Last week, a former colleague emailed me wondering if I had heard about another writer from our we know who had died last summer. Shocked, I immediately looked up his obituary online. The obit said he had passed away on a Saturday afternoon in August. He was 65.
As I read further into the obituary, my shock deepened -- and my sadness:
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
It’s not often that you see the word "suicide" printed in an obituary; in this case it wasn’t listed as cause of death but the suggestion to donate to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention indicated as much.
When one reads “died suddenly” or “passed unexpectedly” without further explanation, one often suspects suicide, albeit sometimes incorrectly. In recent months, I have read, “struggled with depression,” “had fought demons” or “could not find peace here” in obituaries for those who've died by suicide. With suicide the 10thleading cause of death in the U.S. – according to the Centers for Disease Control – the numbers and instances are too frequent (and increasing) to ignore.
People who have been bereaved by suicide face many questions during a time of unimaginable grief, misplaced guilt and 'what ifs.' One of the hardest may be how to explain what is most often referred to simply as a “sudden” death. Increasingly, though, it seems that many parents, spouses and children of those who take their own lives are opening up about the cause of death.
In Don't Omit from the Obit, PsychologyToday.com blogger Julie Hersh (author of Struck By Living: From Depression to Hope) writes, “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 also 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.”
She goes on to say that even though painful, being honest about the cause of death “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.”
Hersh described a case in point involving the son of a friend from high school.
Austin Betts Frazier, a junior at James Madison University in Virginia, committed suicide in 2009. In a follow up story that ran in the Daily News Recordin Staunton, writer Kate Elizabeth Queram, described the dilemma Austin’s dad, Bibb Frazier, faced: “He could be purposely vague about how the 22-year-old died, or he could say, straightforwardly, that it was suicide, caused by his son’s battle with bipolar disorder.” Frazier chose to be open.
Our son, Austin Betts Frazier, died Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2009, at his grandparent’s home. He succumbed to a quiet, insidious disease: Bi-Polar disorder. Austin suffered valiantly from the ravages of this physically transparent illness since early adolescence. Bi-Polar is incurable and as deadly as cancer or heart disease. It is a disease of the mind and one’s mental outlook.
Said Frazier: “… I chose, in this case, to do something to make people think about a very real problem. This is a situation where it’s best just to be honest and try to save some lives in the future."
His friend Hersh wrote: “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.”
Such openness is valuable. Whether written in a newspaper obituary or revealed in a funeral or memorial service that is honest about the life that has been lost, the wake-up call could save someone else’s life.
Here are a few suggestions, adapted from eHow.com, on writing an obituary for someone who has died by suicide:
1. Begin the obituary with a simple statement such as "John Doe passed away at his home on May 1, 2011." You can leave out the location, if need be.
2. While it is acceptable to not include the cause of death, consider mentioning it briefly. Including a reference to suicide as the cause of death helps to raise awareness of an issue that is more prevalent than people might think, and could help save a life.
3. Include standard obituary information: date and place of birth, parents, schools and degrees, employment, military service, achievements, marriages, children, other immediate surviving family members, and those immediate family members who have preceded in death. Also be sure to include funeral service details.
4. Stay focused on the positive aspects of the person's life. A paragraph about accomplishments, interests, or special attributes always is appropriate. This could include mention of the suicide in a brief way, such as "John will always be remembered for his courage during difficult times, and even though he took his life we know he is at rest (without pain) now."
5. Suggest a donation to a suicide prevention group or hotline. Memorial donations can create a lasting and positive legacy for the loved one who has died.
Susan Soper is the founder and author of ObitKit™, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she was formerly the Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief" shortly after her father died. Susan lives in Atlanta with her husband.