I never met my great-grandfather, although I’ve seen pictures of him. The one I treasure most is a family photo, similar to those images on an Ancestry.com commercial, where he is sitting with his wife and older daughters. (The sons would arrive later.) He’s wearing a hat and a solemn expression, but you get the impression that he’s content with the life he’d created since emigrating from Italy a few years before.
You would be wrong, though. Some years after that photo was taken, this patriarch of five daughters and three sons took his own life. He went to the basement of their home in West Philadelphia, found his daughter’s jump rope, and hanged himself. My grandmother Mamie was the one who found him, and felt guilty for the rest of her life, since she was the one who’d thrown her sister’s rope down the basement steps while cleaning.
No one knows why he did it. He was a man in his middle years with a loving wife and beautiful children, a respectable job, and the immigrant’s pride. The impact of the suicide had a ripple effect on later generations, from my grandmother to her daughter Lucy and to me, the great-granddaughter who looks at his photo and shakes her head in sorrow.
Suicide does that. It brings sorrow and raises questions that linger. It begs for answers that rarely come, and solutions that are only hoped for, not probable. While it might seem that the numbers of suicides has increased in the last few decades, that might just be a function of people being more open. I can promise you that my great-grandfather’s obituary did not include his cause of death. Now, however, families are talking about their loved one’s painful choices, and it is not unusual to see an obituary with the sentence, “She took her own life.”
Some think it’s good to be candid about the manner of death, so that we bring suicide out of the shadows and treat it like a psychological ailment no different from the diseases of the body. They think it helps erase the shame that people of my great-grandfather’s generation suffered. I’m not so sure, but I respect the choices and the grief of others.
When my brother Jonathan ended his own young life, we did not include the manner of death in his obituary. This was not a conscious choice, it was simply a personal decision. Jon’s life was much more than the manner in which he chose to leave it, and it was necessary to reflect on that as opposed to his last moments on Earth. But there was no shame, only sadness.
This tension between wanting to stop the scourge of suicide and not wanting to normalize it in our customs and acknowledgements has always been a problem for those left behind. I didn’t even know about my great-grandfather’s death until I was in my early 20s, but I always sensed there was something wrong by the sadness in my grandmother’s eyes when she talked about her father. The pain was compounded by the Catholic Church’s position of the time, which prohibited burial in consecrated ground to those who took their own lives. Since the 1960s, that custom has thankfully been eliminated, but you can imagine the anguish it caused to a devoutly Italian Catholic family in the early part of the last century.
September was National Suicide Awareness Month, although anyone who has been touched by the tragedy will tell you there is no moment in their lives when they are not aware of its consequences. We have evolved to a certain degree in our attitudes about suicide, but it will always be one of the most difficult things we have to face: the deliberate choice to leave.
I come from a family where suicide is a multi-generational legacy. That does not mean it is our future. The best I can do is remember them, Sebastiano and Jonathan.
I’d ask you to do the same.
Christine Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.