Finding Compassion After Suicide

Thursday, September 10, 2015 - 5:37pm

Finding Compassion After Suicide

"Tell me about a moment in your life that defined or shaped who you are today?"

I posed this question to the writer Eric Marcus when I met him at his new office at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in New York, where he is the Senior Director for Loss and Bereavement Programs. It's one of the questions I routinely ask new people I meet. He shared the story of his father's suicide.

Irwin Marcus, Eric's father, killed himself in 1970, when he was 12 years old. As Eric says:

"That experience — that trauma — changed my life in ways that I could not have imagined or understood at the time. No one told me that he never took his life. I figured it out from the first day by listening through the keyhole in the kitchen door while my mother was on the phone with my aunt. I heard my mother say 'hospital' and I heard my mother say "pills" and I knew exactly what had happened."

Eric Marcus grew up in a family that never talked about his father's suicide. This left him with a deep fear that he too would kill himself at age 44, like his father. He found himself on a sort of "countdown" against time:

"I remember that I discovered a journal my father kept when he was age 28 and then I got past 28 and then I looked back and I knew what his life was at 28. And checked in all the time thinking where was dad at this point in his life? Where was he at 30? Where was he at 40? What was he thinking in his early 40s as he started to think about killing himself? And found that I had compassion for him in a way I couldn't as a young man."

One of the greatest lessons that he learned from his experience was the importance of talking: about his father, about why he killed himself, about his life, about suicide, about grieving. Just talking. And, this is something that he carries with him into his work:

"I've had that experience of talking to a child who'd lost his mother to suicide. And I remember him looking up at me and saying, Really? You had that happen? And it was such a bonding experience and a healing experience for him and for me. So in some ways this work is a little bit selfish because I get to feel good about something that was so bad."

On this special day dedicated to suicide prevention, I offer you this most memorable conversation, which has never left me. I hope it resonates with you too.


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Lily Percy

is senior producer at On Being. Lily studied English Literature and Film Studies at Florida International University. She has worked as an associate editor at MovieMaker magazine, and as a producer for StoryCorps and NPR's "All Things Considered" on the weekends, where she produced the series "Movies I've Seen A Million Times." Her work has also been featured on NPR's Latino USA, WNYC's Soundcheck, and Esquire. In 2012, she received the Religion Newswriters Association Radio/Podcast Religion Report of the Year Award for her profile of four Roman Catholic Womenpriests.

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My cousin found his mother after she committed suicide. There was a great deal of worry in the family that he would do the same eventually, but seeing him periodically over the years he just seemed to be a goofy kid just like me. Later, as teens, we bonded over growing up rites of passage and I always felt a special attachment to him. So when he did commit suicide in his early thirties it hit me hard. The worst part was how people I barely knew felt compelled to tell me he would now go to hell for his sin. My cousin suffered his entire life with the sword of suicide over his head, and I will always hold him with compassion for his struggle, for his loss, and for what all of us lost when this young man left us.

I lost my mother at the age of 12 as well. She had been heavily medicated through many years for bipolar disorder. In the end she was wrung out like and old rag and suffered from side effects of medication, electric chock treatments and feeling left alone by her relatives, friends and by her own children, including my self. I remember feeling so hopeless that her disease never improved and I can only imagine how bad she must have felt. My father had started a new family and lived on the countryside where we had horses and other animals. I loved being at my father's and I loved his new wife. I disliked my mother's small apartment where I had so many bad memories of her being sick and hallucinating, police arresting, drugs etc etc . One day she decided she could not take it anymore and ended her 38 year long life with sleeping pills. I am still devastated over how lost and lonely she must have felt and how little I did for her as her child. She had no one and it hurt endlessly to think of that. Thanks for listening!!

Hello Krista, is it maybe possible to listen to the whole conversation? Or is it only 2.32 min long? Cannot find anything via "search". Thank you and kind regards, Ava PS Thank you for the work you do, it has inspired me on so many levels.

I have spoken to you, Eric, when I submitted my collection of poems, "Complicated Grief" to your organization. You did not mention your father's suicide. Thank you for sharing this. My mother took her life in 2013 at the age of 86. She had been an abusive parent, especially when I was a child, so the grief that ensued was complicated. After a long and deep inner journey of coming to terms with her suicide and with never having had the kind of mother I deserved, I came around, as you did, to compassion. There was, however, a great deal of anger before the compassion could break through, and it is this anger that is captured in my poetry. As a writer, educator and citizen, my effort has been to get people to talk about end-of-life decision making, dying well, tolerance for grief in ourselves and others, and suicide as a solution for some to the misery of their lives. This deserves a response of compassion, never judgment.

My oldest sister killed herself when she was 30 and I was a senior in college. My family also tended toward silence so I told no family member that I assumed I too would be dead (probably by my own hand) by 30. When I woke up at age 31 I realized that I needed to make some plans. Over my three decades of teaching I sometimes shared this family story when hurting students when I thought they needed to know that someone else had experienced what they were going through. I believe in talking and openness about tragedy.

This April in 2015, my 41 year old son took his own life in Europe, across the ocean from home. This second attempt was not unexpected because of the demons chasing him and the medical interventions failing him. While I cannot elaborate on our family dynamics, I can concur with Eric Marcus that openly admitting the cause of death is critical to the healing process. Honesty within the immediate family and close friends binds a community of caring individuals who can offer support on many levels - especially the empathetic ear. When we listen with an open heart we are non-judgmental. We offer love and comfort to one another, can step in to cover a job someone else cannot do. As a longtime writer of poetry, I want to share my poem that I offered at the disbursement of ashes. (The definition of deferent comes from my Scrabble Dictionary. "Deferent (noun) an imaginary circle around the earth.")
Deferent Traveler that you are Hobnobbing around the world Would it ever occur to me On the evening of a day Out one eye at dusk I truly might spy You as esoteric deferent Passing slowly by It is my belief that as we come together to discuss the implications of suicide we will destroy the myths that cloud it in disgrace for the survivors.