Powerful read here in the Post: I told the truth in my sister’s obituary, so that others might choose to live.
The truth was that her sister didn’t just “die unexpectedly.” She suffered from depression and took her own life.
A lot of obituaries hide the cause. Sometimes, it’s a massive stretch. When I was working in Wilmington (NC), we covered a story of a shootout between a couple of drivers who kept going back and forth until one finally got the other. The funeral home’s take on the man’s death: “Natural causes.” Right. He was in a gun duel while driving, so naturally, he died.
The surviving sister in this case, Eleni Pinnow, didn’t want to hide. She wanted to speak to others who feel the way her sister did. And she gets it exactly right:
I told them that her depression created an impenetrable fortress that blocked the light, preventing the love of her friends, her family, and any sense of comfort and confidence from reaching her.
Depression is irrational. You might know it’s irrational, and yet it’s something you can’t just shove aside. Negative thoughts are not like food from which you can make healthy choices. You can choose what goes in your stomach. You can’t always choose what goes in your brain.
You can get a few tools — and perhaps medication — that helps you deal with what’s in your brain. You can weaken that “impenetrable fortress.”
But you have to understand that it’s real. Our brains can be marvelous things, and yet, they have the capacity to torture us.
I’ve been lucky. I’ve seen the fortress and gotten through it. Like the author, I’ve gone to the house of someone I care about and found a note. I was just a teenager. But the person in the house survived. The obituary would wait many more years, and when it came, it could honestly say “natural causes.”
Pinnow’s obituary is full of good humor — “She did not love France (they know why) and William Shatner (who also presumably knew why)” — and a stark call to action:
If the family were to have a big pie in the sky dream, we would ask for a community-wide discussion about mental health and to pull the suffocating demon of depression and suicide into the bright light of day. Please help us break the destructive silence and stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide.
I don’t know why mental illness is so prevalent today. It could be that our “fight-or-flight” mechanism is underutilized in our more civilized world in which we’re not hunting for our own survival and dodging diseases that made childhood a lottery. (While I’m preaching — get your kids their damn vaccines.) It could be our food. It could be our air.
Just know that it’s real. And if it affects you, get help.
And treat other people like they matter. You never know what they’re going through. You might just spread a bit of positive energy. Or maybe you’ll be able to weaken the walls of a fortress around someone’s heart.