No sooner did I come into this world, that I was affected by suicide. I met my maternal grandmother once and never again. I was much older when I found out that she had actually died by suicide, and my first reaction was a selfish one – I was angry. Angry at her for not allowing me the chance to get to know her, and then angry at myself for feeling this way. Grappling with these feelings might have been not as difficult a task, if only suicide were something people talked about. I often thought about my grandmother. I wondered what she was like, what kind of things she loved, what brought her joy. Most of all I wondered, what made her feel so sad, so alone and lonely… What kind of darkness was she going through that would make her want to stop living and leave this life for good.
There was no one to ask these questions, because suicide is not something about which people are comfortable talking. It is not something you bring up in the open and address and ask about. Instead, it is something to be always neatly tucked away somewhere in the corner of your mind, a dark place as people would have you believe, as you go about your days and move on with your life. And so I did. For many years. I moved on with my life, still quietly wondering about hers.
Then one cold December night, a dear person I had known for years decided to kill herself too. The little town in which I grew up became enveloped in dread and disbelief that this beautiful young girl who seemingly was “fine and happy” decided that life is no longer worthwhile and that she would be better off leaving it as well. People were talking, but not about suicide itself. Not about what could have been done to prevent this or what things could be learned from this to not have it happen to someone else. Not in the sense of why did this girl we all knew and loved feel that there wasn’t anyone or anything to give her hope, if only in the form of an empathic nonjudgmental ear and shoulder on which to cry. Instead, they were talking about how selfish she was to have killed herself without considering how this would affect others, not realizing that, in fact, they were the selfish ones in not considering the feelings she might have had. They were talking about who was to blame, and they were pointing fingers – at her mother, father, brother, friends – not knowing that most people who want to end their life and see no way out do not in fact reach out to their closest, for many reasons, not the least of which is fear of their reaction, fear of judgement. If to anyone at all, they would rather reach out to a stranger, if that stranger is someone who will listen with no stigma and no judgment. Because if you are not to talk about suicide, how can you possibly tell someone who knows you that this is precisely the only way you can see?
Years later the stigma still continues. The silence still continues. And instead of wondering why people I held dear died by suicide, I started to wonder why don’t we speak about this. Why is SUICIDE a word that makes people so uncomfortable? When about 800,000 people attempt suicide in this country every year, meaning that every 38 seconds one person attempts to take their life, what is it about this word that makes people so desperate to avoid it, to shut it out of their reality, as if having it cross our lips will somehow make it more real but keeping it stashed away in our brains will make it less so.
If stigma and silence have been the norm for all these years and the suicide attempts and completed suicides have steadily risen, maybe there is a chance that changing our perspective on this might lead to a much needed change. Maybe if we speak up, if we remove the stigma and start to see suicide as part of reality, as part of this life, as something people think about and consider because they feel there is no other way out of what they are going through, maybe then people who do think about it will also start to think about other ways and begin to see other options. If we speak about it, maybe they will start to feel that it’s alright for them to speak about it too, that they can reach out and open up to someone. And sometimes this is all one needs to reconsider their options – the knowledge that there is someone out there who is willing to hear them, to understand them, to listen without judgment.
So after all these years, I do not feel angry at my grandmother anymore. I feel angry at the time she lived in, because her feeling of not being heard and no option past suicide is the product of that time, and still a product of this time. But I still feel a sense of loss over someone I never really knew and wish I could have known. I feel sadness at the thought of her not having had anyone who could have understood her and helped her find something that she might have judged worthwhile to hold onto in this life.
But from this darkness a spark of light emerged. I couldn’t be there for my grandmother, but maybe I could be there for others. I could find some way to show people that speaking about suicide is acceptable; that reaching out to someone for help is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of courage and greatness. But the only way anyone would reach out is if we show the world that it is alright to ask, that is alright to speak, and alright to speak up.
Maybe I wasn’t old enough or wise enough or skilled enough to save my grandmother. But maybe no one needs saving after all. Maybe all one needs is a safe place to speak and the reassurance that they will no longer be silenced.
So on September 10th, World Suicide Awareness Day, I will be dancing for Moving Together for Hope. I will be part of the movement to break the stigma and replace it with awareness and knowledge that speaking about suicide might be the way to help people who contemplate it. I will dance for all the people who have felt silenced and misunderstood, among them my grandmother. And while my dancing will not help her, it might help others who feel like she felt, who are surrounded by darkness and don’t see the light that might exist for them, if only someone were there for them to let them speak and to understand. And even though I never knew much about my grandmother, I know that she would be proud to know that I am a part of something that would give hope to so many others.
For more information about Move Together For Hope, a virtual 5k movement to raise awareness about mental health and suicide, please visit movetogetherforhope.wordpress.com