Freelance writer Elizabeth MacBride -- in researching and reporting on the suicide of her great-grandfather in 1937 -- has given us a stark look at how stigma and shame can operate in a family when a loved one dies by suicide. Elizabeth learned in 2008 -- more than 70 years after he lay down in front of a train in New Jersey -- that Roy Lanier Humphrey's manner of death was suicide.
My family had not only refused to speak of Roy, they rewrote the story of his death. Within hours, they closed ranks. A second cousin, a local policeman, told the newspaper Roy was subject to fainting spells. His mother said he died of a heart attack in a parking garage; according to another family story, he'd fallen in front of a train. Eventually, the lie became the truth ...Roy's mother whited out his name in the journal she kept. She, Roy's ex-wife, and his daughter were the only mourners present at his burial, and Elizabeth believes none of them ever spoke of the burial "or the circumstances of his death."
"For some people, that's the best they can do: Live in denial," said Judy Tunkle, a Baltimore-based therapist known for her work with survivors of suicide. "They just kind of leave the death of their loved one behind. It's heartbreaking."Elizabeth's article is all at the same time a detective story, a report on suicide and unemployment, a reminder that the past is always with us (whether we acknowledge it or not), and an affirmation, as she puts it, of "the idea that the more we understand, the less we fear."