I learned a lesson after the passing of Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, and other public figures who have been some of the popular victims of a national pandemic, suicide. According to the Centre for Disease Control, suicide is now a leading cause of death in the United States.
I met a man on the train. He was middle-aged, probably forties, and carried a laptop bag. We sat next to each other riding the subway eastbound downtown. It is unusual for me to chat with strangers on the train, but on this day, the energy was electric. A brown woman, probably in her fifties and speaking with a west indian accent stood up and started speaking loudly. At first, I thought she was mentally-ill until I really listened to her monologue. It was more like a lamentation. She said her 21-year old son had recently taken his own life after a battle with depression. Then she started weeping. The energy in the train became eerily still and quiet as she started telling passengers to “check pan yuh family, aks dem eff dem ok, how you cya help them” (check on your family, ask them if they’re OK, and how you can help them).
The woman said her son had stayed back in his university town to work over the summer. Gradually he stopped responding to calls and then stopped checking in with the family altogether. Then she got the call. She said if she had the chance to speak to him again, of all the things she could say to him she wishes she had told him she was so proud of him. He was a wonderful listener and always helped around the house when he was home. That since she did not say all these things to him when he was here, she’s saying them to us on the train.
The man next to me turned and said “this is so weird. I just got back from my younger sister’s funeral. She took her life last Thursday”. The hairs on my skin stood on end. He said his youngest sister had battled depression for years but she had been getting professional help. They hardly saw each other since they lived three hours apart. He remembered the last time they were together. They had a silly argument about her taste in men. He said he thought her history of dating bad boy lone-wolf types was negatively influencing her life. She couldn’t see the connection and thought he was just being a pokey over-protective big brother. Their arguments usually came to nothing. He wished they had not argued that day. He could have told her how much he cherished those times they got to spend together. And how much he adored her humour and thoughtfulness in everything she did. He wished they got together more often, maybe he would have known how bad she was hurting.
There was a common thread in these stories. The tragedy of suicide does not end in the demise of the victim. Its aftershock usually leaves a ripple in the lives of loved ones left behind to wonder ‘why’ and question how things could have been different.
The suicides of high profile celebrities, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain shocked most of us. At their demise, I imagine there were feelings of intense grief, sorrow, astonishment, and confusion for their families left behind.
During my rounds on social media over the passed months, it was hard not to come across posts about Bourdain or a meme with one of his famous quotes. These posts were usually followed by thousands of fans pouring out their hearts about how much he inspired them. In other threads, discussions of Kate Spade’s legacy were followed by fan taking selfies with their favourite Kate Spade bag or purse. Many people expressed appreciation for the design, quality, and stylish aesthetic of Kate Spade merchandise.
In like manner, Bourdain was a phenom. The chef turned-TV host took us on culinary adventures that delighted our senses with the sights and sounds of global gastronomy. In ‘Parts Unknown’, he took us along to Myanmar, Okinawa, and Lyon. When he went to Lagos, Nigeria he said: “it’s mad, it’s bad, it’s delicious, it’s confusing, and I’ve never seen anything like it”.
One tribute in honour of Mr. Bourdain on facebook was shared over 160,000 times and liked by over 181,000 people. Stephanie from Maine said: “I loved him since the early days when he wore his Ramones t-shirts. He introduced me to cultures I would have never known about. His sharp wit and sarcastic sense of humor always made me laugh. Anthony, I’ll miss having you in my living room and reading your books.” Laura from Melbourne said: “I have no words… you are the reason I aspire to travel villages, nooks, and everywhere but the norm!! Thank you for your influence. I’m sorry you never knew how far your reach went”.
When I read those comments, I felt deep sorrow for the opportunities lost to relay our appreciation to the deceased when they were here. Over time as the shock of tragedy fades, their stories become a blip in the social narrative. The thought of them might evoke a gasp, a shudder, or sometimes a sigh. But that’s about it. When the dust settles for most of us, we carry on.
I have to ask: when they pass to the hereafter, what use is the dirge when it falls on deaf ears? Those lamentations sound lovely to listening ears. But their intended audience can no longer give no applause. So maybe the next time you have the desire to criticize, troll, or leave a nasty comment online or in person, perhaps begin with gratitude first and see where that takes you. Express gratitude before they are post-mortem.