Jourgensen: Speaking out on suicide

I turned to the second page of this newspaper a week ago and stared in shock at a sight I have never seen in 36 years as a newsman. The obituary published next to a photograph of a smiling athletic-looking woman at the helm of a sailboat listed Kari Bierbaum’s cause of death in its first paragraph: Suicide.

Obituaries are biographies and tributes to dead people. But they are written by and for the living and how someone died is, more often than not, omitted from an obituary or referred to with oblique language. “Died unexpectedly” or “died suddenly” are typical descriptions. But Kari Bierbaum’s obituary — actually, in technical newspaper terms, it was a memoriam noting her Dec. 2, 2018 death and referencing a recent gathering to remember her — stated how she died. 

That short, sharp description hit me with the force of a punch the same way the words “lost a battle with addiction” hit me the first time I read an obituary written about someone killed by opioids. 

The heart-felt tribute to Bierbaum published in the Daily Item’s Aug. 29 edition paints a picture of a busy, accomplished woman who was educated, who loved to work, who loved the outdoors and the joy of physical activity and who was surrounded by people who loved her.

The people who tamped down pain and heartache to write a loving tribute in her memory took the time to describe Bierbaum’s humor and her compassion. They also wrote about how their wife, daughter and sister “struggled with depression/anxiety intensely these last two years.”

It is hard to imagine the anguish someone experiences when they place their fingertips on a keyboard or commit pen or pencil to paper to describe the pain a loved one experienced before dying by their own hand. 

My father died by suicide in 2003. Writing those words even now, more than 16 years later, makes my hands shake and my eyes blink. It’s hard to describe the horror you experience when you are told someone you have known your entire life is dead and that the murderer is the person they saw in the mirror.

The call came in the middle of the night. My wife answered it and handed the phone to me. Thinking like a newsman, I called the sheriff whose jurisdiction included the rural county where my dad lived and I verified in a short conversation that the local authorities had confirmed my father’s death and ascertained with confidence its cause. 

That left me with the work consigned by the dead to the living. My wife scrambled to find me an early morning flight and I packed a bag with that numb sense of focus we lock our minds into when we know we are only capable of performing one simple task and then another until we collapse or see that light at the end of the tunnel everyone always tell us will eventually come into view.

The obituary I wrote for my father  did not read like the one written for Kari Bierbaum. It was matter-of-fact, written in strict journalese. Even today I can laugh about how my comrades in arms at the Casper Star-Tribune managed to get my dad’s middle name wrong in his obituary. 

I, like the people who love Kari Bierbaum, have asked the question that gets asked in the wake of a loved one’s suicide: Why didn’t I do more? 

I don’t know why my father killed himself. I do know that he dwelled in dark places in his mind. I know that he was a loving generous person who could also become unapproachable and unfathomable. He needed mental health help but to make that obvious statement about someone who killed themselves almost seems absurd. 

My dad loved a licorice candy called Nibs. He liked to meet colorful characters and he could gaze at the night sky for an hour and pick out stars and constellations. He threatened suicide more than once and the best guess I can make about the dark thoughts that lurked in his mind is to recall these words he once said to me: “I like building things up and then tearing them down.”

To a sane person, that sentence defies logic. But I know the way my father’s mind worked and I got a glimpse at the demons warring inside him when I heard those words. 

Kari Bierbaum’s family not only discussed her depression and anxiety in her obituary, they also offered a positive opportunity for other people to help someone who is suicidal. The obituary urges anyone interested in honoring Bierbaum’s memory to find a way to assist the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center. 

“Our family is committed to bringing heart-felt awareness, research and effective public policy to bear on this widespread, treatable disease.” Those words are inspiring and hopeful and it took fortitude for Bierbaum’s loved ones to write them. 

Unlike Bierbaum’s family, I did not attempt to come to grips with my father’s suicide by turning outward. I turned inward and sat by myself several days after his death and made a promise to think of my father from that day forward with love and respect and to do my best to consign the horror of his death and the “what if” questions to a corner of my mind. 

I visit that corner occasionally. But I spend much more time remembering my dad’s great qualities and laughing out loud about his sayings and bromides. From reading Bierbaum’s obituary, I suspect the talented woman’s loved ones took a similar approach to honoring her memory. 

A friend who spent a career as a mental health professional defines suicide as a permanent solution to temporary problems. I’m pretty sure he did not originate that saying, but there is a lot of wisdom behind those simple words. All of us, from professionals to friends, can reach out and help someone struggling with the pain that ultimately claimed Kari Bierbaum’s life and my father’s life. 

I don’t know if either life could have been saved, but we must always think that the fight to save someone is worth it, even with setbacks and even if the person at the center of our efforts doesn’t think they are worth saving. As another friend likes to remind me, the fight for anything and everything worthwhile in life hasn’t even begun until the odds of winning it drop below 50 percent. 

That may be logic reserved for the stoutest and bravest among us. But the fight to save someone’s life is always worth it. 

If you or a person you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.

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