If you’re reading this, you probably didn’t know that my dad took his own life.
I mean, how could you? It took me until my third year to tell my best friend at UVA. She knew he died. She knew I was passionate about mental health. She knew I volunteered with HelpLine. She wasn’t clueless, but it still took me three years to say the words out loud. Suicide isn’t exactly a socially acceptable form of death. You don’t just blurt out to your fourth grade class that your dad killed himself, even after they send you cards and lollipops and a whole lot of stuffed animal leopards because you were going through a leopard phase.
The year my dad died, my mom asked me how I would respond if someone asked me where he was. She made it clear that even though I hadn’t told anyone, new friends and other people who spent a lot of time at our house would eventually realize he wasn’t around. “I’d tell them he’s at church,” said fifth grade me, picturing his little black gravestone next to the bend in the brick path of our church’s cemetery.
Ten years later, when my boss asked me if my dad had passed from cancer, I just said no. No explanation, no follow up, just an awkward silence, so thick you could cut it. Because in a new decade, in a new environment, in a conversation between two adults, it still feels wrong to say.
If you’re reading this, you might know that despite its unspoken nature, in many other ways, suicide is a super mainstream topic in everyday conversation. It’s used constantly as a figure of speech:
“Ugh my flight got delayed AGAIN I’m going to kill myself.”
“Wow that final was so hard I’m gonna kill myself.”
“LMAO we hooked up after block party and now we have a politics seminar together hahahah I’m gonna kill myself.”
You might respond with:
“no omg you’re so smart! I’m sure they’ll curve,” and
“HAHAH that’s so awkward,”
Because that’s how normal people respond. You don’t attempt to put a stop to the language since doing so would mean admitting that it bothers you. You might even use those expressions yourself.
Fortunately, mental health struggles and suicide are a little less unmentionable here than they are in other places. I’ve found more genuine conversations about the topic at UVA than I have found anywhere else. While there is still a lot of progress to be made, there’s consolation in the hope that students take the values of this university and instill them within every community that they join. We all need to start checking in more frequently with our family, our friends, our coworkers, and our peers. Rather than using language related to suicide as an outlet for casual complaints, we need to give the issue the importance it deserves, and increase the dialogue where it counts.
If you’re reading this, let’s reconsider the way we talk about suicide.
Page D., University of Virginia ‘20