A Father's Journal / Taking a teaching moment from a suicide
Last October, I wrote a column with Nancy von Euler about suicide. Her 17-year-old daughter, Emma, committed suicide less than three years ago. What I had not told Nancy is that I used her unspeakable horror to my benefit -- I used it as a teaching moment.
My mother had a distant cousin who committed suicide. From the outside, he was a very successful adult. He owned a small chain of stores in the Midwest. My grandmother told the story like this; "He worked on Sundays. He never went to church." She went on to tell a story about him getting a divorce, hardly seeing his family and his eventual suicide. Each sentence in my grandmother's story was punctuated with "and he never went to church." My grandmother put it in a simple frame.
After the column about Emma, people talked to me about trying to find a teaching moment for their kids. They desperately tried to find something, any type of frame to put around it to make some sense out of the senseless tragedy. I found out that people wanted to make some sense of suicide. The wanted to frame it as a chemical imbalance or blame it on the now popular "cyber-bullying." I also put it in a frame and used it almost as a lesson plan.
By everyone's account, Emma was a gifted and popular girl. We saw her perform many times with the Fairfield County Children's Choir. She played musical instruments very well. She was involved in charities. She was the captain of our team for the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life. She seemed so full of energy. When she passed tragically, 2,000 people joined her FaceBook page. Her teachers had loved her. Fellow students had loved her. She had come from a fantastic family.
When I talk to my children about suicide, I feel like I am stealing Emma's story and using it for my own purposes. Here is what I tell my daughters:
Everyone else (like Emma) appears to have it all together. Because you feel your own insecurities, you know that you don't have everything in order. In comparison, they appear to be more popular, smarter, and have more friends than you. The secret, I tell my daughters, is no one has it all together. Nobody is even close. I plead with my daughters that if they are in trouble, reach out to us. Or, if you can't talk to your parents, reach out to someone, anyone. I have said it so many times my daughters lip sync along with me.
Growing up, there was a family that lived near us, the Gustafsons. They were one of those families that you call "Uncle" and "Aunt" even though we were not related. The term neighbor or friend was not enough. Their daughter Judy committed suicide. She was a young single mother. Somehow in a moment of weakness, she felt this was the answer. The destruction from that one act still reverberates in our families today.
I was about 10 years old when Judy called the house that last day. She was looking for my parents. She said she would call back. She didn't. I have always felt strange theorizing that I might have been the last person she talked to. I know there is no way a 10-year-old could have done anything, guessed her mood and done something about it. But still, I wonder about it. What if?
We still remember Judy. When my father passed away a few years ago, one of Judy's brothers brought an album of pictures to the funeral. Many or their photos had us in them, and many of our photos featured the Gustafsons. We went through the albums laughing. Until I discovered Judy's suicide note tucked in the folder at the end of one album
I had never read a suicide note. I thought it would hold some secret. It was on plain notebook paper and was almost mundane. It talked of dinner preparations that no one would eat. It spoke of why she felt that this was the right decision. I was hit with realization that it made no sense. It certainly was not rational. Maybe these tragedies don't have neatly wrapped teaching moments.
I asked Nancy von Euler about teaching moments. "People who want to use Emma's death as a teaching moment need to arm themselves with the good information provided by organizations like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), the Jed Foundation, and the PDV Foundation," she said. "They can support these organizations financially so they can continue to search for answers."
According to the AFSP, at least 90 percent of people who kill themselves have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric illness. Diagnosable but often undiagnosed.
Maybe something can be done.
Thomas Lawlor lives in Southport with his wife and two daughters. His "A Father's Journal" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org