December 20, 2019 at 5:00 am | By KIM ANDERSON Special to The Press
North Idaho has a higher-than-average incidence of suicide. There is another obvious but perhaps less talked-about statistic that goes along with our high suicide rates. It is the fact that we also have a higher-than-average incidence of suicide survivors; the families, friends and co-workers of those who die by suicide. I am well aware of this population, because last year my children and I joined it.
In December 2018, my husband of 22 years committed suicide. He left me, our two teenage children, the members of both our families, his friends and many young people he helped coach over the years.
As with many survivors, the anniversary of his suicide and the holidays are especially painful times. A recent submission to The Press, however, helped me see that some might not realize just how painful an offhand comment can be. Although this is very personal, I hope to share how these comments made me feel, and in doing so, respectfully request that we all give extra consideration to how our words might impact the growing number of suicide survivors in our midst.
The article I read was written to criticize Panhandle Health District’s community health needs assessment and its action plan around suicide prevention. Like a slap in the face, I read the author’s speculation regarding the art that accompanied the article. The art depicted a man with his head in his hands and was obviously intended to convey a soul in pain. As I read the article, I imagined a man — like the one in the illustration, or perhaps my husband — sitting alone in mental anguish while the writer, or any one of us for that matter, looked him up and down then asked, “What’s the matter buddy? Did your washing machine break? Are you unhappy with your tattoo? Land-use code got ya down?”
The question that haunts every suicide survivor is, “why?” It is the one question that can never be answered, because the only person who could answer it is now gone. Frankly, even if they were still alive they might not be able to fully answer that question themselves.
Attempts to distill “why” down to a single reason doesn’t really capture the humanity of the person who died. You may just as well try to analyze why two people fall in love, or why some people prefer the color blue more than green. Certainly there is a science we can try to quantify, but there is a mystery our finite minds have yet to understand.
Kindness No. 1 to survivors. Please don’t ask them to explain “why,” or assume the event that triggered the suicide was the real or only reason “why.”
I went on to read the critique of the homes, families and friends of those who commit suicide. “What’s going on in those households? For some reason nobody has any idea of the future self-inflicted death. How can that be? Are there really no signs? Are people all so separated now by social media that there are no more social cues?”
The implication that a loved one’s suicide was somehow triggered by a miserable, obtuse family is as insensitive to the survivors as sneering speculations about broken washing machines and bad tattoos.
Many who commit suicide are plagued with pain and depression for years. To blame friends and family for not noticing that day 6,278 of their loved one’s struggle is somehow going to be different from the 6,277 preceding days is both uninformed and presumptuous. This assumption is especially offensive because I know there are many loving, wonderful homes in which a child has committed suicide. Believe me when I say those parents and siblings deserve better from the members of our community than pointing fingers and unfounded judgment.
Kindness No. 2 to survivors. Please don’t assume they are somehow to be blamed.
The most genuine comment in the article was the fact that we simply don’t know why so many people here commit suicide. There probably are as many multi-layered, complex reasons as there are suicide deaths, which leaves us with a couple of options. We can throw up our hands and do nothing, or we can keep trying to help.
There are many mental health and health care professionals putting their hearts and souls into finding a solution. However, like most complex problems, the solution may be equally complex and it will take time to feel the results.
If you believe you have special insight into a way to help, or you just want to lend your fresh energy to the fight, come alongside the people who are doing the work rather than criticizing.
Kindness No. 3 to survivors. Please don’t throw stones at the efforts of those who are working to help.
I do not know what might have motivated someone to publicly criticize individuals who commit suicide, their families and the work being done in our community on suicide prevention. However, with so many suicide survivors in our midst, it will be a great kindness for our community to learn how survivors’ feelings might differ from our own, or from those who have lost loved ones to illness, accident or old age.
If you genuinely want insight into the experience, read Carla Fine’s excellent book, “No Time to Say Goodbye, Surviving the Suicide of a Loved One.” Speak with people in the mental health profession to learn what is being done and what more is needed. Offer to help a family that has lost a loved one. I will be forever grateful to the countless people who reached out to my children and me, helped with the details of the funeral, sent flowers, wrote notes of love and encouragement, delivered meals, visited us at our home, and most of all, took the time to love us and just listen, with kindness.
I am only one year into this journey and I can speak only for myself, but my heart knows the great need our community’s suicide survivors have for the healing that comes through kindness from others. It is a point of pride that so many people in North Idaho are known for being friendly, generous and kind.
Until the day comes when we can put the anguish of suicide behind us, let’s learn these new forms of kindness and extend them to those who need them the most.
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Kim Anderson is a Coeur d’Alene resident.