Claire lives in the house next door. Over the last 20 years, we’ve launched ourselves through all that life has offered – travel, marriage, birth, death and all the goodies in between. We share a brain, a passion for good wine, obits, and running (though she’ll debate the last point). I love her to bits. Claire is also married to my brother. While I could have simply stated that Claire is my sister-in-law, you’d be missing some of the essential details about her that aren’t explicit in that label. Sharing our story is more truthful, and I’d argue, more interesting.
OK, more about Claire. A few years ago, her dad, Mike, died. Mike was a chatty Australian who worked for years in the high Arctic and knew something about almost everything. Although he’d been ill for a while, it didn’t dull our shock and grief when he died. So, you can see from my description that Mike’s life and death, though significant to our family, was not something outrageous or provocative. OK, I left out some essential details here too: Mike could make a kick-ass pavlova, he hunted seal from an igloo and he committed suicide.
When it came time for Claire to write her dad’s obituary, she approached it with the same matter-of-fact attitude. She simply stated that Mike “died from depression,” because that was the disease that lead to his death. No scandal, no shame, just truthfulness.
Suicide sucks. It means someone has died before we were expecting it – the worst kind of surprise. But when it comes to someone’s life story, this is purely an ending: no different than a stillbirth, a tumor, or an accident. Regardless of how much we rage, wail, disengage or deny, suicide may be the cause of death, but it doesn’t define the life. We live a lifetime and we die in an instant. A person who chooses to die still has a life story to tell, and their obituary should reflect that balance: all those years of living, and yes, an ending. Like Mike.
Holding back essential details, like say, that someone committed suicide, changes their story. It’s not a true story, and it smells a bit like shame lives there. However, when you read about Mike, knowing he chose to die doesn’t change the significance of his life. It’s more of a footnote. What freedom we offer – to everyone – when we write the truth! People can feel comfortable sharing their condolences, dropping off muffins or commiserating about the good times. So much better that than the alternative of veiled whispers and awkward encounters. Our communities can handle it, I promise, people want to offer compassion.
When someone dies, regardless of the cause, everyone could do with a reminder about the life that came before. An obituary offers the chance to shine the spotlight back on the accomplishments, quirks, and the soul that was the person and now is their memory. We can give them their curtain call. As much as we’d rather that suicide wasn’t the end of the story, it doesn’t mean it’s not a good story.