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Finding Compassion After Suicide

“Tell me about a moment in your life that defined or shaped who you are today?”

I posed this question to the writer Eric Marcus when I met him at his office at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in New York, where he is the Senior Director for Loss and Bereavement Programs. It’s one of the questions I routinely ask new people I meet. He shared the story of his father’s death by suicide.

Irwin Marcus, Eric’s father, died by suicide in 1970, when he was 12 years old. As Eric says:

“That experience — that trauma — changed my life in ways that I could not have imagined or understood at the time. No one told me that he ever took his life. I figured it out from the first day by listening through the keyhole in the kitchen door while my mother was on the phone with my aunt. I heard my mother say ‘hospital’ and I heard my mother say “pills” and I knew exactly what had happened.”

Eric Marcus grew up in a family that never talked about his father’s death by suicide. This left him with a deep fear that he too would die by suicide at age 44, like his father. He found himself on a sort of “countdown” against time:

“I remember that I discovered a journal my father kept when he was age 28 and then I got past 28 and then I looked back and I knew what his life was at 28. And checked in all the time thinking where was dad at this point in his life? Where was he at 30? Where was he at 40? What was he thinking in his early 40s as he started to think about killing himself? And found that I had compassion for him in a way I couldn’t as a young man.”

One of the greatest lessons that he learned from his experience was the importance of talking: about his father, about his death, about his life, about suicide, about grieving. Just talking. And, this is something that he carries with him into his work:

“I’ve had that experience of talking to a child who’d lost his mother to suicide. And I remember him looking up at me and saying, Really? You had that happen? And it was such a bonding experience and a healing experience for him and for me. So in some ways this work is a little bit selfish because I get to feel good about something that was so bad.”

On this special day dedicated to suicide prevention, I offer you this most memorable conversation, which has never left me. I hope it resonates with you too.

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