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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

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My Brother, Still

When my brother was a boy, he loved to leave pennies on the railroad tracks up the street from our house and wait for the freight train to flatten them as it zoomed by.

This scared my mother to death. I don't know that she ever found a flattened penny in the pocket of his jeans or heard it rattling around in the clothes dryer. More likely, she got regular dispatches from the neighborhood gossips reporting for duty.

Every so often, I'd hear her yell his name and order him to stand in front of her — "Right this minute, Mister" — for a lecture about the violent death awaiting him at the tracks.

I was six years older, and watching Chuckie's face as Mom described his inevitable dark fate was the peak of entertainment for a teenage sister who loved her brother. God, that grin of his. Mom idolized her only son, the baby of the family, and he knew it. We all knew it.

I once wrote an essay claiming that, after having three daughters, my parents hired a marching band to welcome home their newborn son. "Connie Marie, that is not true," Mom said after it was published. "You know we didn't have that kind of money back then."

I think about Chuckie's pennies on those rails every time I hear Bruce Springsteen's song One Minute You're Here, which is often. It's on his newest album, Letter to You, and of course, I bought it the day it came out. As I taught Chuckie at a young age, Bruce is proof that our people have poets, too. Knowing that helped me believe I could become a writer. Chuckie, when everyone but family knew him as Chuck, once told me that Bruce helped him make sense of life as much as anyone could.

"I lay my penny down on the rails / As the summer wind sings its last song. / One minute you're here. / Next minute you're gone."

There it is. Damn, Bruce.

This is the eve of my brother's birthday. He would be turning 58 if he hadn't killed himself in the summer of 2019. Like so many people who've lost a loved one to suicide, I've discovered this final fact of his life comes with a grief that has no expiration date.

I was one person before. I am someone else now. That's not a complaint or a plea for sympathy. It's just another fact of life.

I know I'm not alone. Nearly every week since I first wrote about Chuckie's death, I've heard from someone else who has lost a loved one to suicide. Sometimes, it's so soon they can barely find the words. Other times, it's been years, and they still feel the torment of the unanswerable whys.

As I wrote soon after Chuckie's death, he was so much more than how he died. Earlier this week, I was rifling through stacks of old family photos and came across three Polaroids of Chuckie when he was 13, the age now of my oldest grandson.

He is sitting in Dad's recliner, which means our father wasn't home. In two of the shots, Chuckie is holding both of our dogs, Shilo and Sheba. His smile is biggest, though, when only Sheba is in his arms. He had rescued her from the streets and defied Dad for months by hiding her in the garage and in his room until Mom finally brokered the truce that let her stay.

Sheba was his first love, the first of many rescues. That was his heart, always. That is his heart, still.

In this last year, I've thought so often of Chuckie as this pandemic has ravaged our country. Before decades of alcoholism caught up with him, Chuckie was at the top of his game in pharmaceutical sales. He loved educating doctors and the public about medical breakthroughs.

In his last year, he had lost everything that mattered to him. But I keep thinking that, if only I had convinced him to hang on (I know, I know), he would have found his way back somehow, when so many medical professionals have come out of retirement to save us.

Chuckie could have helped us. My brother could have made a difference. I believe this. I guess that means I believe in him.

That is my heart, still.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University's school of journalism. She is the author of two non-fiction books, including "...and His Lovely Wife," which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. She is also the author of The New York Times bestselling novel, The Daughters of Erietown. To find out more about Connie Schultz (schultz.connie@gmail.com) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com

When In Doubt, Please Show Up

How many times has this happened in the last two months? I’m not sure, but every time it still catches me off guard.

In this particular moment, I was on a conference call when we took a break from the work and started talking about our summers. At some point, I just couldn’t keep pretending this summer was like any other. “My brother killed himself,” I said, “on the first day of July. So, summer changed after that.”

I owe Chuckie that, it seems — not to pretend he didn’t die, and not to lie about how it happened.

The discomfort was immediate. They were so sorry, they said. I know them to be good people, and I believe them. They knew about Chuckie, one of them added, but they weren’t sure if it was right to bring it up. I believe this, too. Before it was my family’s turn, when we were lucky, I didn’t always know what to do.

Now, I do. No luck involved.

There are people who are uncomfortable with death, period. They don’t know what to say, or what to do. Having held the hands of both of my parents as they took their last breath, I learned that one needn’t have the right words to do the right thing. For years after their deaths, I was apologizing to people who’d had a right to expect better of me in their times of grief.

Suicide is different. Even those accustomed to sending sympathy cards and attending wakes and funerals, stumble. What words could possibly help?

Well, here’s my short list of what doesn’t:

Don’t tell us survivors that if only our loved ones had prayed harder to Jesus, they would still be alive. My brother did pray, as did all of us who loved him, and still he died. We blame alcohol and depression, not him, and not Jesus.

Don’t immediately tell us that our loved ones are in a better place, unless you can show us the brochure. We are in shock. We can barely breathe. We don’t need you pretending to know more than we do.

Don’t ask us how our loved ones killed themselves. If you don’t understand why, please just stay away. This job is not for you.

I am not writing this column to make anyone feel bad or to chastise those who didn’t reach out. I am writing to affirm those who did, and to keep my silent promise to the thousands of survivors who, since my brother’s death, have shared their stories about life after a loved one has committed suicide.

So much grief hidden from public view, so much pain compounded by secrecy, shame and unwarranted guilt.

“For forty years, we’ve never talked about it,” one man wrote about his father’s suicide. “And for forty years, this hole in my heart hasn’t healed.”

Here’s what helps, they tell me.

Mention our loved ones, please, if you knew them. In texts and emails, or in person, say their names. Not a day goes by that we aren’t thinking about them. It helps to know you are, too.

If you have a story about them, please share it. How our loved ones died is the hardest thing about their deaths, but the least meaningful thing about them. Every new detail we hear about them breathes life into the people we want to remember.

If you don’t know what to say, say that. Much of the time, we don’t know what to say either. Even if we’ve feared, for years, that this day would come, most of us never really believed it would happen, which we only discover after it does.

As I write this, a tower of handwritten notes leans next to my computer, on the right. I will never get rid of these letters. A handwritten note is that extra mile we were raised to believe in. Seeing a person’s handwriting, and running our fingers across its loops and indentations, makes us feel less alone.

Again, no matter how you reach out, remember: If you don’t know what to say, just say that. We’ll know what you mean.

I am reminded of a text message from one of my former students, sent from hundreds of miles away.

“I don’t know what to say,” he wrote, “but you always told us it’s important to show up. So, this is me, showing up. I’m sorry you lost your brother.”

For just a moment, I fell apart, for all the right reasons.

 

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism. She is the author of two non-fiction books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. Her novel, “Erietown,” will be published by Random House in Spring 2020. To find out more about Connie Schultz (schultz.connie@gmail.com) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

The Suicide Epidemic: Social, Economic Or Both?

Reprinted with permission from Creators.

Ours is a nation in despair. U.S. suicide rates have surged to a 30-year high, and it’s not just among struggling middle-aged whites. Suicides by girls age 10 to 14 have spiked over the last 18 years. And there’s been a shocking surge in children 17 or under dying from self-inflicted gunshot wounds.

Since 1999, suicide rates have risen in every age group except the elderly, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Among women 45 to 64 it jumped an astounding 63 percent. For men that age, it was up 43 percent.

In their report on rising death rates among middle-aged white Americans, Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton referred to “deaths of despair” — early deaths caused by drugs and alcohol, as well as by suicide. They cited deteriorating job prospects and a decline in stable relationships as possible factors.

Economic stress certainly plays a part. America’s suicide rate of 13 per 100,000 in 2014 was the highest since 1986. But that was much lower than during the Great Depression, when the suicide rate hit 22 per 100,000.

However, the Depression was an economic calamity unimaginable to many living today. The economic collapse produced an unemployment rate of 25 percent. The jobless rate in 2014 never reached 7 percent.

And unlike their Depression-era ancestors, Americans in 2014 had some social safety nets. They had health coverage thanks to Obamacare, disability for those who could get it, unemployment checks following layoffs and, for older people, the option of taking Social Security.

What the Depression generation had in greater abundance, though, was stronger social connections, a key to mental health. Marriages were tighter and connections to community stronger. As an elderly relative who remembers those years told me, “Things were tough, but we had each other.”

Many relationships nowadays are online presences that poorly replace physical company. Researchers are tying a pandemic of loneliness to heavy use of Facebook, Snapchat and other social media.

“It’s social media, so aren’t people going to be socially connected?” asked Brian Primack, who co-authored a study on social media’s impact at the University of Pittsburgh.

The answer seems no. People who spent more than two hours a day on social media were twice as likely to feel socially isolated as those who spent less time on the sites, his study found. (Of course, lonely people may gravitate to social media in the first place.)

Recall that grotesque story of a teenage girl who egged a depressed boy to commit suicide via text messages and cellphone. Michelle Carter, then 17, had repeatedly texted 18-year-old Conrad Roy III to kill himself.

Roy finally drove a truck to a Kmart parking lot in Taunton, Massachusetts, and sat in the cab as deadly fumes poured in. At one point, Roy seemed to have changed his mind and stepped out. But Carter, speaking to him on the phone, told him to get back in. He did and died.

Carter’s apparent lack of conscience so alarmed the judge that he found her guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Many legal minds condemned the verdict for redefining criminal responsibility. Carter’s only “weapon” was words.

“Will the next case be a Facebook posting in which someone is encouraged to commit a crime?” asked Harvard Law professor Nancy Gertner.

We ask a different question. Would Carter have continued her cruel manipulation had she been face-to-face with Roy? Doing this through text messages may have made it seem less real to her.

Americans can find solace in physical interaction. We can meet a friend for coffee and an honest conversation with none of that social media showboating. There is great comfort in knowing we have each other.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

Vince Foster’s Sister In Wash. Post: “Trump Should Be Ashamed” For Pushing Murder Conspiracy Theory

Published with permission from Media Matters for America

The sister of late White House deputy counsel Vince Foster wrote a Washington Post op-ed strongly condemning presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump for reviving the conspiracy theory that the Clintons killed her brother.

Trump recently told the Post that the circumstances of Foster’s death were “very fishy” and Foster “knew everything that was going on, and then all of a sudden he committed suicide.”

Sheila Foster Anthony responded to Trump’s “wrong,” “irresponsible,” and “cruel” remarks in a May 26 piece headlined, “Vince Foster was my brother. Donald Trump should be ashamed.” She wrote: “For Trump to raise these theories again for political advantage is wrong. I cannot let such craven behavior pass without a response.”

She noted that five investigations concluded that Foster’s death was a suicide and he “told me he was battling depression” days before he committed suicide.

“Never for a minute have I doubted that was what happened,” she added.

Anthony noted that after Foster’s death, she began to read “countless conspiracy theories spun by those who claimed that the Clintons had Vince murdered because he knew something about Whitewater” and “These outrageous suggestions have caused our family untold pain because this issue went on for so long and these reports were so painful to read.”

Asked about Anthony’s op-ed, Trump today said, “I really know nothing about the Vince Foster situation.” He also claimed it shouldn’t be a part of the campaign “unless some evidence to the contrary of what I’ve seen comes up.”

Leading conservative media figures and outlets such as The Wall Street JournalSean HannityRush Limbaugh, and Fox News have pushed conspiracy theories about Foster and the Clintons in the years after his death.

While many reporters condemned Trump’s remarks as “bizarre” and “kooky,” his reference to the Foster conspiracy theory drew praise from fringe conservative media.

Conspiracy theorist radio host Alex Jones on May 24 claimed “there’s a cover-up going on, so we don’t know what it is, but that’s good for an open investigation with the death. …. The Clintons thought they would just have their past not looked at, but Donald Trump is willing to do it.” Jones is one of Trump’s most vocal allies and has hosted the candidate on his program.

WND, best known for obsessing over President Obama’s birth certificate, recently claimed that Trump’s conspiracy is “backed by new evidence.” The site’s 2015 “man of the year” was none other than Donald Trump, who called the accolade an “amazing honor.”