I recently picked up the audio book of Sue Klebold’s A Mother‘s Reckoning. The mother of one of the most infamous school shooters in history, Klebold’s book brings context to our caricature we’ve created of her son. A tough read at points, the book is part memoir, part public health advocacy. At the risk of oversimplifying her complex points, Klebold learned after her son’s death that he had been suicidal for years, evidenced through his private writing.
If she’d known that, she believes, she might have been able to help him find help and even have prevented the deaths at Columbine High School in 1999.
She has become an advocate for suicide prevention. Much of what she said in this book reminded me of what I’ve read of the pre-1970’s state of breast cancer advocacy. Too shameful to discuss in polite company, suicide is spoken of in whispers just like breast cancer was before taboos were smashed and women claimed the right to their own healthcare decisions.
One Friday morning this spring, I dropped my eighth grade son off at school and popped the CD book in my car’s player. Another similarity with breast cancer struck me – 40,000 lives lost per year.
Unlike the breast cancer movement, suicide advocacy is stuck in the shadows of shame. And while I’ve noted for years that the breast cancer movement is stuck in some infantile and outdated phase of awareness, it is further along than Klebold’s cause.
Until the discussions of suicide emerge into the light, no progress will be made.
I was thinking about how one movement can inform the other that morning when I arrived home and checked my texts and emails. I learned that a mother from our close-knit parochial school community, Jennifer Brisben, had died the day before. I only knew her well enough to say hello and make small talk.
We ran in different circles; hers being much more socially plugged in than mine. Her family name is prominent in the city. She has four daughters, and none of whom are in the same grades as my kids. Her oldest two are a year behind my daughter at the same high school, her third in the grade behind my son, and the youngest a few grades behind her.
When someone younger than you dies; someone whose path you crossed even briefly, someone who seemed to posses all of the privileges of health, wealth, social status, and success (some of which may have even evaded you), you want to know what happened. And the lack of detail in the initial reports leave you assuming the worse.
It didn’t take long to confirm that she died by suicide.
Klebold writes of her struggles to live a life so far outside of her control, one her son handed her by his own suicide. While Jenn’s circumstances were markedly different, the wake of devastation was profound and immediate. Visible. Raw.
There were the teachers at our kids’ Catholic schools who had to hold their grief of their students along with their own. The school administration who had to put together prayer services and grief programs on the spot. Our parish’s pastor who has to lead a family and community through this deepest and darkest of valleys. The friends and the family who have to learn to live with this, including the nagging self-doubt and questions of what if. People on the periphery, like me, who can’t help but wonder why.
I have an advocate’s mind now, so I stopped wondering why after a day or so.
Now I want to know what we’re going to do about it.
(to be continued)