Julie K. Hersh

Struck By Living

Don't Omit from the Obit

Can honesty in obituaries help prevent suicide?

Posted May 29, 2010

Don't Omit from the Obit

On my local NPR station (KERA) Friday morning, Bill Holston's southern drawl mourned the loss of a friend to suicide (http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/kera/news.newsmain/article/0/0/1655936...). His talk moved me so much I googled Bill and picked up the phone. He answered. Our conversation crystallized a thought that has rumbled in my head: don't omit from the obit. As long as we disguise deaths by mental illness, we perpetuate a disease that kills.

I understand why people mask suicide. Some religions won't bury their dead if the surviving family is honest about the cause of death. Often life insurance policies have exemptions for suicide. Shame plays a role. Social standing must be protected. Families are hurt and want privacy. No one wants the blame for death or to have her family dynamic scrutinized as the reason.

As one has attempted suicide, I can assure you that often there is not a logical reason. A suicidal person perceives the world would be a better place without her. Mental illness distorts thinking. Through the foggy lens of depression, death appears a logical, even a moral choice. The survivors can't understand why the death occurred because they can't see the world through that distorted lens. Why punish the survivors more with full disclosure of suicide?

As painful as it might be, honesty allows something positive to emerge from a devastating loss. Omission of the real cause of death allows mental illness to remain impersonal, a silent killer. The 33,000 people who annually die by suicide in the US remain the other guys, not me, not anyone I know. Omission prevents awareness, which inhibits funding for research. Omission allows the uneducated to remain uneducated, discarding mental illness as some idleness of the rich and famous or a character flaw; not a real disease.

Recently I read a book that stated a suicidal mind is not mentally ill. I disagree. As humans with large brains, we sometimes forget that we are animals with a natural instinct to survive. If someone plots and executes his or her own death, the brain has malfunctioned, as real as a heart attack. I call this brain failure mental illness.

A friend from high school, Bibb Frazier, recently lost his son to suicide. Bibb openly told people that his son died of bipolar disease. Bravo, Bibb. My guess is Bibb's courageous act has saved a life. Someone listened, realized mental illness is a deadly disease and got help. Someone else called or interfered with a friend who had isolated himself and prevented that final disconnection. Bibb sacrificed his privacy, but saved lives and honored his son. His noble gesture deserves emulation.

In my phone conversation with Bill Holston Friday morning, Bill recalled a funeral he attended several years ago. The pastor spoke glowingly about the deceased to a large crowd, but failed to mention the person died by suicide. "I just feel like that was a missed opportunity," Bill said. I agree. Don't omit from the obit. Be honest. Be like Bibb.

For an update on the Struck by Living book tour, check out my website:

 (http://www.struckbyliving.com)

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