Grieving Parents Include Suicide In Son's Obit To Remove Stigma, Promote Dialogue

Apr 30, 2018
Originally published on April 30, 2018 5:03 pm

Parents Stephen and Carol Cohen had nothing but pride for their son Michael. The Pomona College graduate was an avid traveler who spent three years in China, visiting 27 other countries before returning to Boston in 2016. Back home, he worked as a translator, made new business connections and fell in love. But last December he fell into a short, sudden and severe depression, which ended with his decision to take his own life.

The Cohens decided to include Michael’s cause of death in the obituary they published in The Boston Globe — a decision they made in hopes of promoting dialogue and removing the stigma of mental illness. They tell Here & Now‘s Robin Young they hope their openness might prevent further suicides.


Here are links to suicide prevention resources:

Interview Transcript

On their goals in talking about this publicly

Stephen Cohen: “We’re convinced that Michael’s suicide was preventable. Even though some depression was visible, there was a level below the surface that he wasn’t sharing. And I think we feel pretty strongly that if you can eliminate the stigma and make it possible so that people are free to talk about what’s really bothering them, that you’ll save a lot of lives, and you would have saved Michael’s life.”

On worries, if any, they had in including Michael died by suicide

Carol Cohen: “We are incredibly proud of Michael and who he was as a person, and everything that he accomplished in his life, especially the quality of his relationships that he had with other people. And we didn’t feel that there was anything to hide about the circumstances of his death. We didn’t even really discuss, ‘Should we not include it?’ I think we just assumed we would.”

SC: “I’m so incredibly proud of Michael, and I really admired him as a person. And why hide it? That was part of him.”

On Michael’s mental health struggle not defining his life

SC: “This was a temporary … one of the lines that I’ve heard, and I’m sure lots of people have heard it to describe suicide, is that it’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem. And that line kind of haunts us, because there’s really nothing … Michael had some depression for sure — you don’t do this if you don’t have depression — but also situational factors, we’ve sort of described as the perfect storm.”

CC: “There were layers of events that happened at the same time, at a moment that was particularly vulnerable, and it was really the concealment that killed him.

“Michael was not at all the stereotypical suicide victim. He was not a drug addict, an alcoholic, he didn’t have childhood trauma. He didn’t have a long history of depression. He wasn’t estranged from us, he didn’t spend the last six months in a dark room. He got up every morning and got dressed and took a shower, and we were certainly not on suicide watch for him.”

On making Michael’s suicide known to their community and the public

SC: “You’re hiding something, and you’re ashamed and they’re a little bit removed from you because of that. You’re dealing with this incredible loss, and the thing you want most is people to reach out to you. And you might not wanna talk to them, but knowing that they’re there makes a huge difference, and anything that puts a wall in the way of that I think is very harmful to your own recovery. I think you process it better when you’re honest about it, and especially when you’re not trying to hide anything, as we weren’t about Michael. … There’s no shame to this. There’s tragedy, but there’s no shame.

“We had a very private funeral for Michael, just family members, about 20 people. And then we had shiva, the Jewish [sitting], and we had a lot of discussion about whether we wanted that, because we weren’t sure that we could stand being around people. And then it was actually very therapeutic to have all these people, and distract, and you realize you’re part of a community and realize there’s a lot of love flowing your way. It was actually extremely helpful to have people know.”

CC: “It took us a month to write the obituary, in part because we really couldn’t handle it. The level of pain that we were dealing with, with our own grief that we’re still dealing with now, was overwhelming, and I guess putting it out there was hopeful, but it also opened us up to a lot of people reaching out.”

SC: “You eventually have to get it out, because we process it every time we talk to someone who doesn’t know. And getting it out there, you know, helps that process for us.”

CC: “I mean, it’s interesting because in this age of social media, we’ve actually had this conversation about, ‘Do we put something on Facebook about it?’ Layers and layers and layers of more people would know about it if we posted something about it on social media. And what that would allow to happen would be for people to process tragic information in private, before then seeing us or deciding how to react, as opposed to having to just hear about it if we accidentally ran into them or were on a phone call. And then the other piece is, maybe just putting some guidance out there about, ‘If you see us or talk to us, it’s OK to say something about Michael.’ ”

On how they are doing

CC: “Sometimes I feel like, ‘We’re a mess,’ you know? I mean, this is pretty much the worst thing that can happen. It’s gonna be a really long time before we figure out how we live our lives.”

SC: “I mean you’re part of a new club, and people talk to you about things and in a way that you never expected.”

CC: “We’ve been really struck by that, like people will call us up and say, ‘I have to talk to you.’ ”

On the need for greater understanding with regard to discussing suicide and mental health

SC: “I got a call yesterday from one of Michael’s very good friends, and he had written in an email to me that he had depression, he didn’t understand that Michael did and he wished they’d been able to talk. And I think he’s been stewing about this for a month because he emailed a couple of days ago and said, ‘I have to talk to you guys.’ And that’s when he told us he’d had a suicide attempt and he had been institutionalized, and he’s made his way back. He’s married and he’s got a good career and he’s on solid ground. And, you know, there are probably a lot of people out there like that who are harboring this, and they can only talk to someone like us about it, because we can understand it. But it would be so much better if everyone could understand it.”

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.