by Frances Edstrom
A long time ago, in fact during the Vietnam war, I was visiting the mother of a boyfriend. She was a fascinating woman who lived a life that seemed full of contradictions. She could be rather flamboyant, was both a divorce and the widow of a wealthy businessman, played violin in an orchestra and sang "Please Release Me" at the VFW before karaoke was invented. She wore mini skirts and taught me how to knit. When we went to dinner, she ordered the lobster and took the crackers home in her purse.
When I told her that my brother was in the service in Vietnam, she showed me a black and white photo of a man in uniform. I had assumed it was her husband or brother, as it was rather dated. But it was her oldest son, Robert, who had been killed in World War II.
Two things struck me at the time, both of which shame me now. First, I thought she must have been much, much older than I assumed. Second, I wondered why she cried as she told me about Robert "” after all, he had died over twenty-five years before that day, I thought, you'd think she'd be over it by then.
I have remembered that moment many times in the last ten years. Today, November 13, is the tenth anniversary of the death of my son Jake, who, as many of you know, committed suicide at the age of 14. I know now that I will always cry at the loss of Jake, no matter how many years have elapsed since that horrible day in 1995 when he died. I know now that there is no "getting over" the death of a child, and as much as the modern media would like it, there is no such thing as "closure" after such a death, either.
I have learned much more than that in ten years. But what I haven't learned, is very much more about the disease of depression that gripped Jake and led to his suicide, nor have I learned much more about suicide, even though I try.
There have been strides, some, in the medical treatment of depression in those ten years, although not enough. When Jake died, there were still many people, doctors and psychiatrists included, who did not think it was possible for anyone under the age of at least 19 to suffer from major depression. At the time, the psychiatrist who saw Jake did see fit to put in her notes that she diagnosed Jake with "Major Depression," but didn't think it necessary to share that information with us or to see him again.
Ten years later, we know the dangers of untreated depression, but still, despite treatment, we have suicides. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people aged 10-24. First is unintentional injury (usually auto accidents); second is cancer (10-14-year-olds) and homicide (15 - 24-year-olds). In the 25 - 34 age group, suicide jumps into second place as a leading cause of death.
In spite of the number of young people who die from suicide (and older adults as well), we are still loath in our society to talk openly about suicide as caused by disease. It will come in time, I'm sure. It wasn't too long ago that we didn't discuss breast, ovarian and prostate cancer in polite company. We are just beginning to discuss or accept dementia in loved ones, even though Dr. Alzheimer made his discovery way back in 1906 that it is a disease, signalled by changes in brain tissue. Major media still treat suicide as somehow sensational, as something undertaken only by celebrities (drug-sodden celebrities always make a good story) or by homicidal manaics who then "turn the gun" on themselves. All sorts of "reasons" for suicide are put forth in a national media that has become much more like the movie magazines than legitimate journalism of days past "” failed marriages or love relationships, job loss, being a "loser."
These are not the causes of suicide, these are the symptoms of the mental illness that may lead to suicide.
Now and then I wonder why I care if we find the real "cause" of suicide or a cure for mental illness. After all, my son is dead, gone to me except in dreams and memories. But of course I care. I know the pain we felt and feel. I know the little boy who never had the chance to become a man, to meet his sister's husband, to become a husband himself, to have his own children. I don't want this disease to continue to go without adequate diagnosis and treatment, to claim lives unnecessarily, to leave families feeling the way we do "” puzzled, bereft, incomplete.
So I do the only thing I can do. Every now and then on the anniversary of Jake's death, I write about my loss, our loss, to suicide and hope that it will prick the public consciousness just a bit.