The Cook County medical examiner’s office ruled his death a suicide, but Lewis’ mother, Angel Marshall, openly shared her disbelief and distrust of the ruling.
“My baby did not kill himself,” she said. “You all need to get in that school and look at that stall.”
A police investigation into Lewis’ death continues, but the local news coverage is now focusing on the broader issue of suicide. The front page of the newspaper, countless websites, the news radio programs, afternoon news – suicide spoken of out loud in the same segment as the economy and weather. Does that mean the stigma is gone or is it something else?
As a campus minister, I have walked staff and students through two suicides. The first one was a freshman I vaguely remembered meeting at a new student week event. I got the call in the middle of the night from a frantic student leader. The second one was an upperclassman I did not know. I was out of town at a staff training event (ironically being trained for a new job supervising staff teams) when I was quietly pulled out of a meeting and given the news.
As an adult suicide has touched me several times, but only once was I told up front what had happened. A college friend had gone home for break and did not come back to campus. She had hung herself, perhaps in an attempt to silence the darkness that she had been fighting for sometime.
The other two times were just family deaths until years later when the secret of suicide emerged. A family member who had died decades before I was born died in the midst of familial turmoil, but it was never clear how this person had died. I once heard someone come close. “— died because — was so sad. — died because of the sadness.” It was almost as if the cause of death could be erased the demons would never come back.
Decades later those demons did come back. This time involving the other side of my immediate family. I was simply told that this relative, who was years younger than I, died. No other explanation given despite my obvious question – “How did — die?”
I was pregnant at the time, and I later learned that relatives were concerned that telling me this person had died of suicide would lead to either problems in my pregnancy or somehow adversely affect my child. You see, there are cultural taboos and then there are cultural taboos. There’s eating and drinking cold things after birth taboos and then there are the taboos that follow through the generations. The problem with hiding those family stories and addressing the taboos straight on is that we never really know what we’re running from and where we need to run to.
I started thinking about my family’s relationship and understanding of suicide because the story of a 10-year-old boy’s suicide reminded me that suicide is never expected. It never makes perfect sense, if any sense at all. Yes, my family members may have struggled with undiagnosed depression. Yes, there might have been “signs” and “cries for help”. But at the end of the day those things never neatly lead us to think “Yes, that makes sense.”
The story also reminded me that those who have come closer to suicide than others in some strange way carry a responsibility to break the stigma around suicide, to continue breaking down the cultural barriers to openly talking about death and depression and how the two really can come together. One day I imagine it would be important for me and my sister and my parents and my children to sit down and talk about how depression runs in the family. About how I struggled with thoughts of suicide. About I feared depression was rearing its ugly head in my own children. About how we’ve sought both prayer and counseling therapy. About how the only taboo is believing that not acknowledging suicide will erase it from existence.
So as I glance at the clock and head out to pick up my young boys from school I’m saying a prayer for Angel Marshall and her son’s family and friends. I don’t know what the death investigation will turn up, but hopefully it’s gotten some people talking about suicide and bringing to light that which cannot remain in the dark.
Have any of you been affected by suicide? How have you (or your families) talked about suicide (or not talked about it)? Does a stigma remain on suicide? depression? mental illness? And how does faith or religious beliefs help or cloud the issue?
There are a number of good resources out there, but one I’ve used over and over is Grieving a Suicide by Albert Y. Hsu.