COMMENTARY: What can we do about suicide? First, let’s talk about it

My oldest brother, Pat, died in 1983 at the age of 30 by suicide. We were aware of his struggles with depression, but could never have fathomed his intentional exit from our world.

After his death, my remaining two brothers, my sister and I made a pact. We promised we would never again allow despair to go unchecked. We would support each other no matter what. We restructured our sibling unit, and the place each occupied became sacred. My brother Gerry was the strong one. My sister Kathy was the heart. I was the caregiver, and Neil, my second older brother, was the delight. Neil intuitively knew when the brokenness of life needed mending. He brought laughter, love of celebration, and understanding to our most challenging family struggles. He seemed invincible.

And then came the unthinkable. At the age of 57, Neil took his life. Other than raw shock, we were left with so many unanswered questions, not the least of which was: How he could leave us, knowing the heartache of suicide’s wake? Neil didn’t have a mental-illness diagnosis, but in the days after his death, we felt the reality of his depressed spirit. In other words, he didn’t embody the risk factors associated with suicidal behavior. Yet it became acutely evident that somewhere along his life road, whether by unmet expectations or feelings of failure, my brother found himself desiring nothing more than to be relieved from his pain. He drowned by the drip, drip, drip of anguish right in front of us, and for years we didn’t see it.

The loss of two brothers to suicide felt jarring. I began to write about my family experience. After my essay about this was published in the Dayton Daily News, I was invited to join with others who knew this world of loss. My involvement with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has been therapeutic and educational.

The common denominator in suicide is hopelessness and desire for freedom from internal agony. Whether caused by a chemical imbalance of the brain or a life path that chisels the soul, depression can implode within an increasing fragile mind. If left untreated, it may lead to a distortion of life seen through the lens of failure, exhaustion, and disconnection even from those most loved. People who have unsuccessfully attempted suicide say they thought the world would be better off without them. For the rest of us, it’s difficult to imagine how one could whittle away one’s self-value to the point of nothingness.

Since the death of Robin Williams by suicide in 2014, we have learned together. We understand now that though mental illness is often seen as precursor to suicide, taking one’s life is rarely caused by any single factor. In fact, many who die by suicide do not have a diagnosed mental illness. Life stories ending in intentional death are complicated. They evolve over time, and the tendency to chalk it up to mental illness alone may miss the deeper opportunity to understand. We have learned suicide transcends all societal or economic boundaries.

Recent high-profile suicides like those of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade remind us of our collective human experience. Although the increased media attention to suicide awareness is encouraging, we need to resist the urge to simplify the cause or overlook the need for deeper, more thorough discussions. There is a continuum of circumstances that factor into death by choice. Each unique story of a suicide is ultimately about the surrender to the voices in their head, the stifled ability to breath, or the heaviness of their hearts. None of us is that different from those experiencing crippling despair.

So, what can we do? First, let’s talk about it. The stakes in our collective community are too high not to encourage discussion. According to the AFSP, ending life on purpose is the third leading cause of death in young people 15-24 years old. Each day, 22 veterans die by suicide, prompting the Veterans Administration to create programs designed to reduce such incidence within the military family. Each year, 44,193 Americans die by suicide. Most alarming is that for every suicide, there are 25 attempts.

Let’s talk about all facets of depression, despair or mental illness the same way we talk about cancer or heart disease. Let’s lift the veil of shame so often associated with buried feelings of despair. Let’s ask those who suffer from crippling misery to help the rest of us understand what it really feels like. Let’s not be afraid to “go there” and listen. All of us can benefit from an increased awareness as we give voice to suicide-related issues. People who consider ending their lives move among us, so the more we offer one another a soft place to land, the better chance we have to reach into the secret closets of despondency and flick on the light. Illumination creates openness and pauses to help the profoundly depressed among us, perhaps even helping to heal the deepest crevices of pain. The potential to restore desire for living is a difficult for some, yet if we all extend our reach in solidarity, perhaps we can offer a lifeline. We are all in this big, imperfect life together.

We have also learned that words are important. People don’t “commit” suicide as if they had criminal intent. Rather, acknowledging their pain and journey towards despondency opens an opportunity for compassion. Riding the ripple effect towards empathy and kindness offers acceptance for people who are suffering, and a deeper understanding of their circumstances. For the thousands and thousands of us who have been touched by suicide, describing the death of our loved one as “committed” yields even more sadness.

I try not to rest in the world of guilt or regret regarding my brothers’ losses. I think about the last time I saw Neil. We lingered on my back porch after a simple summer dinner. I could tell his eyes were dimming and he exhibited a restlessness in demeanor. He died three days later. It’s been six years since we lost him and 34 years since we lost Pat. As I find myself becoming more involved with the local AFSP, connection with others who understand is cathartic. I hear a replay of my mother’s voice in my head propelling me to remain in the light of my brothers’ lives.

“Good comes from everything,” she used to say, despite her very deep and personal loss. For many who bear the burden of despair, my hope is that they are somehow able to create distance between the anguish residing in their soul and the hope that awaits them if they allow vulnerability a chance. Depression doesn’t have to be a death sentence. And for those of us who are now part of the club of heartbreak we didn’t ask to join, we will continue to talk about it and find shared spaces of joy. By doing so, we can join together and be part of the good rising.

Centerville writer Anne Marie Romer is a regular contributor.


The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached by calling 1-800-273-8255. To learn more about the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, visit

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