there was still plenty of crying.) This documentary does a great job of widening the lens beyond the white / upper class narrative. And it will always have my respect for the suicide survivor who jokingly introduced the hashtag #SuicideSoWhite.
• From Chicago Public Library, “Suicide Awareness Month / YA Books Dealing with Suicide”: “Included in this list are YA books that deal with suicide, generally within the topic of illness, mental and physical. These books provide perspective and solidarity, as well as examples of trauma and healing. Hope is important, and no one is alone. In an effort to maintain realistic, diverse integrity, included genres, characters, and forms include realism, comics, poc, lgbtq+, and nonfiction books to assist with mental health. In addition, due to the complex subject, books include a range of point of view, from survivor, friends, family, and more. Finally, articles over suicide x lit and mental health are included towards the bottom along with nonfiction items.”
• From The Oregonian: “Oregon newsrooms team up on suicide awareness/prevention reporting” — An excerpt: “‘Journalists stopped covering suicide for some very good reasons … But the unintended consequence of that is that suicide has remained unreported, and death by suicide has been on the rise so much so that it’s become a public health crisis.’ The issue has prompted reporters in Oregon, which has a suicide rate 40% higher than the national average, to take a different approach to tackling the topic. Over 30 newsrooms from around the state are banding together in an unprecedented, weeklong reporting collaboration to shed light on suicide and its effect on the community. The project, known as ‘Breaking the Silence,’ will run from April 7 to 14 and involve newspapers, TV stations and student media organizations from across Oregon.”
• A helpful and informative episode of Vermont Edition on VPR, “Suicide is the eighth leading cause of death in Vermont, claiming more lives every year than car accidents in our state. And Vermont’s young people die by suicide at one of the highest rates in the country. We’re talking with doctors and researchers about effective suicide prevention.” Listen here: “What Vermont Can Do To Curb The High Rate of Suicides.”
• A frank piece by a young writer on Her Campus, “It’s Not Just 13 Reasons Why: Problems with Suicide in YA Fiction.” An excerpt: “As a sexual assault survivor and someone who struggles with PTSD and depression, I understand suicide and suicidal thoughts on a very personal level. Reading 13 Reasons Why was a frustrating, upsetting experience. In many ways, 13 Reasons Why is an example of a narrative that encourages teenage girls that suicide is beautiful.”
This piece was adapted from my newsletter, AMATEUR HOUR. You can subscribe here. Each newsletter is typically much, much lighter than this one and also includes links to excellent, interesting, funny, or just plain bOnKeRs things I’ve come across.