i learned today that a local and well-respected businessman died by suicide. his obituary says otherwise. his obituary says he died “unexpectedly.” it reminds me of my dad, who died nearly 20 years ago.
while it was widely known that my father died by suicide, his obituary stated that he died of “cardiac arrest.” technically, this was true – his heart did stop beating, just as the businessman’s death was indeed unexpected.
two separate deaths, two decades apart – two obituaries technically correct and yet totally wrong.
suicide is loaded. suicide has a lot of baggage. from having been considered a sin in many religions to still being a crime in many countries, it carries the weight of stigma. survivors can feel guilt and fear judgement. what will other people think? what if they blame me? what if they scorn my loved one? so many families, including my own, rearrange the story to make it a little more comfortable for other people.
but what about us? what about the survivors?
i feel that we did a disservice to my dad and our family by hiding his real cause of death. because dying by suicide didn’t change who he was and what he meant to us. the fact that he died by suicide didn’t make him any less smart, any less loving, any less witty than he was. i feel that we could have honored his struggle with depression by openly sharing about his mental health problems and his suicide, rather than sweeping such a significant part of his life under the rug. perhaps telling the whole story could have encouraged someone else to get help.
omitting suicide from his obituary also sent a powerful message to those of us who were left behind. my best friend recently told me that my father’s obituary left her feeling confused and frustrated for years. she couldn’t understand what it meant that his real cause of death was left out. the message sent is that we can’t be completely open, that maybe we have something to be ashamed of. at a time when we deserve support and are reeling from a traumatic loss, the last thing we need is to feel that we “shouldn’t” talk about suicide. by allowing stigma to set the tone we are missing an opportunity to begin healing and grow our understanding of mental illness .
i am not advocating that we need to share every detail of our loved one’s death, whatever the cause may be. we absolutely have a right to our privacy. rather i am gently pushing us to break down the stigma that envelops suicide and its survivors. the subtle act of omitting suicide from an obituary is yet another subtle way that mental health stigma still grips us.
it’s time to send a new message: that openness and honesty about mental health problems and suicide will help us heal, not make us worse. the more we share, the more we will all realize that death by suicide should be treated the same as death by any other cause. and hopefully in another 20 years we will have fewer obituaries about suicide, whether it is mentioned or not.