I’ve reached the age where I regularly read newspaper obituaries. Notwithstanding the timeworn line about looking for my own name, I look for friends, distant relatives or work colleagues that I may have lost touch with over the years. At 70, I’ve covered a lot of ground, and making these connections has been a worthwhile reminder of my history, the interwoven fabric of our lives and pending mortality.
Over the years, I’ve noted changes in the way we memorialize our family members. People rarely die now. We prefer “passing” instead. Many leave this world after valiant battles with cancer or other serious illnesses, as affirmed in the obituary and evidenced in memorial preferences. And we find comfort in reporting that our loved ones died peacefully, often surrounded by family and friends.
But more recently I’ve noticed something else — many obituaries of teenagers and young adults in their 20s or 30s who die “tragically” or “unexpectedly.” Unlike the death of a prominent person like Prince — or the mention of a car accident, illness or other contributing event to help us understand why a young person dies — most of these tragic or unexpected losses are silent about the cause of death. There was no brave struggle, no peaceful passing witnessed by family or friends, and memorial preferences don’t reveal any other information about the loss.
Certainly, there’s no obligation for family members to publicly share any information about the death of a young daughter, son or spouse, all among the most profound and devastating of losses to grieve. However, these tragic and unexpected deaths evoke an earlier time and epidemic when families were reluctant to acknowledge AIDS deaths. Now shame and stigma again appear to limit our remembrances about victims of the current suicide and opioid epidemics.
Both epidemics are tied to underlying disease — depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD and addiction — sometimes with fatal outcomes. Yet many seem unable to equate these diseases with others deemed more “acceptable,” such as cancer, diabetes or heart conditions. Despite the prevalence of mental illness and addiction in the general population, we continue to consciously or unconsciously blame the victims and conceal what we consider a behavioral failing or weakness of character. And, while we publicly lament the growing toll of suicides and overdoses, we quietly hide the truth about these deaths. We don’t want to be forthcoming about the contributing illness because we fear that it will not reflect well on us or on our loved ones.
Why? Weren’t these young people also victims of disease? Didn’t they battle their illnesses just as valiantly as the cancer patient? Are they any less deserving of our love and honesty than deaths from accidental causes? Don’t we diminish their worth, and the efforts to halt these epidemics, by hiding their struggles with disease?
As we advance in years, all of us will encounter mental illness and addiction affecting us, our families and our friends. Electronic and print media are full of news about the twin epidemics of suicide and opioids, yet the deaths are all but invisible when the victims are memorialized. It’s a rare obituary that courageously acknowledges what’s happening all around us, so the few families who openly address suicide or opioid deaths perform an invaluable service. Without these acknowledgments, the silence perpetuates the shame, stigma, and persistent myths about mental illness and addiction, even though evolved religious beliefs and medical practices have broadened public understanding.
Our silence and unwillingness to shine light on the victims of these new epidemics need to end if we truly want to see the epidemics and toll on families also end. Compassionately and openly marking the passing of these young people offers a singular opportunity to impart how their cherished lives ended and help shape a better future. Isn’t that what we all seek in the end?
Gregg Larson, of Arden Hills, is semiretired. He worked at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, doing research on infectious diseases.