“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.

      * * *
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 guestwriter@zestoforange.com.


2 Responses to ““The Suicide Club””

  1. Edward B. Godwin Says:

    Thanks for the courage to directly address the subject of suicide. Most people have a friend or acquaintance attempt to or to commit suicide. One of my colleagues did so although I thought he had faced the suicides of his father and grandfather. We had talked about it; I had listened and had learned he had come upon the body. Although I sensed his fears about it, I thought he had faced it and moved on. What did I know! He came from wealth and left the academic world to return to it. Then I learned of his suicide.
    In the holiday season there are a few programs on television that address depression each year. We learn of statistics about whe most suicides occur. Therefore I had been thinking about one of my daughters who had recently been “dumped” after a two year relationship and who would be alone during the holidays. I thought of my own military service when I was deployed just before Christmas to a foreign country whose language I did not speak and to strangers in my new company whom I found drinking very heavily. I thought of present day trend of electronic entertainment and the decline of conversation since the advent of television.
    The balance came from my my daily contact with friends and family. I initiated a long email letter to my daughter filled with my fond memories and moments of her childhood to her professional assistance when she arrived home to my having a heart attack on one occasion and a stroke on another. How proud I was of her professional reaction as a member of the healthcare community to her father in distress. She responded with a very thoughtful letter wherein she faced the elephant in the room. I learned she was seeing a therapist for held on a regular basis. In my earlier conversation I shared that I had sought such help and uncovered that I had never faced the death of my father because I was handling the stroke of my mother. We had a close father-son relationship. It came to bite me later in life.
    We all need good listeners, and at times professional help. Therefore I was pleased to see you refer to sources to help both those needing help and those who are listening–professionals.

  2. Jo Galante Cicale Says:

    Edward, thank you for your response. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. You took all the right steps and probably saved some lives in the process. Jeff Page gently pushed me into writing my sister’s story and now I’m glad I did.

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