“The Suicide Club”
By Jo Galante
My brother-in-law Bill couldn’t wait to show me the DVD made from some old home movies. One of the highlights would be seeing my beautiful sister Gloria, who I adored, at a school dance. There she was, in a lovely full skirt – crinolines flaring underneath – as she did the cha cha with her best friend Joanie. She and Bill were childhood sweethearts who would marry by the time they were barely 18.
Then, as she was sitting, I noticed an almost imperceptible movement that froze me in time. Gloria’s hand moved ever so slightly and I knew intuitively what would come next. It was a movement forgotten or clouded by time but as natural as if I’d been sitting right next to her. She moved her hand to her mouth, a familiar habit of her dogged nail biting captured in time. That’s when the tears welled in my eyes.
My sister-in-law Carole, trying to console me asked, “Isn’t it wonderful to see your sister in happier times?” I could not answer what I was thinking. What happier times? My sister’s life has been overshadowed by a single action on a single day in October 1974 when she chose to shoot and kill herself at age 32, leaving her husband, a 6-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son.
Gloria had been fighting depression and a general inability to find happiness for years. Her behavior had become riskier, her mood swings more pronounced. She eventually fell victim to a psychotic breakdown that led to hospitalizations and seemingly endless psychiatric visits. The therapies today that might have saved her life weren’t available at that time.
We’ve speculated why she killed herself and, perhaps to ease our minds, we concluded that she saw it as an act of sacrifice since she repeatedly voiced her concerns about her illness’ effect on her young family.
Fortunately, my brother-in-law married Carole who brought love, light and stability to my niece and nephew who we unwittingly hurt by trying to shield them from the details of their mother’s death. My niece has been plagued by mental health issues, especially of abandonment. Billy Boy fared better, perhaps because he was younger when he lost his mom.
I’ve measured everything in terms of what Gloria missed and what our family lost – holiday gatherings, her children’s birthdays, school events and awards. And, her children’s marriages and the beauty of a new generation that would never know her or feel her love. For me, the loss was heavy since my older sister was also my anchor in a family where mental illness was no stranger. She was the one who would sit with me and help beat back the fears of this scary illness as my mother was once again taken to Bellevue’s infamous “crazy ward.”
Since my sister’s death, I’ve had the gut wrenching experience of knowing about several friends and family members who have committed suicide and worse. A cousin through marriage killed himself. So did another cousin by marriage but not before he murdered his wife and son. There was the young mother who I once babysat. There are the close friends whose brother and brother-in-law killed themselves. Those were followed by the suicides of three children of people I care about. More recently, two very close friends confided that one had lost a son to suicide, the other a brother. Would there be no end to this madness? “The Suicide Club,” I called it among friends as we shared our losses.
With each suicide, I re-lived my sister’s death and was left to ponder how these other families would survive what I knew to be one of the greatest challenges they could face. Then I connected on-line with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (afsp.org) and had a eureka moment.
Thousands of families just like mine are touched by suicide. According to AFSP someone in the United States dies by suicide every 16 minutes.
Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for people aged 18 to 65, and shockingly is the fifth leading cause of death among children aged 5 to 14.
Ninety percent of people who die by suicide had a diagnosable psychiatric disorder, AFSP reports. This statistic holds the key to prevention. We overlook the often evident signs of potential suicide, or in many cases feel helpless. Families need to be vigilant to mood swings and changes in behavior, and especially take all verbal threats of suicide seriously and encourage people who may be suicidal to seek help. Get information on how to help. Most important, AFSP says, is to be assertive and ask the person outright if they are thinking about committing suicide. Families are fearful that the mere use of the word could spur thoughts of action. Not true, the foundation says and notes that letting someone know of the consequences of suicide has been known to prevent it.
Suicide is preventable, but once someone turns that corner, it’s a lifetime of guilt and pain for the people left behind.
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Jo Galante, a former journalist, has served as a lobbyist for people with developmental disabilities. She will rejoin the board of the Mental Health Association in Ulster County in January.
Contact Jo at email@example.com.