Grieving Harrison mother mentions suicide in daughter’s obituary to create awareness
When it came time for Michelle Gibb to begin the painful process of writing her daughter’s obituary, she had a choice to make: list her daughter’s death as a suicide, or use a more vague phrase, like “died unexpectedly.”
To many people’s surprise, she chose the first option. It was a choice that has drawn some harsh criticism but also much support from friends, family and acquaintances.
“I think that I would prefer to be very definitive because, in that way, it is not some euphemistic secret,” Gibb said. “It’s something that we can start a conversation about and that people don’t have to dance around the topic.”
Gibb’s daughter, Julia Bond, 18, took her own life July 21 at her Natrona Heights home.
“I think people are entitled to their opinions and their feelings on it,” Gibb said of including the cause of death in the obituary. “I feel strongly that we have to stop making this something to be hidden from.”
Gibb said Bond had been struggling with anxiety since graduating from Highlands High School in June and was seeing a therapist.
There was no indication Bond was considering suicide, Gibb said. They had just attended a family reunion the day before, and she laughed and joked with family members.
“I know that one of the last communications that she made was saying that she knew that she should come talk to me — in that moment, she made a choice to not,” she said. “I will spend the rest of my life wondering why.”
Breaking the stigma
Gibb joins an increasing number of families who are choosing to be more honest about cause of death in obituaries in an effort to break the stigma and start a conversation about suicide and overdoses that have long been taboo in obituaries.
Dr. Abigail Schlesinger, chief of the behavioral science division of UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, said she knows how hard it must have been for Gibb to include the cause of death in her daughter’s obituary.
“I commend those parents for making a really hard decision,” she said. “The most honest we can be, especially with our teens, the better.”
Schlesinger said acknowledging a death from suicide is important, but it’s critical to provide support and discuss how to get help before it reaches that point.
A family from Boston was featured on National Public Radio’s “Here & Now” segment in April after their son, Michael Cohen, committed suicide and they wrote about it in his obituary.
The father of Katie Shoener wrote about her suicide in Ohio in her 2016 obituary. He was later featured in the Washington Post for detailing her struggles with bipolar disorder that led to her suicide.
The sister of Aletha Pinnow, a Minnesota woman who died by suicide in 2016 after struggling with depression, also was featured in the Washington Post for her candid explanation of what happened to her sister.
Rodney Duster, co-owner and director of Duster Funeral Home in Tarentum, said honesty is the best policy when it comes to obituaries.
He said he’s seen more families decide to list suicide as the cause of death in obituaries over the past 10 years or so.
“It’s not hidden anymore under the rug like it was many years ago,” Duster said. “The stigma is really kind of fading.”
The funeral home has received feedback from residents since publishing Bond’s obituary, he said. It allows condolences on its website for deaths it is handling. It screens all of the comments.
“We’ve had a couple calls from people saying, ‘You know what, that’s refreshing to see that,’” he said. “It is unusual for us to get comments from people.”
A look at the numbers
Suicide is rising in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Suicide rates went up more than 30% in half of states since 1999, including Pennsylvania.
It’s the 11th leading cause of death in Pennsylvania, according to data from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. For residents between 15 and 34 years old, it is the second leading cause of death.
Suicide rates have either stayed the same or increased per capita in Allegheny, Armstrong and Westmoreland counties between 2008 and 2016, according to the most recent data available from the state Department of Health. The rate has decreased slightly in Butler County.
According to data from Allegheny County, the number of suicides among teens and children between ages 10 and 19 has fluctuated over the years, with the number rising to 12 in 2018, the highest number since 2008. There have been five suicides in 2019.
Despite a slight increase, suicides among teens are still considered to be very rare, Schlesinger said.
“It’s important to keep that in mind,” she said.
Warnings, risk factors
Schlesinger stressed the importance of knowing the difference between risk factors and warning signs of suicide.
Risk factors can include mental health conditions, physical health conditions, having a gun in a home, stress, hopelessness and previous suicide attempts.
“The act of suicide often comes out of hopelessness,” she said. “Maybe it’s chronic, maybe it’s something that happened just yesterday, quickly, and they didn’t have time to think about it.”
Warning signs can include teens talking about suicide to peers, withdrawing, giving things away, increased use of alcohol and drugs and changes in mood.
“Having thoughts of suicide doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to commit suicide,” she said. “We need to work with those individuals to get them help — many teens have thoughts about suicide and don’t act on them.”
Gibb said she just wants to do her best to carry on Bond’s memory and help prevent other suicides by encouraging more support and open communication for teens.
“I would like people to know that (Bond was) an absolutely amazing young woman who had the greatest capacity to love others and I would like her legacy, for adults and kids alike out there, to be that much more conscious and loving to others,” she said. “This is a decision that does not solve any problems, and it just leaves a trail of broken hearts.”