“How did they die?” It’s a natural question that we ask or think about reflexively when we hear about an unexpected death.
It’s the question I asked in utter anguish the night my son died, suddenly, July 27, 2019.
I’ve spent the better part of the last 9 months focusing on how my son died… by suicide. I’ve shared my story, written and talked about him, and I’ve shared my experience with this deep, abiding, soul-crushing, somehow endless, sea of grief and loss. Thousands of people know how my son died.
I am fine with people knowing how he died. I want people to know that suicide happens to families like mine and that it’s tragic and awful. I want everyone to know that even someone as vibrant and wonderful as my son Ben can lose their battle with mental illness. I believe that we should talk about it and tell the stories of the people we lose to it. The more we shine a light on it, the more we make it okay for people to express that they are not okay.
The Rest of the Story
But shouldn’t the rest of his story matter? The thought has flickered a few times, among the waves of sadness and loss as I’ve told our story… How many people know how Ben lived? How many people would even care how he lived? Then I wonder, is this a question everyone who’s grieving asks, or is it only a question we ask if we lost someone to suicide? Am I alone in asking myself that?
Do memories of someone we lost only ever matter to the family left behind? Our memories of Ben matter to us; we lived them, and we loved him. But do they really matter to anyone else? When I hear that someone died, after that reflexive “How did they die?” moment, I inevitably think of the deceased one’s mother or spouse or children… because I’m a mother, and a wife, and a daughter.
That’s what we do, right? As we try to understand, to connect, to possibly empathize in any way, it’s human nature to try and relate the experiences of others through our own lens by identifying and imagining how we might feel. “How tragic for his poor parents.” “How awful for the husband.” We look at the family left behind and shake our heads; we can’t imagine how we would be able to go on. How will they move forward from their horrific loss?