“Newsworthy suicides”: That’s what they told us we could cover at my first newspaper job when I was 19. That meant, I learned, “the private suicide of a public figure or the public suicide of a private figure.” I worked the education beat, so I never covered any “newsworthy suicides.”
But like many budding journalists, I did a stint on the obituary desk, where I was handed these guidelines: “If the family does report suicide as the cause of death, then try to obtain more specific information (i.e., died of a drug overdose, a self-inflicted gunshot wound, asphyxiation). If the family asks that the cause of death not be included, then we will honor that request. When speaking with family, be sure to be extremely courteous, considerate and empathetic. And make sure that any decision to talk about the suicide is the family’s and that family members don’t feel forced or obligated to comment.”
I bristled at the “try to obtain more specific information” because I was thinking like a surviving family member and not as a journalist – journalists have to be curious, have to ask questions, I get that – although how you can make “be extremely courteous, considerate and empathetic” jibe with “try to obtain more specific information” is beyond me.
As the only surviving one of my father’s three children, sometimes I just don’t tell people I have any siblings, but when I decide to open up and tell people that I had two siblings, both of whom are now dead, any response beyond, “Oh, I’m so sorry” bugs the crap out of me.
But many people don’t stop there. Many people say, “How’d they die?” and when I answer that my sister died of chronic alcoholism and my brother committed suicide, there is a subset of ¬extra-nosy people who will ask the manner of suicide. I used to answer honestly because I was too naïve/polite to realize I had a choice. But after you’ve told dozens of prying assholes that your brother hanged himself, only to be told, “Oh, man, what an awful way to die. I would never kill myself that way” … well, you start to realize that you are perfectly allowed to raise an eyebrow and say, “I’d rather not talk about that” and if you do it right, you get across the message of, “How rude of you to even ask!” without having to come right out and say it.
Anyway, back then, back in the summer of 2000, I wanted nothing more than to be a journalist, and that meant writing whatever they asked me to write, and what they asked me to write, mostly, were obituaries. The first 20 obituaries I wrote were easy. I mean, not easy; death is never easy. But these were older people, sick people, people who were expected to die. And then one morning, a funeral home notice landed in my inbox for a 37-year-old man. “This is a young one,” my editor said gruffly, reading over my shoulder. “Be sure you get a cause of death. Looks like his sister is the only survivor. Call her up, ask her what happened.”
I hate calling people on the phone, even people I know. Calling a grieving stranger was definitely not in my comfort zone (this is a large part of why I ultimately went into magazine editing instead of news reporting). But this was my job, so I took a deep breath and dialed.
The woman who answered the phone was clearly in the deep, dark depths of sorrow. She was in such a haze of grief that I would be surprised if she even remembers talking to me, more than a decade later. But she did talk to me, for more than a half-hour. Her brother, she told me, her voice breaking, had killed himself after a lifetime of alcohol abuse and depression. “When he was happy, there was no one happier,” she said. “My name is Daisy, you know, and when he was happy, he used to always sing that song to me: ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do” – you know the one? But when he was sad, no one could pull him out of it. I tried; I tried; God knows I tried …”
I didn’t open up to her about my brother, whose life and death sounded remarkably similar. This wasn’t about me. I just held the phone and listened and took notes whenever she said something that sounded quotable. My editor hovered nearby, occasionally tapping his watch at me.
“Good Lord,” he said when I hung up. “That took long enough. Did you get the COD?”
“Yes,” I told him. “It was a suicide. I’ll write it up in five minutes. Just give me enough time for a bathroom break, OK?”
And then I fled to the bathroom, locked myself in a stall, and cried as if my heart was breaking. I had held it together on the phone with Daisy, but now I was sobbing, disgusting gulpy sobs that I couldn’t seem to stop. It was so close to home, too close, and even though I had managed, through sheer force of stupid will, to remain professional on the phone and in the newsroom, I had spent the entire interview not just “being empathetic” but being pulled into the pain with her, pulled back into the emotions of sudden and excruciating loss.
Surviving the suicide of a loved one is a particular kind of awful. The guilt is overwhelming; so is the shame. You’re angry, but you feel guilty for feeling angry because you’re angry at a dead person whom you’re mourning. You feel strangely defensive about the loss, like you failed somehow to keep this person alive; you also feel like people who lost their loved ones to cancer or accidents – people whom they always describe as “loving life” and “full of passion” – must resent the fact that the person you’re grieving threw away a seemingly healthy life for no valid reason. There are just so many feelings.
When I was in college, I wrote this for the school paper, and it’s just as true today as it was when I wrote it:
And here's the thing: I used to wish that my brother had died heroically, dashing into a burning building to save a baby, or even just normally, of leukemia or in a car crash. But he didn't. He killed himself when I was 7, and over the years, I've come to terms with that. It's part of my story, and it's the ending he chose for his, and it doesn't make his death any less valid or my grief any less real.
When I was in seventh grade, the brother of one of my classmates committed suicide. The classmate was a boy I'd had a crush on since third grade, a boy I always got tongue-tied around. He made straight A's and brilliant observations; he played piano and starred in school musicals.
When he returned to school, our mutual friends dragged me over to his side. "You know about suicide, Eve," they said. "Talk to him."
"Hi," I said to him, in almost a whisper.
"Hi," he said back.
"They want me to talk to you," I said.
"I know," he said.
And then we stood side by side for several minutes, not talking, not looking at each other. For once, it wasn't that I was nervous or embarrassed or shy. That's just the reality of suicide. Sometimes, there's just nothing to say, nothing to make it better, and all the survivors can do is stand silent.
In retrospect, suicide seems so preventable. If only I'd had breakfast with him that morning, if only I'd held his hand for a few minutes longer, if only, if only, if only. But I was only 7, and I could barely tie my shoes.
Obviously, I’ve been thinking about all of this, remembering it, because of the recent suicide of Robin Williams. Many people have used his death as a chance to discuss mental health, addiction, substance abuse, depression – all of which are extremely important. I am lucky that I have never struggled with either addiction or depression personally, but my life has been touched by it in many ways. Some people have also warned that we need to be careful not to glamorize suicide, and I agree with that, too.
My perspective whenever there is a “newsworthy suicide,” however, is always 100 percent that of a survivor. And the thing about survivors is that we survive.
So on that afternoon back in the summer of 2000, I stopped crying, I washed my face, and I went back into the newsroom to tell Daisy’s brother’s story. I typed it up and filed it on time. I made sure I gave him dignity and humanity. I tried to get across Daisy’s love for him without making her sound like an object of pity. I did the best I could as a nervous 19-year-old who had just had a secret ugly cry in the bathroom – and I’d like to think I did even better than that.
I would also like to think that all these years later, even if she has no memory of talking to me, that she still has a copy of that newspaper obituary I wrote. And I’m glad that I was the one on the obit desk that morning to write it, both for her and for me.
The other eager young reporters at the paper had no doubt read the same handbook I had, but I think I had a unique understanding of the fact that from a certain perspective, even a “private suicide of a private figure” can seem pretty damn earth-shakingly newsworthy.
Sometimes there is nothing we can say, and all we can do is stand silent. But I am still honored, all these years later, that this one time, I got to do at least a tiny bit more.