The first line of the obituary is like none I’ve ever read before: “Aletha Meyer Pinnow, 31, of Duluth, formerly of Oswego and Chicago, Ill., died from depression and suicide on Feb. 20, 2016.” Written by her sister, Eleni Pinnow, what follows is an excruciatingly honest account of Aletha’s life, and the circumstances of her death.
On Wednesday, Eleni expanded on the obit in a similarly honest and heart-wrenching essay for the Washington Post about her sister’s silent struggle with depression:
My sister’s depression fed on her desire to keep it secret and hidden from everyone. I could not save my sister. I could not reach my sister through her depression. Aletha slipped from my grasp and I cannot bring her back. I can only urge others to distrust the voice of depression. I can plead for people to seek help and treatment. I can talk about depression and invite others to the conversation. I can tell everyone that will listen that depression lies. I can tell the truth.
The stigma around depression and suicide – and the silence it causes – is very dangerous, the world’s leading mental-health experts agree. “Not only does the stigmatisation of mental illness prevent people from seeking treatment,” a team of researchers wrote in 2003 in the British Journal of Psychiatry, “which in turn exposes them to a greater risk of suicide, but also suicide can appear to be the best solution for a stigmatised individual.” This is exactly what Eleni aims to fight in her essay – and she does, beautifully so:
The lies of depression can exist only in isolation. Brought out into the open, lies are revealed for what they are. Here is the truth: You have value. You have worth. You are loved. Trust the voices of those who love you. Trust the enormous chorus of voices that say only one thing: You matter. Depression lies. We must tell the truth.
But the obituary, and the subsequent essay, also help give a voice to the surviving friends and family members of a person who dies of suicide. Few people know what to say when someone dies, and this is perhaps especially true when the cause of death is suicide. In 2008, psychologist Maggie Gugliemi interviewed people who lost loved ones to suicide, and their combined experiences speak to that isolation. Here’s a story from a woman named Alyssa:
I’ve been to a number of different doctors, medical doctors [since the death] and they always take your health history when you go see a new doctor. I recall a couple of times the doctor asking about family medical history. When they asked about my dad and I’d tell him he was deceased, the next question they would ask was, “How did he die?” I would respond, “Suicide,” and then there was silence. Nothing, no response. No “I’m sorry,” no further questioning, just silence. It happened a couple of times … You know that they don’t even know where to begin with questioning about something like that.
Eleni has started a scholarship fund in her sister’s name at Northern Illinois University, where Aletha studied to become a special education teacher. At the end of her essay, she urges anyone who is considering suicide to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or visit save.org.