We used throw around suicides in a fairly cavalier way as kids. Coach Ludorf would tell us we were running them if we missed our free throws and we’d run three sets in the middle of practice if we were ‘dogging it.’ Today’s kids run laps or sprints or maybe don’t run at all. I still use the word in practice sometimes but catch myself as I’m saying it. The ‘suicide’ has taken on a new kind of meaning.
In my first year as a reporter I was the only journalist who raised his hand when Joe O’Conner, our editor for the Herald, asked who was up for taking the ‘Obituary’ beat. It turned out to be far more than just writing recaps of local celebrities who had passed away in old age. A bicyclist spun into traffic on Route 114 intentionally taking his life in the first week of my new assignment. This was the spring of 1999, about a year after the Columbine High School tragedy. I thought about this when I began to plan out the obituary – what to write, what tone to use, why it happened, and does it even matter why? It was jarring for me, at 24 years old, how there’s this kid who was picked on and felt isolated and how he felt like he had no other options. I went to his home in Swampscott Massachusetts to talk to his folks and sister. They were grieving but shared stories about how Andrew was a good kid who loved to paint. I wanted to honor Andrew and to help his family even though a story in the paper would not bring back the 16 year old.
I read listings of three people who took their lives this year. There was a 12-year-old boy from Pennsylvania who won 1st place in the art show as a 5th grader and played on the travel sports baseball team, a 77-year-old grandmother of six from Maryland whose husband passed away 5 years ago, and a 43-year-old father of 2, a salesman from Washington. The accounts of their passing were small, the details of their life limited, which seemed odd to me given the age of Facebook. I don’t know why they got to this point but it would seem to me from having written a couple dozen of these obits over the years that they did share isolation. Perhaps from their families, and probably on some level from their communities and maybe most of all from themselves, from the things they enjoyed, from the moments that makes life so awesome. In 2018, this boy, the father and the grandmother moved on. They became statistics to you and me I suppose. For their communities, they were labeled a tragedy, a shock. For their families, they no doubt led to emptiness, struggle, probably some regret. But at the same these events may also have allowed for healing and discovery. Perhaps the passing allowed family and friends to grieve together and re-focus on each other.