The Stigma of Suicide

Aquan Lewis was found hanging in a bathroom stall at his elementary school. He was 10 years old.

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.

“…I didn’t do enough…”

I feel the weight of familial guilt, shame and expectations heavily. The older daughter married to a first-born son can’t get away with “I don’t feel like it” or “I can’t fit that into my schedule”. I try. Believe me. I try. But the danger of living a bicultural existence relatively detached on a daily basis from the direct implication of said existence is that I begin to think I am the only one in my family who feels the weight. I may think and experience life a bit differently but most mornings when I rushing out the door to work or to drop the kids off, life is less bicultural and more chaotic.

Anyway, the other day I was on the phone with my mother talking about my grandmother. She is 86 and still lives on her own. As one who has helped care for an aging parent, I was trying to sensitively give my mother advice on how to best care for her mother. About two minutes into the conversation I remembered there really is no culturally sensitive way to give one’s own mother advice (if any of you have figured it out, please let me know…).

Instead I tried to listen, but I was so sad and disturbed at the weight of the guilt my mother carried that I wanted to hang up the phone lest the weight take me down too. My mother was wondering out loud why her own mother is choosing not to move closer to her adult children, and after she had run out of what seemed to be the most logical and legitimate reasons (grandma likes her independence, she doesn’t want to leave her friends, etc,) my mother went “there”.

“Maybe she doesn’t want to move in with me because I didn’t do enough for her. Maybe she doesn’t think I will really take care of her,” mom said.

One of the things I find most difficult about adulthood is navigating the cultural divide with my parents. As a child/teenager/young adult my response was often one of detachment or simple resentment. “They don’t understand” was the path of least mental and emotional resistance. The older I get the more I begin to understand and appreciate that they understand as much as they can given the circumstances. They have spent their lives as parents bending in an attempt to understand America and its culture and trying to bend their lives to fit and be “American” enough for their neighbors, coworkers, children. My guess is that they understand my bicultural journey more than I know.

What I still don’t know is how best to respond when my mother goes “there” with her guilt and expectations.

What in the World?!? Free Makeup and “My People”

I enjoy a good deal. The only thing I enjoy more is a great deal. That being said, I learned the value from my parents. These same parents called me Tuesday night to tell me that they had been to several department stores after dinner to stand in line and claim their one free product per customer (albeit at multiple department stores and at multiple shopping malls). Seriously, they were downright giddy.

The makeup giveaway is part of a class-action lawsuit. The settlement included a mass distribution of high-end cosmetics to customers. No proof of purchase necessary. Just sign your name on a piece of a paper and decide if you want the cream, perfume, mascara, etc.

I figured I would stop by the mall the next morning and get my free makeup if the wait wasn’t long. The wait was short, but what I couldn’t help but notice was the demographics. I would have to guess that 85% were Asian/Asian American (the remaining 15% was mostly Latinos and Europeans based on the conversations going on). I have never seen that many Asians/Asian Americans at that mall in the four years we’ve lived here. Many of them were couples, just like my mom and dad, each getting their free sample.

Initially I did an internal giggle, called up my sister (who happened to be at Macy’s), and told her to pick up some free makeup.

But the line at the second department store was a bit more uncomfortable. There were two lines snaking through the cosmetics and jewelry departments, and one of the women staffing the giveaway table started addressing us in a tone I have often used when my children were younger. She spoke loudly (ok, so there were a lot of people there so I’ll give her that) and deliberately (though when I got closer she chattered much faster with her coworkers).

“Now remember, you can only have one item. Just one. No two. You can only come once. You can’t come tomorrow. It’s not fair. See, we’re having you write your names. We have to collect the names so we’ll have your names. We’ll know you came back.”

Again, I know there are bigger fish to fry. I’m not trying to fry any fish here. It was just one of those uncomfortable moments where I found myself wondering if this woman would have said the same things in the same tone had the crowd not been 85% Asian/Asian American and 15% Latino and Europeans. I found myself wanting my free moisturizer but a bit embarrassed for an unknown reason that I was in the company of “my people”. So what if I came back? On my honor I took my one sample, but seriously did she think she was going to be the voice of conscience or implying something by stressing the fact that they were taking down names?

I should have signed my name Jane Austen or Amy Tan or Michelle Obama. 😉

For those of you wondering about the free makeup, here’s the info. It’s until supplies last so run. My mom and her friends have been working the phones so who knows if there is anything left out here.

Ink in my Veins, and a Tug in my Heart

I paused for just a split second and glanced at the hotel lobby TV – CNN covering the Madoff case. I didn’t even realize my eyes darted towards the glowing screen, but my friend HL did.

“Do you miss it?” he asked.

Many moons ago I was a beat reporter for papers in Green Bay and Milwaukee, covering the mundane (City Council passes ordinance) to the insane (substitute teacher hires student to kill her husband). There was something exciting about being in a newsroom, writing on deadline, deciding which facts to report and which words to use. There was pride in seeing my byline, and there was humility knowing that byline would end up in the recycling bin by the end of the day.

Whenever there are major news events I wonder what it would be like to be back in the newsroom, but lately the ink my veins has run a bit thicker as I’ve thought about my parents. While I currently am in the enviable position of having job security and a job I love, I am not in the position to support my parents. The American Dream is not the one I chased, but the child of immigrants dream still wakes me up in the middle of the day. Prescription drugs, retirement, Medicare, Social Security, subsidized housing,pre-existing conditions, etc. – “Mom. Dad. Don’t worry. We’ll take care of you. We’ll take care of the bills,” I say in my dreams, but the words are trapped in a thought bubble hanging over the “journalist” version of me.

But somewhere between 1995 and 1997 the tug in my heart – the tug that longs to honor my parents and follow Jesus – meant shifting gears into ministry to college students. Phrases like “throwing away your college degree” and “it’s not a real job” were thrown about for years. We’re in a much better place now, a better understanding of what I do and why I do it, but the tug in my heart never goes away. 

My parents would say they never expected me or my sister to support them in their older age. But straight out of “Joy Luck Club” they would have to admit that their hope for such a future was and continues to be a powerful force on my life. “No expect. Only hope. Nothing wrong with hope.”

Sometimes I try to ease the the tug and tension between expectations and hope by doing this funny dance with my parents. They watch my kids. I leave money for them to “treat” the kids for dinner. They don’t take the money because they want us to save the money. I try to give them the money by buying them groceries the next time I visit. My mom never turns down groceries.

I suppose the tug is there to remind me that love and honoring and hope take many forms this side of heaven?

Where did I put that 2008?

Sae-hae-bok mahn-ee bah-deh-say-yoh! And, no, I don’t hand out sae-bae dohn to anyone but my own children, but if you are younger than I am you are welcome to bow and wish me well in the new year.

Where in the world did I put last year? The end of 2008 ending in a crash of an unexpected snow day, birthday celebrations (for my daughter and Jesus), family and friends, roles and calling, and met and unmet expectations.

Our holiday celebrations are a delightful, if not complicated, jumble of traditions. Christmas Eve at my sister’s with a gift exchange. My parents come over for breakfast on Christmas morning. This year we spent the afternoon/evening with dear friends K and D – eating, playing Wii, eating, sledding, eating, watching Lost, eating, laughing, talking about family, eating. The day after Christmas is Bethany’s birthday so we have breakfast as a family with candles in whatever she orders (this year it was a french toast “cake”) and then extended family join us for an early dinner. New Year’s Day we head out to my parent’s house where we still observe a more traditional Korean New Year’s – rice cake and dumpling soup and bowing to the elders of the family (my kids, niece and nephews still receive money). Three years ago my mother-in-law died on New Year’s morning so the tradition of marking her death has been woven into our holidays. This year we had a short service at the grave site with a dinner afterwards.

I haven’t written in awhile because I’ve been recovering from the holidays. Family dynamics, cultural traditions, and cold weather compressed into two weeks was intense. And I know I’m not alone. How do you find rest during the rush of the holidays?

I enjoy reading everyone’s holiday updates, but I enjoy more the unexpected visits and phone conversations we were blessed with this break. I enjoy watching the kids open their gifts Christmas morning (“Mom and Dad, we can’t believe you wasted your money on the Wii!” – Corban), but I find their enthusiasm for bowing and receiving money on New Year’s Day touches me deeply as they bless their grandparents and tackle them with hugs and kisses. They expect Christmas morning, but to this day the Korean tradition of New Year’s seems to be a special bonus to them. I enjoy listening to Christmas music (after Thanksgiving), but I am sad when it all stops on the 26th as if the message of Christ and the songs that welcome in the season are no longer relevant the day after.

There was a lot to enjoy, but I was craving rest and restoration. May we all experience peace and rest and restoration this new year.

Feeling at Home at Church

This may sound silly to some, but for others you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

We’ve been attending “our church” for more than a year now – dipping our toes into church life with worship team (me) and drama team (Peter), getting to know some delightful, God-loving people, learning the traditions of “our church”.

Last Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, is the traditional children’s music Sunday. The Sunday School children sing with the choir, play the handbells, and present gifts of music to the church. At the start of the service there were a number of children who performed various pieces – piano duets, string trio, violin solo, etc. I haven’t felt that “at home” at church in a long time. Something about seeing a steady stream of kids, some willingly and others under some duress, standing up in front of the church to play their instruments made me and Peter look at each other and smile a knowing smile…

It also created a moment of panic when I realized that none of my children can really play the piano. My daughter had a year or two of lessons, but she quit and picked up the flute at school. Corban just started the coronet (it really does sound like “Jingle Bells” when he plays), and I taught Elias “Mary Had a Little Lamb” because I felt guilty. Not only are my children amazingly average, they have not yet mastered any musical instruments. Something feels so very wrong.

Seriously, though, it was a light-hearted moment for me and Peter, as we have been talking a bit about church, community and culture. Peter asked me if I missed being at a Korean-American or Asian-American church. I answered honestly – yes and no. Being at a majority-culture church we’ve had to ask and wonder new questions that at the surface seem rather stupid or silly, but can add a layer of anxiety and uncertainty that is rather complex and confusing.

“Is this house a shoes on or a shoes off house?”

“When I’m asked to bring food that represents my culture, but not too much of it so I won’t be offended when people don’t like it, how should I respond?”

“What are my kids gaining from being in a majority culture church and what are they losing by not experiencing the AA or KA church subculture?”

And then there is the nagging question…should I force piano lessons on all of them for a few years? 😉

This Sunday, the final Sunday of Advent, our family got to light the fourth candle. It was a wonderful worship experience to practice and then read together the following reading:

We light this candle as a sign of the coming light of Christ. Advent is a season of hope. The first word of hope was restoration. The second word was peace, and the third was joy. The fourth word is love. ‘I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever. He will be great and will be called the son of the Most High. The LORD God will give Him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; His kingdom will never end.

As our kids read and Peter lit the fourth candle I felt very much at home, worshipping with our church.

What in the World?!? – Oprah, Shame on You

I know that I need to lighten up and not take life so seriously. I know that I need to pick and choose my battles. I know that in the grand scheme of things this is really not a big deal.

But it is annoying. I couldn’t believe Oprah was doing the Asian language gibberish thing on her show this morning.

I was watching Oprah this morning – a show on standards of beauty around the world. I was actually laughing at myself for watching the show while doing my 45 minutes of cardio on the elliptical at the gym. There was a moment of dissonance and irony for me. Anyway, the show was highlighting how women all over the world define beauty and about the things they do to beautify themselves.

The segment I’m referring to was on Japanese women and how they value smooth porcelain-like skin. Oprah held up a sample tube of a popular whitening cream, looked at the name and because Oprah doesn’t read kana or kanji she made up what she thought was an “Asian” sounding series of sounds. NOOOOO! Argh. The audience laughed. The Japanese woman who was on live feed through Skype giggled and corrected Oprah and correctly pronounced the name of the product. Oprah then went on to say, “That’s what I said.”

Wrong.

There were good lessons to be learned because even as the audience (and I include myself in that generic label) could laugh or look in horror at what other women will do to achieve their culture’s standard of beauty we all know our own dirty little secrets. The show was actually something I could see using as a springboard for cross-cultural conversations about beauty, race, ethnicity, gender and class. The reporter, Mara Schiavocampo, talks about how she was surprised to learn that Asian women straighten their hair (long, black, straight hair = Asian/Asian American woman stereotype). One segment touched on hair weaves – how much American women will pay to have real hair weaves, how some some of that hair comes from women who sacrifice their hair to temple gods, and how some of those women live in poverty. 

Segment after segment there were women from around the world – Iran, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia – who would look right into the camera and SPEAK IN ENGLISH to tell Oprah and her audience about their beauty secrets. So why couldn’t Oprah look in the camera and just say, “Thank you.”?

Nope. Oprah ended that particular segment just making noise. I’ll just end my morning by writing The Oprah Show a comment:

Dear Oprah, I watched your show this morning on beauty standards from around the world. For the most part, I enjoyed the show.

I was, however, disappointed at your attempt to read Japanese. I realize that in the grand scheme of things, one seemingly light-hearted moment as you made “Asian” sounds instead of correctly pronouncing the name of the beauty product you were holding is not a big deal.

However, many of the women interviewed for the show sincerely wanted to show your audience how other women from around the world define beauty and strive to achieve it. Many of those women spoke with great pride and in English, not once making fun of Americans and the crazy things we use or do in the name of beauty.

There were good lessons to be learned about stereotypes (your guest reporter mentioned how surprised she was to learn Asian women straighten their hair) and about class (women who can get plastic surgery with payment plans and Indian women getting $2 for their “dead hair” v. women who pay thousands to have “live hair” woven onto their heads).

But, I found that brief moment where you and then your audience laughed at your version of “Japanese” was disrespectful and disappointing.

Sincerely, Kathy Khang

OK, the endorphin rush is over.