What Is It About February and Suicide?
I have long believed people have some control over the exact date of their death, short of a tragic accident.
It may only be a day or two, or a week or two if they have some event they are trying to live to see.
So, when my father died of a hemorrhagic stroke on February 12, 1991, four days after the stroke hit him, I thought he was trying to spare my mother the grief that would have marked Valentine’s Day the rest of her life.
And, perhaps he was.
But, in preparing for a family reunion with my brothers and their families this summer, I ran across my grandfather’s meticulously typed up Frederick genealogy, starting with the first generation of Frederick’s in the United States.
It dates from Michael Frederick’s birth in 1700 and emigration to America from Germany in 1720.
The seventh generation in America was my grandfather, who married Grace Zander, a first-generation American, also of German descent.
My father’s mother, Grace Zander Frederick, died on February 10, 1932.
Can it be an accident that my father died two days after the anniversary of his mother’s death?
How Do You Start a Hard Conversation?
When we were in our 40s, my brother told me about an odd conversation he’d recently had with our aunt, our father’s sister-in-law.
Though we’d never visited them often, it always felt like we’d just seen them the day before when we did visit.
On this occasion, my aunt asked my brother, “Do you want to know how your grandmother died?”
Since that had never been a topic of conversation in our family before, he said, “No.”
Later, when he relayed this conversation to his more emotionally in-tune wife, she said, “Your aunt wants to tell you something. You need to ask your father what it is.”
He did ask, and the next time I visited my parents, my father initiated the conversation.
“I want to tell you how your grandmother died.”
“She hanged herself and I found her.”
There is no answer to such a statement.
Being no more emotionally in-tune than my brother, I hope I mumbled something like, “I’m so sorry,” but, I don’t remember saying anything.
Tracking Down Family Secrets
By the time my father died a few years later, during which time we never discussed the topic again, I came to realize there must be a lot behind the simple facts he had revealed.
So, planning a trip to visit my father’s four-years-older sister in Oak Park, Illinois, I reasoned that she would know a lot more family history than my father, 14 when he found his mother hanged, that might help explain such a tragic event.
I told my husband I was going to try to talk to my aunt alone to find out what had happened.
While she stood over the pot of gently boiling head of cauliflower in the kitchen, I began.
“So, I understand your mother hanged herself and Dad found her. What happened?”
“Well, after the divorce….”
“Wait a minute,” I stopped her.
My grandparents had married in 1914 and had their third and youngest child, my father’s younger brother, in 1923.
My grandmother died in 1932. A divorce would have been a rare event in the 1920s.
“They were divorced?” I asked incredulously.
“Well, they divorced. But, she couldn’t handle it, so they remade the dining room downstairs into a bedroom and Dad moved back into the house and stayed there.”
It’s Never That Simple
“Wait a minute. Can we back up? Why did they divorce?”
And, the full story came out.
My grandmother was the fragile daughter of an emotionally and verbally abusive alcoholic father.
My grandfather was offered a promotion at General Electric, as he moved up the executive ladder from the mail room, with only a high school education, to take a position in Chicago.
The family called a meeting.
Should their son-in-law be allowed to take the promotion and move to Chicago, given their daughter’s delicate emotional health?
The decision was that it would be unfair to deny him such an opportunity.
They compromised by having her come home to Schenectady, New York, with the children, for summers and holidays so she could be surrounded by family and the cousins would grow up knowing each other.
It could have worked. But, it didn’t.
She never took hold in Chicago and sank into a depression that repeated electroshock therapies could not cure.
“Well,” my aunt said. “They didn’t have the medications then that they have now to treat depression.”
By the last three years of her life, her three children were on suicide watch.
They were ordered not to dawdle after school, but to come straight home.
One day, for various reasons, all three of them were late.
They estimate she was alone for 20 minutes after the housekeeper left.
My father was the first one into the house and found her.
My aunt told me my father, at 14, stepped up to take care of his older sister and younger brother.
The three children did not discuss it again or reveal to each other that each one of them blamed themselves until they were in their 40s.
What Are the Risk Factors for Suicide?
My grandmother certainly had some of the risk factors for suicide.
- Lack of social support
- Feeling like she did not belong
- Perceived burdensomeness (she did not feel she could adequately play the executive wife/hostess her husband’s growing responsibilities suggested)
She did not have other risk factors, like:
- Substance abuse, the second most common risk factor, after depression and bi-polar disorder
- Problem gambling
- Gender. Women attempt suicide more often, but almost four times as many men die from suicide as women
- Over 65 years of age.
I don’t know whether she had some of the other risk factors:
- Mental illness.
On the assumption that suicide might be related to mental illness, my father told my mother about it before they married, so she could back out of the marriage if she were worried about their future children.
- Media coverage.
There is some evidence to suggest a contagion effect from media coverage of suicides, of which there were reportedly many after the crash of 1929.
Since those studies, others have claimed a protective effect if media covers effective coping mechanisms and coping under adverse circumstances, which may help to explain media coverage post 9/11.
We did not see an endless loop of people jumping out of the Towers.
We saw hospital beds readied for patients.
We saw police and firemen going into the buildings, then combing the wreckage for survivors.
We saw walls of photos as people looked for loved ones. We saw people walking home across the bridges.
I don’t know if my grandmother had other risk factors.
- Family history of suicide
- Prior suicide attempts.
On the plus side, there were factors that should have helped:
- The family had a strong involvement in their church in Schenectady
- She was part of a large, loving family.
How Big a Problem Is It?
More than one million die from suicide worldwide every year.
It is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.
There are more than twice as many suicides annually in the U.S. (34, 592) as homicides (17,984).
Effective strategies to prevent suicide include:
- Restricted access to firearms, the top means for committing suicide
- Prevention, diagnosis and treatment of depression and alcohol abuse
- Follow-up contact with those who have made a suicide attempt.
Is February the Highest Month for Suicides?
All my life February has been reported as the highest month for suicides, counter-intuitively, since it is the shortest month.
The reasoning was that the long, dark winter months eventually worked to overwhelm people who were already depressed.
As it happens, suicides are slightly higher in the warm Spring and Summer months of April through July.
The explanation is that people who are already depressed don’t have enough energy and motivation to plan and carry out a suicide effort in the dark winter months.
But, the sunshine energizes them before it is sufficient to improve their mood.
Suicides are sharply off in December when people are more likely to be surrounded by family.
They start to rise in February and to decrease again from August through the end of the year.
The day of the week actually has more variation than the seasons.
More die by suicide on Monday than any other day of the week.
The fewest die on Saturday.
My grandmother died on a Wednesday.
Do you have any mental illness in your family?
Do your children know?
Have you ever had a conversation with your grandchildren about mental illness?
To you and giving your grandchildren strength as they learn about the world.
Click here to order this blog on your Kindle to help you think about how to tell your own stories.
Carol Covin, Granny-Guru
Click here to order my book of affectionate, candid advice from mothers to grandmothers and grandmothers to mothers about parenting and grandparenting, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers”
- Do You Have Any Family Secrets You Haven’t Told Your Children?
- Have You Ever Been Depressed?
- What Color Should a Ruby Be?
- Half in Love (surviving the legacy of suicide) by Linda Gray Sexton (mybookofstories.wordpress.com)