After Kate Spade’s death, think of the survivors
Thirteen years ago, late in the evening of Sept. 18, my cousin called with news that would forever change my life.
Her words are etched in my brain, and years later I can hit play and hear them as if they are being uttered live: “Bethany, I don’t know how to tell you this so I’m just going to say it. Your dad died today. He committed suicide.”
I handed the phone to my boyfriend and let out a primal scream. I was 19, a sophomore at Rutgers University, and had just transferred to campus from City College in New York. I would learn he hanged himself in a shed behind his house. He was 53.
That day flashed back at me on Tuesday with the news of Kate Spade’s death, by hanging, at the age of 55. Spade and my father had little in common outside of their ages and their chosen method of death, except, seemingly, their struggles with mental illness.
Mental illness doesn’t discriminate by wealth or success; it can happen to one of the most famous fashion designers in the world or a truck driver on Long Island.
Another similarity between Spade and my father was their last overtures to their only children, a daughter. The Post reported Spade left a suicide note, addressing “her 13-year-old daughter Frances Beatrix Spade. ‘This has nothing to do with you,’ the note reads in part, according to sources. ‘Don’t feel guilty. Ask your dad.’ ”
As one of his final acts, my father changed his outgoing voicemail message. On the day he died, if you called his phone, it went straight to voicemail. That day, the message would say: “You have reached Bethany’s dad.” That was how he last saw himself, just as my father.
In the coming days and weeks, we’ll see remembrances of Spade as a fashion icon and a strong woman pioneer, making an indelible mark on her industry. In its obituary for the visionary, The New York Times described her as the woman whose handbags carried girls into adulthood.
But beyond the tragedy of Spade’s death, there is the weight of the tragedy her daughter will carry into adulthood. While Spade assured her daughter “it had nothing to do with you,” it will have everything to do with Frances for the rest of her life.
There is a great deal of discussion about how much the decision to take one’s life is made out of free will. In her book on her son Dylan’s murder-suicide at Columbine High School, Sue Klebold writes of a conversation she had with psychologist and suicide researcher Dr. Matthew Nock at Harvard.
In his conversations with Klebold, he called suicide a “dysfunction in decision making.” Klebold explains: “If suicide seems like the only way out of an existence so painful it has become intolerable, is that really an exercise of free will?”
Klebold describes herself as a survivor of suicide. This is a profoundly illustrative way to describe those left behind; we survive. Suicide has a way of imprinting an indelible mark on the souls of those it leaves behind.
In the wake of high-profile suicides like Spade’s, there is a great deal of discussion about the person who committed the deed and far too little about the survivors, who are especially in need of support and guidance.
Suicide is one of the top causes of death in the country across demographics, and one of the least funded or researched. As a result, we have little understanding about what leads those like Kate Spade, or my father, to commit the act. We don’t talk about the act, nor do we talk about the impact it has on those around the deceased.
We often hear from those who have attempted suicide but survived that they believed the world would be better off without them. While sharing suicide-prevention hotline numbers can help a great deal, sharing the perspectives and grief of those left behind can as well. Because those still in this world but contemplating an exit must know that their feelings of self-worthlessness are not shared by those who love them.
If someone is contemplating suicide, they should know the utter devastation that will be left in their wake. While those who have died may have thought the world a better place without them, we survivors are living witness to the fact that it is not, that our worlds will not ever be whole without them in it.
Bethany Mandel is a part-time editor at Ricochet and columnist at the Jewish Daily Forward.
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