Carroll: Suicide a difficult issue that we can’t ignore
Aspen Times Publisher Gunilla Asher, with the aid of her husband, Mark, and an oxygen tank, took the stage of the Wheeler Opera House on Sunday. It was just three steps from the floor up to the podium. But it was a long walk nevertheless. It hurt me to watch.
“Please don’t fall,” I thought to myself. She didn’t.
If friends and relatives of Stewart Oksenhorn struggled to find words to capture the essence of this dear man at Sunday’s memorial service, it was barely noticeable. On display at this gut-wrenching ceremony, however, was the honest message of the joy of life, juxtaposed with the profound confusion of why our friend decided his life was no longer worth living.
Yet here was Gunilla, along with Stewart’s devastated friends and relatives — his mother, sister, daughter and wife — spilling out the meaningful, joyful, wistful contents of their hearts about the life of man they adored.
Gunilla’s now yearlong fight with Stage 4 cancer has been well-chronicled in her Caring Bridge entries. A mother of two young boys, here she was, mired in the vortex of her battle to keep living, speaking lovingly about a man who couldn’t keep fighting the deep, dark misery that made him to decide to end his life.
Flashback to early January, and here was Gunilla again, days after my wife had discovered she had breast cancer, taking the longer flight of stairs to our town-home, where she spent five hours pouring over medical paperwork with Meredith, and easing the fears that come with first being diagnosed with cancer. And two Fridays ago, here was Gunilla another time, texting me about how Meredith’s bilateral-mastectomy surgery was progressing. I’d just learned that Meredith’s lymph nodes were clear of cancer and texted Gunilla with the good news.
“You made my day!” she texted me back.
The following Monday, we would learn from the pathology report that Meredith’s cancer had not spread. She could now focus exclusively on recovering. It’s a long road ahead, but we could not have asked for a more positive outcome.
You won’t find me seeking sympathy here. Yet I’d be remiss to not say that this year was off to an dismal start.
But I can take solace in the fact that Aspen — in spite of some people’s best efforts to make it that exclusive version of Rodeo Drive in the Rockies — still remains a close community with a huge heart. That heart was on full display at Sunday’s service, and it was on display with all of the friends who have reached out to us during Meredith’s health plight.
Yet the paradox is that we live in a tight-knit community where people are suffering, and suffering badly. So far this year, Pitkin County has seen three of four completed suicides. That is a horrific trend for any county, much less one of 17,263 residents, according to the U.S. Census 2012 estimate.
It’s convenient to argue that Pitkin County’s suicide rate is alarmingly high because of the accepting drug culture, the realization that they can’t be happy in the paradise that is Aspen, personal problems borne out of money problems, spousal issues, psychological health, or whatever. There’s clearly some truth to that, but the answers are hardly clear-cut. Each suicide is its own case, and it doesn’t take an expert to say that.
As one person told me, maybe Stewart’s service will go toward bringing us closer and help ending this god-awful plague. With Stewy’s service now a memory, hopefully the healing can begin, and the Aspen community will address the suicide issue — as uncomfortable as that may be — head-on. The Aspen Hope Center is doing its part to hold discussions and training for suicide prevention. It will host community conversation about the topic on March 4 at the El Jebel Community Center and March 31 at the Wheeler Opera House.
Will the panel discussions and prevention classes curb our suicide rate? No one can answer that question, but addressing the issue — rather than dismissing it because of the notion of preventing suicide is a fruitless mission — most certainly can do more harm than good.
While many of us live here for the quality of life — the skiing, the culture, the events and the outdoors — that darkness remains in the lives of some residents. They may be your spouse, neighbor, colleague or friend.
We owe it to ourselves to least try to better understand this epidemic. To do otherwise, we’d be cheating the community that we call home.
Rick Carroll is editor of The Aspen Times. He takes comments, complaints, questions and news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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