My name is Lisa Klein and I am currently directing a documentary called The S Word. Try telling someone you’re making a film about suicide and see what their reaction is. A long, uncomfortable silence. A concerned look. Clearing of the throat. Then I launch into my spiel – “It’s not going to be a dirge – at all. It’s even funny – well, not funny in that suicide is funny, but funny and human in its portrayal of people living and surviving and telling their stories so other people won’t have to endure what they have…” Not an easy pitch, to say the least.
As a survivor of both my father’s and brother’s suicides, I have wrestled with the guilt, shame, and confusion for years. I will never know why my dad ended his life. Nobody talked about my brother Keith. My mother could never bring herself to say the words, “My son killed himself.” Words that no mother should have to say. Ever.
That was my impetus for making the film – I wanted to tell the stories of people who have lost loved ones to suicide because it’s crucial to both stay connected and be able talk about suicide without shame or judgement. I didn’t come easily to this realization – the word suicide was not spoken in our house – it was the confused and traumatized ghost that lingered in the walls.
It’s taken me years to figure out that speaking the word itself is not the problem. The silence that so often surrounds it is. As difficult as it would have been for my mother to say “My son died by suicide,” I now believe that it would have freed her to grieve and find a community where she could relate and talk and listen. I think my 19-year-old self would have begged Keith to stay – and told him all the reasons why he should. But, I probably would not have asked him if he was thinking about suicide or if he had a plan. I wouldn’t have told him that it was okay to not be okay. I would have just wanted to fix the problem because that’s all I knew. What I’m left with now is retrospect and “If I knew then what I know now my brother would be alive.” Maybe – I can’t ever know that.
We all have the power to save lives and it is our collective responsibility to build an environment of empathy and acceptance, stripping away the shame and discrimination that has been the breeding ground of suicide for far too long.
So now, I am going to say the word suicide – shout it if I have to – because the silence continues to kill people every day and that isn’t okay. I ventured into this project barely understanding my experience with suicide, but what I have found is an incredibly rich community of people who I believe are the voices we need to hear – to lead us toward the ultimate goal of suicide prevention. Who better to learn from than the people who have been there – those with lived experience who are willing to share their stories. Until very recently, first person narratives of people who have been suicidal were largely missing from this conversation – and that makes absolutely no sense. The S Word will give voice to those who have not only survived, but have courageously transformed their personal struggles into strength and action. From these stories will emerge a mosaic of the humanity that encompasses life, love, humor, triumph and survival. Good days. Bad days. A life worth living.
So, when somebody asks me “Why suicide? Isn’t that topic depressing?” My answer is very clear: “There is nothing depressing about working to prevent the kind of suffering that so many families have endured. The most depressing thing would be to remain silent.” And not do this movie.