COLUMNS

"Suicide is Painless' to no one anytime, anywhere

DeWayne Bartels

When I spoke to Woodford County Coroner Tim Ruestman recently about the death of Ben Lolley he offered some sage advice.

I had brought up a word — suicide.   

When I asked if he could confirm that Lolley’s death was a suicide, Ruestman said, “You can call it a suicide if you wish, but some papers don’t list it as the cause of death,” he said.

I knew what he was telling me. He was saying I could write the story and not use the word. He was being thoughtful to the family, and trying to help me avoid potential backlash from the community. I appreciated his words.  

Suicide is a word with the incredible power to wound, embarrass, shame or anger people.

I used the word anyway.

Let me explain why.

I didn’t use the word to shock.

I didn’t use it to draw attention to the story.

If either of those reasons had been my purpose the word would have been in the headline.

I used it simply because it was the truth, as I knew it.

On Aug. 31, the day the story appeared, I got a call from an incredibly courteous female reader in Eureka. She did not appreciate me including the information that it was a suicide.

The caller told me she knew Lolley. She knows the family.

She thought it hurtful that I included that bit of information.

We had a nice conversation on the topic. We agreed to disagree.

I, however, understand exactly where she was coming from. Though I am a newspaperman, I am a human being first.

I knew using the word could be hurtful. I’ve experienced suicide among  friends in my life. A close member of my family has twice attempted suicide.

It was hurtful to me.  

I say again I used the word because it was the truth.

I’ve been in this business covering towns big and small for more than 20 years. If there is one topic in this profession that can tie an editor’s stomach and brain in knots it is death in general, suicide in particular.

I’ve dealt with death in almost every form imaginable since almost my first day on the job.

I’ve hurt people with the words I’ve written. I’ve been hurt by words written about me.

I had a man in Morton threaten to commit suicide if I published his arrest. I published it.

Why? It was the truth. He did not take his life.

I’ve been threatened with arrest multiple times in advance of a story being published. I published.

A white supremacy group issued multiple death threats against me and my family if I published a story about a local Neo-Nazi leader. I published.

I comprehend words have power and that with power comes responsibility. I used the word responsibly. It was used only after confirming it with officials.

Last week I ran another story in which suicide played a huge role. That story was one of hope, of justice and a second lease on life for a teenaged girl. It’s interesting to note the story originated from the family of the girl who committed suicide.    

I am reminded of a quote from the movie, “Absence of Malice.”

In the movie a reporter writes a story that results in a woman committing suicide. The reporter is devastated.

Her editor tells her, “I know how to tell the truth. I also know how not to hurt people. I don’t know how to do both at the same time.”

That is very true. Very simply put, my responsibility is not to shade the truth.   

I’ve always been struck by the fact the theme song to the TV series “M*A*S*H” was “Suicide is Painless.”

In my experience that has never been true for anyone, including the writer who points it out in a newspaper story.