Last September I placed a call to speak to suicide survivors. I chose to tackle a personal topic that carries a heavy social stigma as part of our Reportera Series. I was not sure if anyone would respond—I knew firsthand that it was a private issue for most families and probably even more so in Latino communities. My grief still raw—I was determined to figure out a way to dissect the source of my most disempowering life experience. The call was followed by a level of silence and I chose to do what I have occasionally done in writing and reporting–sometimes you just have to wait and let the story unfold at its own pace.
A close friend that has recently dealt with this very issue in her life, expressed wonder as to how I could be so open about it. So, I thought maybe it was a good starting point for me to explain why I chose to talk about becoming a suicide survivor on a public platform?
First, a story about my mom:
As a teen, I once accompanied my mother to a friend’s apartment. Her friend was overweight, tired and unable to reach her feet and properly care for them. As a result, she had festering calluses and they were a source of a lot of pain. My mother took a plastic pan, filled it with warm water, poured Epson salt and had her friend soak her feet. She then sat across from her friend, spread a towel on her lap and proceeded to take each swollen and battered foot and began to slowly massage it, slough away the rough skin and offer words of encouragement.
At the time, a squeamish youth, I watched in quiet horror but in retrospect I recognize that my mother was providing her friend with the gift of love and care.
I saw this same friend at my mother’s funeral. She offered her condolences and in her puzzled grief quietly inquired about the cause of her friend’s death. Not many people had asked me directly, but because I knew she was my mother’s friend I decided to be honest. When I told her my mother died by suicide she physically retreated in shock—as if it was a contagious plague or curse. It was a reaction that initially caused me pain, then anger and finally sadness because it helped me realize that my mother’s community of peers—immigrant and working class—is not having an informed dialogue. I suspect that its ingrained religious and cultural views that may prevent them to consider a more scientific view that concludes that suicide is the result of a mental or emotional disorder. My mother suffered from depression and anxiety, pretty common conditions, one study found that one in five adults has a mental illness but these are topics that we don’t talk about.
Perhaps its a lack of understanding. I admit that my awareness of mental health prior to losing my mother was limited. I had misconceptions of mental illness, I thought it had to be extreme–think media imposed clichés. But what resonates with me now is an aunt’s description of depression–subtle, silent and as toxic as carbon monoxide. I now understand that mental health can be compromised by a spectrum of conditions and they can be obvious or illusive.
Something else that I recently discovered is that the suicide rate has risen steadily in the last ten years. I was already familiar with a study released some time back that revealed Latina teens were at higher risk, however the Centers for Disease Control does not differentiate between genders and reports that, “Native American and Hispanic youth [have] the highest rates of suicide-related fatalities. A nationwide survey of youth in grades 9-12 in public and private schools in the U.S. found Hispanic youth were more likely to report attempting suicide than their black and white, non-Hispanic peers.”
According to the American Association of Suicidology, for each suicide there are an average of 6 survivors. I don’t have enough fingers to count the people impacted by my mother’s death. In the days that followed my loss, as non-functional as I was, I arrived to two conclusions: First, I needed therapy to help me cope. Second, I would not let my mother’s suicide become an oppressive weight of shame to carry in addition to the grief. It was a heavy load I saw many loved ones take on and I thought it was a disservice to her memory. I still regret that it will be some time–if ever– before her friend learns to remember my mom as the caring friend she was and not how she died.
One of the greatest gifts that arrived into my hands, was a phone number to the LOSS program at Catholic Charities which provides support and resources for suicide survivors. My therapist knows a lot about suicide—he’s a credible source as a survivor himself—and he gently explains and reminds me that, “People don’t chose to die by suicide—just like they don’t chose to die of cancer—it’s a disease that chooses them.”
Eventually–after placing my call to speak to suicide survivors–messages trickled into my inbox. Some shared their own experience, and some offered encouragement. These texts were quiet, virtual whispers that reminded me of the people that approached me in the days after losing my mom and shared their stories about suicide and mental health issues. They were tid-bits of information that helped me understand that I was not alone—that there were a few out there that understood and shared my situation. I got to sit down and speak with a couple of women and because of the sensitive nature of this topic I allowed and encouraged them to share terms of engagement—maybe, not the best journalistic practice but necessary in ensuring that I honor their stories–I will share a part of those conversations in futures blog posts.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free number, 1-800-273-TALK (273-8255), which is available 24/7, can be used anywhere in the United States, and connects the caller to a certified crisis center near where the call is placed. More information can be found on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org