Stereotypes and Suicide
©Letizia Grasso

One of my deep sources of pain and sadness is my inability to vividly convey the essence of my son to those who did not know him in life. His vitality, his vivacity, his talents and charisma--not even two thousand words can come close to portraying the exact quality of his brilliant smile; his characteristics, his quirks, his uniqueness keep evading my best efforts. Should I ever be able to find the eloquence to capture him in words, I know the world would stand still and grieve, for the loss IS monumental. To have him blanketed by stereotypes and dismissed as a suicide statistic is one aspect of suicide survival I cannot accept. His was not a disposable life. So I brazenly speak of my son’s suicide, to break down the wall of Silence and misunderstanding that surrounds this taboo subject.

I sadly understand those parents that will not admit publicly the cause of death. My first encounter with the public reaction to suicide was three months after my son’s death. I attended my first "bereavement support" meeting. It was a group for bereaved parents. I entered that room and watched it fill with about thirty persons. The meeting started, the clock side introduction began: "name, child’s name, date of death, cause of death," As I heard parent after parent introduce their child and the many causes of loss, the litany was chilling: drowning, cancer, murder, car accidents, physical abnormalities, and finally more than two thirds around the circle is was my turn--at the word "suicide" the collective gasp that echoed in my ears will never leave me. I physically felt alone in this room where I had come to seek solace, understanding, help. Even in my semi-comatose state of those first few months, I knew I could find no identification and support within this group. As time has passed, and I’ve regained some consciousness-- I am constantly tripping over the stereotypes that envelop suicides.

As I review my school’s "crisis" policy in regard to suicide, the words "drug abuse, conduct problem, problems with the law, broken homes" leap out of the written page. As I read clinical studies regarding suicide and suicidal behavior, the same words can be found. In looking over prevention leaflets, the sentence "loving supportive families" leap out resounding with accusation.

In speaking with "professionals" I’ve heard their bias as they speak in amazement of those in a social class they do not easily identify with suicide. The director of "Family Services" in speaking of a recent suicide, actually used the phrase, "he was a member of the tennis set, not one you would think of as a likely suicide." A religious finally whispered to me how he saw suicide as cowardice. Our churches and established religions nervously skirt around the issue. I have never heard a sermon on suicide from the pulpit.

At a recent conference of the Compassionate Friends, in one of the sharing workshops, I encountered a mother whose child died of drug overdose. She came to the suicide workshop wanting us, the suicide survivors, to confirm for her that she did not belong there. I had met others who were just as defensive and insistent--"my son’s death of drug overdose was clearly an accident not a suicide!!!"--and these very people would be shocked if I told them how insensitive and hurtful their words are.

Most people want to be kind, they want to be understanding, they want to be supportive. The actual reactions, however, often fall short of these goals. I have come across the "curiosity seekers," the "accident gapers," the fearful, the "gregarious emotion" seekers and finally the defensive. Death is a reality most do not care to deal with. Our society has sanitized it as much as possible and removed it from the home to the hospital and funeral parlor. The only way to "Saran Wrap" suicide and render it "politically correct" for a society skirmish about life issues, is either to render it irrelevant or disposable.

So I find myself introducing my son to strangers with a mini-resume. My 20-year-old son, Alexey, an extremely intelligent, sensitive, talented, gifted young man, with many friends and strong family ties, hanged himself. I am not trying to be cruel in removing the security and luxury of people to distance themselves and dispose of my son’s act. I am convinced that until these stereotypes are removed, the status quo will continue even when the statistics scream for attention. There is something wrong, very wrong, occurring. Until we can look at suicide clear eyed, we will not be able to reach the understanding necessary to lower its occurrence.

A wise Rabbi said, "A person cannot offer hospitality, if she is not at home." So I speak out, so that our society can finally feel at home with suicide and only then can it offer hospitality. All people with in a society are affected by the stereotypes. No one is immune, not the professionals, not the well intentioned nor the well disposed. We, the suicide survivors are left with the task to educate. Our loved ones have made us "the experts," and if we don’t lead-how will anyone ever follow?