It’s so hard to talk about suicide.
When I tell someone that in March 2016 my mother … and in April 1995 my father … it’s difficult—and not just because it’s painful. I must be hypervigilant. As I tell the story, I watch people carefully. Are they showing signs of discomfort? Are they suddenly upset because they have been reminded of someone in their own lives? Do they think I am oversharing, burdening them with information that suggests I believe we have a closer friendship than they do? Are they scared I am settling in to unload tearfully for the next 45 minutes? Are they looking at me with horror as they recall that suicide runs in families?
These quick calculations of how the other person is responding allow me to rapidly change the subject if necessary. And it’s hard work.
But it’s also hard to find the actual words to talk about suicide. Hard to find the verbs, to be exact. In recent years, as part of the (very much needed) anti-stigma movement in mental health, there have been calls to limit use of the phrase “committed suicide.” As of 2015, the Associated Press style guide, which Slate roughly follows, says: “Avoid using committed suicide except in direct quotations from authorities. Alternate phrases include killed himself, took her own life or died by suicide.” Soon after the change, then–co-editor of the AP Stylebook David Minthorn told Poynter, “Committed in that context suggests possibly an illegal act, but in fact, laws against suicide have been repealed in the U.S., at least in certain states, and many other places … so we’re going to avoid using that term on our own, although it’s a term that authorities widely use and we will use it while quoting authorities.” In an essay from the Mighty titled “Please Stop Saying ‘Committed Suicide’ ” Kyle F., whose brother …, echoed this argument:
Historically, in the United States and beyond, the act of suicide was deemed a crime. Until as recently as 1963, six states still considered attempted suicide a criminal act. … Thankfully laws have changed, but our language has not. And the residue of shame associated with the committal of a genuine crime remains attached to suicide. My brother did not commit a crime. He resorted to suicide, which he perceived, in his unwell mind, to be the only possible solution to his tremendous suffering. If I was telling you about a friend or loved one who actually did commit a crime, chances are I’d feel at least a little embarrassment or shame on behalf of that person. But I don’t feel even the tiniest bit of shame about how Jeff died.
I empathize with Kyle F. But I don’t agree that the word “commit” is necessarily related to crime, nor that the phrase “committed suicide” brings shame.
When the Associated Press made its shift, my mother was still alive, and I remember wondering whether it might be a language-sensitivity bridge too far. But maybe I was the problem the AP was trying to correct, I thought. After all, even though my father … and my mother had made attempts before, I had struggled and failed to remove “if that happens, I will kill myself” or “that’s insane” from my vocabulary, even though I knew that some people think these phrases perpetuate stigma and minimize the gravity of suicide. The ban on “committed suicide” seemed to fall into the same category … but no one really misunderstood committed to imply a moral wrong, did they?
Yet when my mother … several months later, that stricture stuck in my mind. As a former copy editor, in times of crisis, I look for rules and order. While living the experience, I grasped for the sanctioned verbiage. Usually, I went with the basic, “She died.” Some people followed it up with a hushed, “How?” Sometimes, when I didn’t want to get into it, I elided the truth, saying, correctly, that she had been hospitalized with pneumonia soon before she died and letting them make whatever assumptions they desired. Sometimes, I changed the subject. And with some people, on some days, I was candid. Because I was close to them, or because I hate to lie, or because I was on a “We can’t treat suicide as though it’s unspeakable” kick, or because, damn it, I didn’t want to keep sugarcoating what I was going through. But when I wanted to speak the truth, the best phrasing eluded me.
“My mother killed herself two weeks ago,” I heard myself saying to a longtime co-worker. We were speaking softly in Slate’s open office, and I looked left and right to see whether anyone nearby had heard or was pretending not to have heard. My beloved colleague’s hand went to his mouth and his eyes widened. Maybe he was reacting only to the news. But I was startled by how aggressive “killed herself” had sounded coming out of my mouth. There was something so visceral about the phrase. It evoked a mental image of a stick figure stabbing itself in the chest. Perhaps a pirate stick figure with a sword? That my mind’s eye sketched a violent cartoon in black, red, and white told me that I needed a different phrase.
What about “took her own life”? Far too romantic, melodramatic. It evokes a sad Disney princess on luxurious bedding, crown still pinned on straight, her arm flopped over the edge, a bottle on the floor just beyond her fingertips, no sign of vomit or other physical distress. It softened things too much.
Suicided? An active verb—she suicided—should have been the answer. But it was so detached, like what a tired police officer returning to the station to fill out forms would write down.
Shuffled off her own mortal coil? No. Pretentious, and it could sound ironic.
Suicide. A one-word answer. Skip the verb. Right? No—it’s too curt, and so blunt.
Died by her own hand? Now that’s just bad writing.
Called an end to things? Forfeited the game? Checked out early? Skipped out on the bill? All too flip—though it was sometimes tempting to come across as flip, to show how strong I was being and how efficiently I had processed the loss. Maybe if people thought that I looked strong, and told me I looked strong, that would mean I actually was being strong, even if I felt terrible, even though I know that “strength” is the wrong framework for thinking about a response to trauma or grief.
“She had demons”? That made it sound like a drug problem. And the expression hinted at a combination of judgment, condescension, and sexy adventure that I just did not want to endorse.
Sometimes I offered a quiet, “She had mental health problems.” This hinting seemed to work nicely—people would nod gravely to demonstrate their understanding and would not ask follow-ups—but it also felt coy and evasive.
A big part of the problem is that it doesn’t just have to do with what happened to my mom. It also has to do with what happened to me.
I want the words to convey that close to two years later, I am still not really OK, but I am on my way to being OK, and I feel some pride in that progress. That I am telling you this because I believe in honesty and that suicide shouldn’t be unspeakable, not because I am revving up to tell you my painful life story and soak your shirt in tears. That condolences are very welcome but a hug is not expected or even particularly wanted. That you do not have to tell me about your family member who struggled with mental health problems, or your own struggles after I share this—but if you want to tell me, please do. That the conversation can truly be as brief as you want and then we can move on to squeeing over the border collies who are friends with a capybara. That if the conversation subsequently comes to a lull, you do not have to make a pity face to let me know you have not forgotten.
That’s a heavy load for a couple of words to carry. But a grieving girl can dream, can’t she? And so I end back where I started: My mother committed suicide.
I am grateful that we are increasingly careful about how we talk about and report on suicide, and I respect the intention behind the ban on “commit suicide.” But I can’t support it. I don’t begrudge those who are more comfortable with “died by suicide” or “killed themselves,” but I bristle at the prescriptive nature of their objections, as though the rest of us who prefer “committed suicide” are wrong and need to catch up. “Commit” doesn’t always imply a criminal act: We commit things to memory, commit to each other and to God, commit to a college football team, commit random acts of kindness. “Commit suicide” is clean and clinical. There are no cartoon characters or inappropriate emotional responses. It is clear, matter of fact, free of emotional valence. It neither condemns nor romanticizes. It describes what happened, and, importantly, acknowledges the autonomy of the person who did it without condoning the action—because my parents each made a decision. It’s a decision that I loathe, a decision I spent years of my life pleading with my mother not to make, one made under the influence of a pernicious mental illness that she worked incredibly hard to live with—but it was still her action. I look for order in times of chaos. Recently, though, I am feeling better and better about breaking this AP Style stricture. (Sorry, Slate copy desk.) Perhaps that’s a sign that I am healing: that I can disregard a rule I don’t agree with and talk about my parents’ suicides the way I want to talk about them.