When someone dear to our family looses a loved one, my wife makes them a lap quilt of colorful, soft fleece. The blanket is usually patchwork from remnant of sewing projects and serves as the old-fashioned name implies, a comforter. Unfortunately, when a place like Hooper Bay looses four young adults in ten days, I am overwhelmed. How does one make a comfort quilt for a whole village?
That thought kept scrolling through my mind last week as I flew to Hooper Bay where suicide struck like virulent and deadly plague. One after another four young people have killed themselves. Those left behind are scared, confused, angry and grieved. I can see the anxious faces on the school staff and see the tension that children express in ways as varied as their personalities.
I started writing about the suicides in Hooper Bay when I visited this wounded village on the shores of the Bering Sea. I managed to write a paragraph and stalled. Each day since I have looked at this unfinished page and tried. I’ve even written some stuttered sentences. Some I erased; some reside here. I think I am blocked by this topic because such topics deserve so much respect. Life and death topics can’t be dealt with lightly or made a part of artsy word play. We must be probing and thoughtful when we write of suicide and do so with the delicate touch of the egg juggler.
Suicide, it seems, is a powerful act of weakness that must require an unmeasurable strength of will. This is a selfish act that requires an abandonment of self, for how is it selfish to end the “self”? And yet, how is it not selfish to punish others by ending one’s own pain? These are just some of the questions that we raise when we examine suicide. How does a child, a young man, or a young woman know pain so intense, lose so great, and prospects so empty that to end life is the only choice. We can imagine the acts of a sick or dying person choosing to end their life. We can imagine a person choosing death over a life of unbearable pain or rapid declining health, but in Hooper Bay and other tragic cases of Alaska suicide, we must image a healthy young person with potential and future choosing at some hard moment the ultimate terrible choice. But is this all we have? Is this all we know? Do we have nothing more than questions and imaginings? Can we imagine more?
I would like to imagine we are looking for a way to treat, avoid, deter adolescent suicide. I would like to imagine that there are questions we could ask survivors of suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts. I would like to imagine we could act together to fight this killer of our children. I don’t think mourning with Hooper Bay is enough. I don’t think feeling their pain is enough. A comfort blanket isn’t what Hooper Bay needs. It isn’t what Alaska needs. We need to treat suicide as the public threat that is. It will take more than a village; it will a take the whole damn state.