I have never liked small talk, possibly because I have never been good at it. Over the past two years, however, I have developed something of a phobia regarding small talk, for a variety of reasons, of course, one of which being that small talk greatly ups the chance that I will be asked the following dreaded question:
“Do you have any siblings?”—or one of the many variations this question can take.
Seems quite unintimidating, doesn’t it? I did not always hate this question, but now I do all I can in my power (which, as I have discussed, is limited when it comes to small talk) to first avoid the question, and second, if the question does arise, to limit the resultant discomfort.
This is how it usually goes:
“Do you have any siblings?”
Intentional Overly Pregnant Pause.
“Yes, one older brother.”
If I volunteer the “older” part, sometimes it will head off the barrage of following questions. If I clip each word off quickly, avert my eyes, straighten my face—sometimes these do the trick too, making it clear that I. Do. Not. Want. To. Talk. About. This.
But, too often, it continues:
“What does he do?” or “Where does he live?” or “Is he married?”
Pause. Uncomfortable Look.
You have to do these things to soften the blow a bit, let them know something unexpected is coming.
“Um … He passed away. Two years ago.”
Sometimes, blissfully, it ends there. With an awkward condolence and a sympathetic look. After all, they don’t want to be uncomfortable any more than I do.
But other times, they have to know. It makes sense—I am quite nosy myself. But more than sheer nosy-ness, the follow-up question is, I believe, a sort of reassurance. An uncontainable curiosity. They think, She seems so normal, and this happened to her, does that mean it could happen to me?
The question, too, takes various forms, of course:
“Was it expected?” or “Ohmygosh, how?!” or they just assume, “Cancer?”
And for some reason, this is where I stop trying to blunt the blow. Maybe it’s because I hate euphemisms for their attempt to make something better that just isn’t better than anything. Or maybe I don’t want to soften for anyone what will always be sharp to me. Or maybe I think “suicide” is just too nice and neat a parcel to wrap the horror up in.
So I reply, “He killed himself.”
I could be more harsh. I could say, “He hung himself.” Or I could say, “He hanged himself,” because I honestly don’t know which is correct, and perhaps it is better I don’t, for it would be unnecessary and perhaps cruel of me to go into too much detail.
For even barring all detail, when I say, “He killed himself,” I see the thoughts whirring around in their heads. There is a change from She seems normal, how could this happen to her, could it happen to me? to There must be something wrong with her or her family—that could never happen to me.
I’m not saying it’s universal. Many people have been very kind. Our close family and friends have showered us with immense love and support over the last two years. But when it comes to small talk and strangers, too often between “He died” and “He killed himself,” there is a switch and the person who, a second ago, looked like they wanted to embrace me, has now scooted back to arms-length, as though I just coughed vigorously without covering my mouth.
In the months following Brock’s death, my mom described the phenomenon quite well when she said, “I feel like a leper.”
I’m sure the feeling is not entirely the others’ fault. There is a stigma that comes with the dreaded word “suicide.” I’m sure that, prior to two years ago, I might have given off a similar vibe if someone told me that a loved one had killed himself. I, too, thought it couldn’t happen to me. I, too, would surely rather have pushed even the word from my mind for fear that even thinking about it might make it too real.
But if we don’t think about suicide, or if we think of it as something foreign, only for the lower classes, or the higher classes, or the non-Christians, or those with lax morals, or those with a terrible home-life, or just those different from us or anyone we know—how will we ever prevent it? Because—guess what? It’s becoming almost exponentially more common. And it happens to people like me, who aren’t really so much different than you. Who went to Christian colleges and who had loving parents.
According to Thomas Joiner, a psychologist who has studied suicide at great depth, “Self-harm now takes more lives than war, murder, and natural disasters combined,” but we don’t like to talk about it. Why not? Why do we speak out against, and do things to prevent, war, murder, cancer, heart disease, and genocide, but avoid the most brutal killer in our midst?
Perhaps we avoid the subject of suicide because we have come to value political correctness above all—perhaps even above lives. We see people with signs and symptoms and hesitate to confront them because it is uncomfortable, or it’s not our business—we are afraid to be perceived as nosy, or rude, or just plain wrong. Or we just can’t understand why someone might do it, so we think it can’t happen. Not to someone we know.
It is hard to understand why one might take her own life. Take my brother for example. He had a history of depression, sure. He was tall and gangly and was bullied as a child. He struggled in school and seemed to have some trouble finding a life passion. But in some respects he was at a high point in his life. He had finally gotten through college, after having struggled academically his entire life. He had the best job he had ever had. And he had just had a second beautiful child. Sure, he had some financial strain, but was it really that bad? I don’t know; we will never know.
So what can we do? Well for starters, I guess, people like me can stop fearing simple questions. I can swallow my discomfort and be willing to share—even if it makes other people think of me differently.
And what can we all do? I’m not encouraging you to run around asking all your loved ones if they have ever thought of taking their lives. Rather, I am encouraging this: ask questions, and set your phone down to really listen to the answers. Take an extra moment when you don’t have time. Visit unexpectedly. Drop a note in the mail. Make a surprise phone call. Be a little intrusive into other people’s lives.
**On September 10th, I discovered that it was World Suicide Prevention Day. When I heard this, I almost laughed, and then cried from the irony of it, for that day also marked the two-year anniversary of the day my older brother took his life. So there seemed no better subject for my September post.**
 Everyone should read this article from The Daily Beast by Tony Dokoupil. http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2013/05/22/why-suicide-has-become-and-epidemic-and-what-we-can-do-to-help.html
Calah Schlabach (’09) is a Calvin graduate who—let’s just be honest—majored in cross country and track while minoring in English and writing. After a year or so of global wandering, she discovered the sport of triathlon. Calah is currently working as a professional triathlete.