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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

A pall descends

A pall fell over the Memorial Day weekend.  A woman who was a close friend of my daughter's committed suicide.  Suicides produce a darkness of spirit in people who are touched by them.  Surviving friends and acquaintances are devastated.  They question if there was some way they could have helped the victim deal with the agony and misery that drove the person to take one's own life.  

I had met the woman, but did not actually know her.  But I saw the effect her death has had on my daughter and her friends.  My daughter became friends with her in middle school.  Her friends have said she had a rough life in which she endured maltreatment.  She also had a substance addiction, probably as a way of dealing with the distress in her life.  As is the custom in public obituaries, no mention is made of the manner of death or suffering that drove her to it.  It emphasizes the "positive" aspects of her life.  Obituaries customarily avoid the truth.

Suicides are the canaries in our social coal mines.  They signal that poison is in the atmosphere.  People die from the toxins in our society, but our society is too stupid or too brazen to pay attention, to take notice that there is something lethal in our environment.  When bad things happen, we make mutterings about mental health, even though we have no idea about what constitutes good mental health.  So, we have mass shootings regularly which provide opportunities to recite our rituals about thoughts and prayers and mental health and then wait a week or less for the next shooting so we can make our recitation again.  But we don't even know about suicides, because our news media doesn't mention that manner of death in order to keep from adding more anguish to the survivors.  

My acquaintance with suicides occurred when I was working on a newspaper and the reporter who covered county government wrote a story that reported that in a vey short time in the community, the coroners' office had recorded 29 suicides.  Only a few had been reported as such in news reports and published obituaries.  The chief editor of the paper decided that we needed to do an accounting of this many suicides, not by revealing their identities, but by finding out their causes and effects. A team of reporters and editors was assembled to develop the project which turned out to be lengthy and complex.  I was assigned to the team.  We were to see what we could find out about each individual case and try to determine what factors compelled the person to act.  I eventually left the newspaper to go to graduate school, but the editor asked if I would still participate in the project until it was published.  I worked on it when I had time over the years, but it was never published because it was never completed.

We interviewed law enforcement and mental health authorities to obtain a comprehensive background.  Then we searched out relatives, friends, workmates, and any acquaintances of each of the victims who might provide insight into why they chose to die.  We emphasized that no identities would be revealed, but wanted to get details as to causes and effects.  That is where the project bogged down.  Most people did not want to talk about the suicides initially.  Some changed their minds and consented to be interviewed because our project might help them come to terms with the deaths that were a lingering disturbance in their lives.  We consulted with psychologists, lawyers, and clergy about how to conduct the interviews and keep them on an empathetic level.  We were accumulating a tremendous amount of information, but had not reached the point where we could make a coherent summary of it.  A problem was that it was taking so long that there was a turnover of personnel.  Still, the editor and people who worked on the project thought it was important and unique enough that it should be completed in some way.  Somewhere there are boxes of copy files and notes from a project that was too big to ever reach completion.

It took a toll on the people who worked on it.  One of our copy editors who assisted with some interviews ask to be excused from the project because dealing with the ongoing suffering of people was affecting her own emotional health.  Other team members said they also needed a break from the desolation they encountered.  We could feel the despair that the suicides passed on to their survivors, and while we believed that the project would be a significant work of journalism, we recognized that it weighed heavily on our own minds and had many imponderable aspects.  The news of the woman's death over the Memorial weekend cast that same bleakness of spirit that suicides produce among the people who knew of her.

A suicide is the ultimate rejection.  In some cases it results from an illness and the prospect of an agonizing death and is an act of euthanasia.  But in many cases it is a way to put an end to a life that is torturous.  And the survivors are left with the assumption that they were part of the torture or did not offer any relief from it.  It makes them feel that they are the referents in Sarte's line that "hell is other people."  Most suicides  involve a harmful relationship with some people.  We prefer to think we are not those people who do things that influence people to give up their lives.  Still, we feel the sting of rejection when we learn of  a suicide, and it is something that signals to us that something is wrong.

The interviews from that failed journalism project indicated how suicides were deeply unsettling to most people who hear about them.  The sense of rejection, especially in a democracy, projects a failure of society.  A pastor said that when it came to suicide, there really was no comfort that could be offered to the survivors.  Death by suicide is not part of the natural life cycle, but is a conscious and deliberate rejection of it.  Survivors of it have a question branded deep in their very souls:  why?   Even though I did not know the women who died over Memorial Day weekend well, I knew that she was troubled and had some bitter relationships.  She left behind two teenage children.  They will live with a wound that will never heal.

As a society, we have never approached the causes and effects of suicides with the kind of comprehensive effort that we apply to biological pathogens.  It's one of our nation's failures.  As I write this, the news reports that seven people were shot at a high school graduation in Richmond, VA, with two being killed.  Such shootings are so common that many media are not publishing a story about it.  America has some spectacular successes as a country, but it also has some spectacular failures which nullify those successes.  When it comes to keeping people safe from gunfire, our country is at the bottom of the list.  Guns are a common instrument of death in suicides.  They are the highest-ranking cause of death for children.  They are the badge of our nation's moral bankruptcy.  And suicide is a major cause of death.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued this report:

Suicide rates increased approximately 36% between 2000–2021. Suicide was responsible for 48,183 deaths in 2021, which is about one death every 11 minutes. The number of people who think about or attempt suicide is even higher. In 2021, an estimated 12.3 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.5 million planned a suicide attempt, and 1.7 million attempted suicide
While it is important to acknowledge America's successes, its refusal to acknowledge its failures nullifies its successes.  Until America confronts its failures, it will live under the pall of violence.  We have millions of people wishing to get into America, but we also have millions who are thinking about leaving it through death. 

Folks will blithely ignore suicides and say life goes on.  But that's the point. It doesn't.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States