*Warning: This post discusses suicide and may be difficult for some to read. If you or someone you know has talked about suicide or is in need of emotional support, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255, or get more information or help here.
Suicide is a subject that is close to my heart. I grew up tip-toeing around the topic of my uncle’s suicide. It was an event that nearly destroyed my grandmother, and left our entire family reeling. It was hard for my family to come to terms with the realization that he had been suffering; that he had so much emotional pain that he felt the only choice left was to end his life.
I did not have the privilege of knowing my uncle August (called Ole by those who loved him); although I was told he was outgoing, charming, bright, friendly, and creative. I wasn’t even aware that my uncle had died from suicide until I was nearing junior high. My mom told my brother and me that Ole didn’t die from an illness as we had been told. When Ole was about 21 years old, he shot himself in the basement at home while my Grandma Edith did the dishes upstairs.
The shock of losing her oldest son coupled with my grandfather being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis at about the same time sent my Grandma Edith into a tailspin. In the wake of Ole’s death, she was hospitalized for severe depression and anxiety. After working hard to bring my grandmother back from ‘the edge’, my family seemed to develop an unspoken agreement to avoid speaking about the circumstances of his death.
A Mother’s Pain
My mother told us what had happened to Ole and then asked us to have compassion for our grandmother. I could see clearly from the look on my mom’s face that she could empathize as a mother herself. And after becoming a mom, I now recognize that all mothers are capable of identifying with the deep grief and intense pain that losing a child would bring. We are able to understand how my grandmother’s heart shattered the day that Ole died.
And I can understand why it was so tough for her to hear about his death; why it was necessary to continue that façade for my grandma’s sake. I kept the family secret. My Grandma Edith was just as much involved in raising me as my parents were. That is how we do things as Lakota people. And I loved her far too much to ask a question or make a statement that would hurt her.
The Truth of What Happened
After my grandma passed away my dad was able to share openly about his experience with his brother’s death. He described the horrendous task of cleaning the carpet in the basement that night; about how he had wanted to erase the physical reminder of what happened there. He remembers feeling a lot of confusion. My dad acknowledged that his brother had problems, but he recalls having a conversation with Ole just a few days before his death about the future.
Other family members started opening up and sharing memories of Ole. One of the cousins shared how Ole came racing into their place one afternoon, attempting to elude the police after a mental health hold that had been ordered for him. My cousin’s voice shook while describing the confusion and fear felt as Ole was having a manic episode and rambling incoherently. They ended up riding along with the police who transported Ole to the state hospital in Yankton, South Dakota.
As a behavioral health professional, I can’t communicate how traumatizing that would have been for an adolescent; and how painful it must have been to not be able to talk about that experience for years.
We Need to Talk About Suicide
Gaining all this new information about Ole’s death has had me thinking about the topic of suicide and all the stigmas surrounding it. I’ve also thought about the many other people I have lost to suicide. It has been a reminder of the urgency to have conversations about mental health.
I recognized that something was missing from the conversation around the topic of suicide. How it affects the loved ones of the person who committed suicide. Communities often fail to support the loved ones of someone who completes suicide.
I have colleagues who refer to bouts with mental illness, substance use, and the loss of a loved one from suicide as the ‘no casserole’ situations. We love to bring food to the homes of our neighbors and friends when they experience an illness in their family or a loss…unless it involves an element of discomfort, like in the case of a suicide. Even when there are casseroles, the compassion and the extension of unconditional support is not always as freely given as it would be in other circumstances.
We can do so much better than that. We need to do so much better than that to support those affected by a loved one’s suicide. I feel that this topic couldn’t go out to a better audience than moms. We are not just mothers to our own children, but to so many other children in the community.
Casseroles & Compassion
What can we as moms do? You can have your son reach out to that friend of his that hasn’t seemed quite like himself recently. And remind your daughter that if someone at school looks defeated or sad, she can be kind and inclusive.
If you know of a family has lost a loved one to mental illness, drug, or alcohol abuse, and you find out that their get that casserole ready and pack your best compassion in the carrier right along with it.
If you or someone you know has talked about suicide or is in need of emotional support, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255, or get more information or help here.