Naming (Part Two in a Series)

See part 1, Reckoning, here.

Maybe in part because I didn’t know her that well, but probably even more because of my personal history with life-threatening disease, heartbreaking loss, and fierce advocacy, I believe an important voice is missing in the aftermath of Jenn Brisben’s death.

Perhaps people are too wounded to see beyond their own pain right now, but the only reaction I’ve seen calls to honor Jenn’s legacy by loving each other more. I’ve heard just one other person publicly mention her cause of death. I acknowledge that some people’s “what comes next” is getting through today, but I believe others want to use her death as a catalyst for change.

But why are those two mutually exclusive?

They don’t have to be.

Of this I am certain: we’ll never make any progress toward reducing death by suicide if we can’t even name it.

I get it, though. When I was decided to write this post, I agonized over whether to use her name. After all, I wondered, why is it my job to let the world know her cause of death? Of course if she was killed in a car accident by a drunk driver, if she had a heart attack, if she had cancer, if she fell off the narrow walkways of the Grand Canyon, I wouldn’t hesitate to mention her name and cause of death.

At minimum, I strive to not be part of the problem, even in silent complicity.

In A Mother’s Reckoning, Sue Klebold asserts that suicide is widely misunderstood. If that is true, the only way we move forward is to put our cards on the table, to lay out and examine what we think we know.

Ok. I’ll go first.

I have many moments of anger and resentment toward her. On what I admit is a shallow level, I resent that my son’s graduation celebrations were dampened by the timing of her death and funeral.

But my anger well is much deeper.

I think of all the people I know – living and dead – who put themselves through hell over and over again just for the chance to spend one more day with their kids. How can someone who seemed to have it all just throw it away?

I call these “difficult emotions.” I use mindfulness mediation as taught by Sharon Salzberg to learn to watch those feelings rise and dissipate like dark storm clouds in otherwise sunny skies. I have a lot of clouds too, so I get a lot of practice. I understand my anger is nothing more than a part of a narrative I’ve created. It doesn’t matter whether I’m right or wrong because the emotions themselves won’t prevent a single suicide.

It might be easier to see how the difficult emotions get in the way than it is to see how the easy ones do. I think many of us want to believe that if our actions come out of a place of love, they are correct. Advocating for more hugs in the face of suicide seems irreproachable but what if it actually causes harm?

Klebold suggests in her book that her son’s suicide was not a result of a lack of love in his life. Rather, he was sick and his illness prevented him from feeling that love. If that’s true, more hugs might comfort the grieving or make us feel good about ourselves, but it won’t stop the next Jenn.

Ok, you say, maybe you’re right, but how can advocating more love actually interfere?

Back to breast cancer advocacy.

I’ve noticed that once we feel good about the work we are doing for a cause, we tend to disengage entirely. There’s no evaluation of whether we are moving closer to our goals; no integration of new information. As the mammogram mess shows, new scientific evidence disproved the simplicity of the early detection saves lives mantra. But bring that up to people who’ve been donning pink feather boas every October for years and you run the risk of angering them. Trust me on that one.

People, understandably, want to believe that actions which feel so good are also correct, so they continue to pour money and energy into organizations that haven’t cured breast cancer. They don’t want to look at financial statements or outcomes. They don’t want to believe they’ve been duped or even just wrong so they dig in. The counter-narrative is ignored, derided, and 40,000 Americans continue to die of breast cancer every year.

If my eight (8!!) years of advocacy have taught me anything, it’s that you need to ruthlessly evaluate what you think is true. Writing on writing in On Writing, Stephen King famously weighs in on the important of editing.

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

Those assumptions we love, the ones that make us feel the best, are likely the last to go.

So where do we begin reviewing our assumptions? Klebold’s website has a comprehensive list of resources that seems like a great place to start.

Love brought you here. Let facts lead you to your next action. And always, always remember: