The most important information that people are curious about when reading “death notices” is often excluded. A true death notice, in my opinion, explains the cause of death. But an obituary of a suicide, even when everyone knows exactly what happened because sensational news travels fast and misery loves company, often does not spell out the circumstances. Whether it’s because of wanting to respect the dead or protect the living, there is no pretty way of saying someone took his or her own life.
Last month, a woman in Duluth, MN, decided to expose her sister’s suicide because she saw no reason to hide it. Eleni Pinnow found a note taped to the front door of her house that said, “Eleni, if you’re the first one here don’t go in the basement. Just call 911. I don’t want you to see me like this. I love you! Love, Aletha.”
The same sign was also taped to the back door to protect her sister from the “full horror of her suicide,” according to The Washington Post.
That horror did something remarkable to Eleni, something horror doesn’t usually do. Since she was the one to discover the note, she could have lied to everyone to protect them from the horrible truth. But she believed a cover-up of Aletha’s messy ending would do a disservice to her sister as well as her survivors.
She said, “By the time I sat down to write my sister’s obituary I knew that the opening line could only be one thing: Aletha Meyer Pinnow, 31, of Duluth (formerly of Oswego and Chicago, IL) died from depression and suicide on February 20, 2016.”
She also said the loneliness and terror she experienced on her front porch when she found the note “was nothing compared to the absolute isolation that depression had imposed on my sister,” she said. “I had to tell the truth.” Eleni, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, recognizes that depression made her sister believe lies she would rather not perpetuate.
“Depression lied to my sister, told her that she was worthless. A burden. Unlovable. Undeserving of life. I imagine these lies were like a kind of permanent white noise in her life---a running narration of how unworthy she was. After years of the lies and the torment, my sister believed that depression told her the truth….”
Aletha composed separate notes to her parents in which she said, “Don’t feel sad. I’m not worth it.”
Her sister acknowledged the wrongness of that sad statement, especially because when Eleni experienced the feeling of overwhelming depression, it was Aletha who served as her “anchor.” In fact, Aletha had a talent for mentoring and lending support. As a fifth grader she knew she wanted to be a special education teacher. With that goal in mind, she graduated high school a year early to enroll at Northern Illinois University (NIU). Post-graduation, she worked with disabled people, particularly those with autism, for more than 10 years, and loved it. And her students loved her. Remarkably, she kept her depression so quiet that no one knew about it.
Now, in the depths of their bereavement, Aletha’s family, who have started a scholarship fund in her name at her alma mater, wish for wide open discussions about mental health and the fact that the lies of depression can only exist in the darkness of isolation. To shine light on the subject is the only way to break down the stigmas of mental illness and suicide and help those who suffer in a silence that is at times, permanent.