If I were to list my favourite books of 2014, Jennifer Niven’s All The Bright Places would definitely make it. Actually, it would probably be on my top ten books of 2014 (although it’s set to be published in January 2015). It took a lot of self-control not to post the original seven page review I had written up, and had to content myself with a mere 900 word review.
(And just like with the review, this post is riddled with inevitable spoilers.)
The story of Theodore Finch, a high schooler who is at the same time full of life and obsessed with death, and Violet Markey, nursing an aching, overwhelming grief at the passing of her older sister, is beautiful in many ways. Jennifer not only created a beautiful, magical tale but most importantly, she put together a profoundly enlightening book that both sweeps you away into a different world and expands your mind on an important topic.
In her acknowledgements, the author discusses how this book is a way to channel the pain cause by two suicides that affected her directly. I reached out to her, asking her to share her thoughts on the taboo that is suicide. More specifically, why something as prevalent as “dark thoughts” brushed so firmly and deeply under the carpet that we oftentimes miss the signs of an impending suicide? In other words, why are we not working on creating communities in which those who are suffering find natural and immediate support, to replace our current models of community life in which suicides take us oftentimes by complete surprise?
Jennifer was gracious enough to share her thoughts, and also offer to chat me with closer to her book’s release date on the topic of raising awareness. Not that she has not been actively doing so; just check out her Facebook page to follow her on her book tour discussing suicide with high schoolers.
Some thoughts on The Taboo that is Suicide, by Jennifer Niven
Years ago, I knew and loved a boy, and later I lost him to suicide. The experience was life changing. I’d always wanted to write about it—I just wasn’t convinced I would ever be able to. First, it was deeply, tragically personal. Second, there was what I call the shame factor. Not my shame, but other people’s. One thing I learned firsthand: losing someone to suicide is different from losing someone to cancer or a car accident or a stroke—or any other “acceptable” way to die. There is stigma attached to suicide. I didn’t feel as if I was allowed to grieve for this boy I loved because of how he died.
If I was made to feel that way after losing him, imagine how hard it was for him to find help and understanding when he was alive.
I think that stigma exists because—for the most part—people view mental illness differently from the way they view physical illness. People with physical, life-threatening illnesses don’t choose to die. People with mental illnesses sometimes do, usually because they feel alone and helpless. People who attempt or commit suicide are called selfish. In the eyes of certain religions, they are considered sinful. Families are too often ashamed of the connotations that mental illness brings—if a child or sibling or spouse or parent is mentally ill, what does that say about the rest of the family? What does that say about them? And so they try to tuck it away behind closed doors, often failing to get a diagnosis or offer the necessary help. As I mention in my Author’s Note, I lost the boy I loved to suicide a year before I lost my father to cancer. They were both ill at the same time, and they died within fourteen months of each other, but the reaction to their illnesses and deaths could not have been more different. People rarely bring flowers to a suicide.
Suicide is something we need to talk about. Talking is important, talking is necessary—who knows who might be listening. We need to make people feel safe enough to come forward and say, “I have a problem. I need help.” If we don’t talk about suicide or depression or mental illness, how can we expect anyone to reach out for help when they need it most? I want readers to know that help is out there, that it gets better, that high school isn’t forever, and that life is long and vast and full of possibility. I want them to know that they would be missed, that they matter, and that there are others in the world who understand their thoughts and feelings and their pain. I want them to realize that suicide is not a solution and that it can’t be undone. It is a permanent “fix” to situations and feelings for which there are help. (For resources on suicide prevention, please see http://www.germmagazine.com/links/.)