It saddens me to see that three people — one a 12-year-old boy — chose to end their lives in recent days.
Most of you heard about legendary “Soul Train” creator Don Cornelius. The other suicides are Mike Kelley, a famous artist who worked with the band Sonic Youth, and, most heartbreaking to me, 12-year-old Clifford Rodrigues of New Bedford, Mass.
According to WCVB Channel 5 News, emergency responders found Clifford Rodrigues, 12, unconscious. An uncle said family members tried to revive the boy after he was found hanging upstairs. EMTs also tried to resuscitate the boy, but he was later pronounced dead at St. Luke’s Hospital.
I share the sentiments of my friend Joe Yuska, who wrote on Facebook, “I don’t care if he was bullied. I don’t care if he was gay or straight. It just tears me up inside to think that someone at that age is in a spot where that seems like his only option.”
I’ve written a lot about suicide in this blog because a close friend lost his life that way and there’s a lot of misinformation out there about what drives a person to end it. The rest of this post retreads ground I’ve covered before, but it’s necessary to put these tragedies into perspective.
First, for those who tell you suicide is a trip straight to hell, here’s a little clarification. My friend Linda, herself a person of strong Catholic Faith, recently sent me a passage from the Catechism of the Catholic Church that shows that suicide isn’t the trip to eternal damnation many in the church would have us believe:
“2282 Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.
2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”
In other words, when a person chooses to end it, they are usually in a place where the brain has ceased to function in a way where they are capable of rational thought. That’s the sickness. The suicide is where the victim succumbs to the illness.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s something for those left behind. It’s a list of things to keep in mind as you move forward and try to make sense of what has happened.
–Blaming yourself is pointless. No matter how many times you replay events in your mind, the fact is that it’s not your fault. For one thing, it’s impossible to get into the head of someone who is contemplating suicide. Sure, there are signs, but since we all get the blues sometimes, it’s very easy to dismiss the signs as something close to normal. When someone is loud in contemplating suicide, it’s usually a cry for help. When the depressed says nothing and even appears OK, it’s usually because they’ve made their decision and are in the quiet, planning stages.
–Blaming each other is even more pointless. Take it from me: Nerves in your circle of family and friends are so raw right now that it won’t take much for relationships to snap into pieces. A week after my friend’s death I wrote a column about it, revealing what in hindsight was too much detail. His family was furious and most of them haven’t talked to me since. They feel I was exploiting his death to advance my writing career and get attention. What I’ve learned, and this is tough to admit, is that you’re going to have to let it go when the finger pointing starts. It’s better not to engage the other side. Nobody is in their right mind at this point, so go easy on each other. Give people space to make their errors in judgment and learn from it.
–Don’t demonize the dead. When a friend takes their life, one of the things that gnaws at the survivors is the notion that — if there is a Heaven and Hell — those who kill themselves are doomed to the latter. I’m a devout Catholic, so you can bet your ass this one has gone through my mind. What I’ve learned though, through my own experiences in the years since, is that depression is a clinical disease. When you are mentally ill, your brain isn’t firing on all thrusters. You engage in self-destructive behavior even though you understand the consequences. A person thinking about suicide is not operating on a sane, normally-functioning mind. So to demonize someone for taking their own life is pointless. To demonize the person, you have to assume they were in their right mind at the time of the act. And you know they weren’t. My practice today is to simply pray for those people, that their souls will still be redeemed and they will know peace. It’s really the best you can do.
– Break the stigma. One of the friends left behind in this latest tragedy has already done something that honors her friend’s life: She went on Facebook and directed people toward the American Association of Suicidology website, specifically the page on knowing the warning signs. That’s a great example of doing something to honor your friend’s memory instead of sitting around second guessing yourself. The best thing to do now is educate people on the disease so that sufferers can help themselves and friends and family can really be of service.
–On with your own life. Nobody will blame you for not being yourself for awhile. You have, after all, just experienced one of the worst tragedies there is. But try not to let it paralyze you. Life must go on. You have to get on with your work and be there for those around you.
Life can be a brutal thing. But it IS a beautiful thing.