When we lost Tom to suicide in 2015, we spent most of the first week reading and rereading friends’ caring messages from around the world. Facebook provided the lifeline we needed without having to leave the house and face everyone. It was a convenient way to get the word out about his death and service, and to efficiently, although informally, thank everyone who provided so much to us during the absolute darkest time of our lives. Even now, I regularly go back and soak up the messages of love from so many. I know grieving my son would be very different without Facebook, and I am eternally grateful for the gift of comfort it provided. But now, seven years and five months since his death, Facebook has become a mixed blessing.
I enjoy reading updates about my Facebook friends. I am able to rejoice in others’ milestones without feeling self-pity. I find joy in seeing how my students have matured, many of whom are now married with children of their own. I envy my high school and college peers’ chances to celebrate their children’s accomplishments, and I no longer feel anger that I will not have the same opportunity with Tom.
I am especially grateful when someone posts on my page reminding me I am still in their prayers or thoughts. When I post essays about Tom’s death, our grief journey, and our healing process, I hunger to see how my hours of writing to put our feelings and experience into words might impact others. I want to know if Tom and I are somehow making a difference through this tremendous and unfathomable loss.
But my newsfeed is also filled with stories and posts which cut into my heart, stirring bile into my throat as my stomach churns, a physical reaction to my emotional pain.
Through the wonders of Facebook’s algorithms, I now see an increase in the number of stories and suggested stories about depression, anxiety, and suicide. Because I might click on a story with a keyword, I am bombarded with an onslaught of articles related to my son’s life and death. I am constantly reminded of our loss while trying to escape it momentarily through seeing other’s lives.
In addition, several times a week, I see some sort of meme posted about how suicide is a long-term solution to a short-term problem, or how suicide is selfish, or how if we just stopped bullying people, the suicide rate would decrease, or it will get better if you just try and wait it out, or suicide is a coward’s way out, and maybe by posting this (fill in the blank) it might make a difference and save one person’s life.
Each time I read those posts, I think about Tom, who told us through the writing he left behind (but never shared during his life) how he struggled with this decision for years, finally not able to see another way out. Tom — who never once mentioned he was being bullied, but instead spoke often of how much he liked his friends and how he wondered if they were too good to be true. Tom — who helped take care of me after my back and knee surgeries, who always helped carry in the groceries, and who made me belly laugh at least once a day.
These well-intentioned posts become very personal for me very quickly, and I am not sure everyone who spends a few seconds cutting and pasting a meme onto their page understands their impact. When I see people share those kinds of messages about suicide, it ties back in my mind to what the poster must think of my son. “Tom chose a long-term solution to his short-term problem.” “Tom was selfish.” “Tom would be alive if he hadn’t been bullied.” “Tom should have just tried a little harder to get through it.” “Tom was a coward.” When I read these posts, it breaks my heart because it feels as though people are judging my son, which makes me want to protect and defend him, even though what happened temporarily tore my life apart and crushed my spirit. I am certain my caring and intelligent son would not have taken his life if he had seen another option. I do not consider him to be selfish or cowardly; I consider him to be strong to have fought the urge to kill himself for so many years.
The problem with messages and memes like these extends further than my family. These statements are not true. By repeating them — whether aloud or in the cyberworld — falsehoods around suicide ideation become urban legends that laypeople repeat as fact, perpetuating harmful misinformation.
Until one has suffered a level of anxiety and depression where they have considered suicide, they cannot understand. They can sympathize and they can care, but unless they have stood in the bottomless pit of depression, looking up from the dark hole with only an emergency exit sign in view, they cannot truly know what it feels like.
I understand the feelings because I have been there. Posting these types of memes is not going to be the difference between life and death. In fact, they can increase the distress of someone in crisis. Please consider the tone and the content of posts on the subject of suicide, keeping in mind well-intended sentiments may have unintended and painful impacts.
Truly listening to each other and investing time in one-on-one relationships might help. Looking beyond the screen into someone’s eyes and soul could save a life. Knowing the signs of suicide ideation, the questions to ask, and contact information for local and national support systems could be the difference. Please, commit to stopping the flow of inappropriate language around suicide ideation and instead share constructive information.
For those in crisis:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: call 988
National Crisis Text Line : text “home” to 741-741
© 2015, 2022 Kimberly A. Starr