This morning we learned that Anthony Bourdain, famous chef and TV host, has died by suicide. This comes just a couple of days after the well-known fashion designer, Kate Spade, also died by suicide. It’s tragic and devastating to say the least. The amount of media coverage that each of these suicides receives is understandable because the world feels as if we personally know each one of these celebrities. We have invited them into our homes through movies and TV, eagerly anticipated their next design, and followed their recipes and travels all over the world. We feel like we know them.
The media sensationalizes these tragedies. The world has a morbid curiosity and the media fulfills it. How did they kill themselves? Why did they kill themselves? Who found them? Where were they? Did they have drugs in their system? Did they leave a note behind? What did the note say? The media answers each of these questions with zero tact and then shows pictures and video of the body being removed from the house. They then begin to dig and dig until they find stories of mental illness in the person’s life, meds they may have been taking to relieve some of the anxiety or depression they were battling, or report on relationships gone sour. The media feasts on these stories.
There is a missing element in all of this reporting, though, and it is one of the most important components we need to hear as a society. Many times, when people die by suicide, they have a belief that the world would be better off without them. They often believe they are a burden and will actually free up their families and friends if they permanently leave. They feel they have nothing to add or contribute to the lives of others or the world as a whole. In their hopeless and helpless state, they make a decision to end their pain. The question that the media needs to be reporting on is this: What about those left behind?
It has been reported that after Robin Williams took his own life in 2014, suicide increased by 10% during that time period. If we didn’t focus so much on their cause of death and how they carried it out, but instead focused on those left behind, we could actually tell more of the impact of suicide. When we sensationalize the death and avoid the ripple effect, we miss the mark completely. If suicides are increasing after a celebrity suicide is dissected non-stop, then the solution has to be to, instead, focus on the pain those left behind will never fully release.
What if we looked closer at the impact of suicide on their family and friends? In an excerpt from The Gift of Second: Healing from the Impact of Suicide, I wrote about some of the specific emotions survivors of suicide loss wrestle with:
“Two emotions typically manifest after a loved one’s suicide and negatively impact a survivor at the core of their existence. Guilt and shame can destroy an individual and, unfortunately, both are common after a suicide.Guilt is the belief we did not do enough to keep our loved ones here on Earth. Oftentimes, with guilt, we get stuck in ‘if/then’ thinking.
“If only I had known how he was feeling, then I could have helped him get the assistance he needed.”
“If only I had come home an hour earlier, then she might still be alive today.”
“If only I had paid more attention to the warning signs, then I could have prevented this.”
If/Then thinking is the false belief that we had the power to prevent the suicide, and, because we failed to keep the person alive, we are to blame. This belief is typically self-imposed and always inaccurate. Most survivors discuss the shock they felt after their loved one’s suicide. It’s shocking because we never saw it coming. We cannot prevent something we don’t see coming…
While guilt says we did not do enough to prevent the suicide, shame tells us we are not enough. Many survivors, especially children who have lost a parent to suicide, express feeling worthless or unlovable. The survivor takes on the belief that, if they were more valuable, then maybe their parent would not have chosen to permanently leave them by death. Surely, if my mom saw value in me, she would have chosen life, right? I wrestled with this for years. It wasn’t until twenty-four years later that I realized my mom’s suicide says nothing about my value or worth; it only speaks to her own mental state.
Suicide carries a massive stigma in society. Many survivors express feeling people will perceive them or their loved one who died as a ‘freak’ if they knew about the cause of death. And because of that, often, suicide is kept a secret. In the foreword of Survivors of Suicide by Albert C. Cain, Edwin Shneidman writes,
‘I believe the person who commits suicide puts his psychological skeleton in the survivor’s emotional closet—he sentences the survivor to deal with many negative feelings and, more, to become obsessed with thoughts regarding his own actual or possible role in having precipitated the suicidal act or having failed to abort it. It can be a heavy load.’
Many times after a suicide, the survivor believes they failed in some regard, failed as a protecting parent, a lovable child, a supportive spouse, a safe sibling, or a caring and listening friend. We believe that if we had been more approachable or more helpful, or if our loved one knew how much we truly loved them, then they wouldn’t have been forced to choose death. We believe we failed and so we believe we are failures. We go through life shaming ourselves for not measuring up, not showing up, and truthfully, we shame ourselves for not being their Savior. We kick ourselves for not being every- thing our loved one needed to stay alive, and we blame ourselves for not keeping them alive. We carry the burden of a scarlet letter ‘F’ for Failure. We failed to protect and save our loved one because we were not enough.”
If the media reported more on the family and the devastation the suicide caused, maybe, just maybe, we might have less suicides afterwards instead of more. If those contemplating suicide saw the destruction left behind, they may reconsider. If they saw the children without parents, the parents without children, and the spouses left alone, they might reach out to get help. The person ending their life wants to end their pain, not create more for those left behind. If they could see the complete picture of what suicide does to their family and friends, they could see it is not actually lifting the burden from their family but rather leaving a heavier one behind instead.
I once wrote an article for another website on how I was impacted emotionally after my mom’s suicide. I discussed the trauma of finding my mom’s lifeless body, the resulting therapy, the lingering feelings of shame and guilt into adulthood, and the lump in my throat, even today, as I think about my mom’s final moments on Earth and how scared and hopeless she must have been. Shortly after my article was published, I had a reader get in touch with me. She told me that she had been contemplating and planning her own suicide for about two years. She also informed me that she had a daughter the same exact age today as I was when my mom took her life. She wrote to explain she felt like a bad mother and her daughter would be better off with her. But after reading what my mom’s suicide did to me, she realized she would not want her daughter to experience the same and so she reached out to get some help instead.
If the media reported on the entire story, not just the parts that make for a “good story”, we get to see the full picture. The ugly, painful, traumatizing, horrific reality of suicide. This is what we need to be reporting on. Not the specifics of the death.