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“Everlasting misfortune does have one blessing, that it ends up by toughening those whom it constantly afflicts.” — Seneca, 42
I didn’t intend to write about suicide this week.
But that’s the thing about suicide: for those who must live in its aftermath, it is never an expected occurrence.
This week, we had to break the news to our 17 year-old son that a longtime friend of his died by suicide late last week. It was devastating for us, as we had known him since he was about 10.
In addition to our sorrow over the loss, we were heartbroken for our son, who had a tough time processing it as well. A parent’s instinct is always to protect their child, and in this instance, there was nothing we could do to protect him from the pain.
I don’t know that I have any words of wisdom about suicide. This is something that humans have been grappling with for millennia, so all I can do is offer some observations that connect it to what I write about here: leadership and communication.
Parenting is leadership. Our children are like the next wave of managers that we train — the most important job of a leader is preparing the next generation of leaders — and every day, through our actions (taken or untaken) and words (spoken or unspoken), we demonstrate what we expect of them.
So when it comes to dealing with suicide, we help them grapple not only with the loss of a friend, but with the topic itself, in an effort to understand it.
Death is a part of life. Indeed, the leading cause of death is birth. The title of today’s newsletter, “Memento Mori,” (remember that you die) is the phrase chariot drivers whispered to commanders on parade in Ancient Rome. And it has become the unofficial motto of Stoic philosophy.
Memento mori serves as a powerful reminder that our time here is limited, and that death is inevitable for every last one of us.
The Facts of Death
With suicide rising as a cause of death—since 1999, suicide rates have risen by 35 percent—even before the pandemic, it is part of our collective experience.
Typical emotional markers for suicide include depression, lack of interest in activities once enjoyed, irritability, anger, anxiety, shame or humiliation, and mood swings. The natural assumption would be that COVID-19 led to an increase in suicide, but that wasn’t the case. After a steady increase for 20 years, it would seem that suicide rates are already high.
I’ve lost many friends, family members, and associates (online and offline) to cancer, heart attacks, and accidents. A few of my online friends have died by suicide as well, driven by struggles of mental health.
We freely talk about the importance of cancer screenings and of healthy habits to impact our heart health, but we’re skittish about the topic of mental health. Mental health is stigmatized. But guess what?
Mental health is health.
It is the health of the most important organ in your body: your brain. And just like there are heart diseases caused by the body not producing the proper amount of certain enzymes, there are diseases associated with our brains caused by the body not producing the proper amount of certain chemicals or electrolytes.
And yet we treat people who seek mental health services as if they should be ashamed of it.
Shame on Who?
While it initially seemed odd to tackle the topic of suicide with you, I thought back to last week’s newsletter, in which I explored the concept of shame and its connection to duty, honor, and accountability.
And as I reflected on Sánchez’s painting above, I was reminded of the long tradition of honor suicide: when a person chooses suicide to escape the shame of an immoral or dishonorable action.
“I believe that no man ever threw away life while it was worth keeping.” — David Hume, 1755
In such cases, the suicide itself wasn’t considered dishonorable; it was a natural way to leave the earth after experiencing something that would have been difficult to live with.
Seneca was a prime example of that. As Nero’s tutor, he tried to steer the youth clear of certain tendencies. Ultimately, he fell afoul of the emperor and had to take his own life. More on accountability and Seneca’s choice here.
As Hume implied, we all have different ways of considering what our lives are worth. Whether it is an ancient philosopher, a World War II kamakazi pilot, or a troubled teen, each knows their value and breaking point.
The most difficult part in absorbing this suicide close to our family is the feelings of hurt we have for our son, and knowing the right thing to say.
Above all, whether a parent or a leader, the most important communication skill you can bring to any relationship is listening.
We let our son know that we are always there for him, available to listen whenever he wants to talk to us. Or, if he doesn’t feel comfortable talking to us, we can find someone who will listen to him. Call this memento audiere.
The other is to encourage transparency. We encouraged him to talk about his friend, memories of them together, and any feelings he has about the situation. The more we talk together, the more we can be aware of what our needs are. Memento loqui.
Ultimately, there is only so much within your power to control. In expressing our sorrow and pity for his friend, we reminded our son that this was ultimately his friend’s choice. There are certain things that are beyond our control.
Like any struggle, I keep telling myself and my son that this is temporary. There will be times when it eases up, receding like the remnants of a wave, then moments again when it crashes to shore.
This is just part of the process.
Part of growing up.
Part of life.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
In the follow-up piece for Premium subscribers, I wrote about my first experience with suicide, how it shaped me, a teenager's canny lyrics about the topic, and a number of related links—both timeless and timely—about grappling with suicide:
Meanwhile, I've opened this essay, “Cycles,” that was previously available only to Premium subscribers. Feel free to read and share it.