How do you say what is in your heart when a stranger dies? What is appropriate when that stranger takes his own life? These are questions raised in an introspective essay that weaves the author’s past struggles with suicide and the present events that bring them, sharply, into relief.
At the community college where I teach, a student recently committed suicide on campus. The news came in the way that such tragedies usually do. On first notice, the information was vague, yet startling in its sudden and numbing bareness, like the moment at which the wind is knocked from your body and sends all your senses thrumming. The email stated something to the effect of “the circumstances appear to be a suicide” and “the campus remains safe.” Appears? Remains? What do these words really say? Are words enough? Slowly, murmured information reawakened senses muted by shock. Details unraveled. A veteran. A male. A first-year college student. A Vietnamese American.
Later, a campus-wide email circulated. Cards would be collected and delivered to the family.
At Target, I flipped open and shut sympathy cards. Some assumed too personal of a connection with the aggrieved, promising shoulders and comfort. I had never met this student, nor his family. Other cards bore biblical passages that are unfamiliar to me but were, in my eyes, just promises that rang empty in their certainty, almost hurtful given the uncertainty of the circumstances. I settled on a generic one with flowers embossed in a gold that reminded me of my mother’s meticulously maintained altars. But I chose it mostly because its interior provided plenty of room to write, where my unsettled students and I could offer our condolences.
All of that space, though, was at once too much and not enough. When I sat down to write, I was overcome with thoughts yet at a loss for words to fill the space. For three days, the card read, “Dear Nguyen family.”
Oftentimes when my students come to my office with their pen caps chewed to mutilated plastic nubs as a result of writer’s block, I tell them to write “What I want to say is…” at the top of a blank sheet of paper and talk to them about their ideas and watch them write, write, write. They write because they always have something they want to say but rarely feel there is someone to listen. So I ask them what they want to say as a way to tell them that I want to listen. It sounds so simple, but the tactic never fails. That phrase cracks open what is sutured shut by the misperception that writing is the controlled act of a sophisticated android, when really it is the writhing of a messy, snarling beast. I decided to take my own advice and write this post, in hopes that someone will want to listen.
This is what I want to say about the things that don’t get talked about, that didn’t belong in the card because it has nothing to do with me, that are most likely selfish of me to share now. But I want, need, to say these things because this student has wrenched at my heart and stomach and mind since I first heard of his passing. For him and his family, for myself and my family, and for anyone who has suffered suicide in some capacity, this is what I want to say.
What I want to say is that it is awful. So fucking ineffably awful.
I want to say to his family that memories of him will be a comfort, but how could I? How many memories could they have? Never enough. Of course not.
What I want to say is that because he was a veteran, my students and I shouldered aside our class plans and talked about how no one, at any age, should have to face the atrocities of war. We could not fully talk about war. But we talked about treating veterans as the civilians they want to become (as so many of my veteran students have shared their flinch-inducing experiences of being asked, upon introduction, “How many people did you kill?”), but also to respect the sacrifices they have made that no civilian could possibly understand. I told them about our campus counselors and the veterans’ center. I offered my ear because I grew up in a house with veterans from both the Vietnamese and American sides of that war, shared a house with their room-filling spectrums of sadness and loss. And my veteran and non-veteran students alike reached out to thank me for having this open dialogue; others came to vent to me, to release and connect. In this way, the family’s son was nurturing his peers. As death often compels us to do, we connected.
I want to say that I am a Vietnamese American too. Because I have inherited some of my mother’s traumas suffered during the war that robbed her of so much, I am against war, regardless of how politicians attempt to rename or justify it. I wonder how this family’s son felt about serving in the military, of fighting yet another war in the name of the country that invaded his family’s homeland. I wonder how many Vietnamese American soldiers are serving today, but I honestly hesitate to find this number, if it’s even recorded anywhere by a government that has historically proven to include people of color as citizens, as patriots, during war time when someone needs to die. I think of Danny Chen, the Asian American soldier who committed suicide last year after being harassed by his “comrades,” and how being Asian American—and the long, racist history that has legally and socially excluded Asians from this country—compounds the difficulties of serving in the U.S. military. I want to ask, how do Vietnamese Americans feel about serving today? How do they negotiate their histories? Immigrating to this country meant a great deal of loss for so many Vietnamese families. How it must ache to suffer a loss like this.
I want to say that I also know suicide. This is certainly not to suggest Vietnamese Americans are tragic or that we are bound by shared inclinations to suicide or anything like that, but it is part of my family history, as it is now part of this student’s family history. And I am sure that we continue to be affected by the larger history of which we have been a part; suicide so often gets narrated as a pathologized cause and effect of “snapping” that reduces the act to an individual “illness” or “madness” that is easier for society to write off, when in my experience suicides have reflected the larger social issues that few are willing to confront. (It is no coincidence that recent studies have addressed how suicide rates among Asian American women are higher than other ethnic groups.) Growing up, I was told stories of ancestors in Viet Nam who did it out of the honor of refusing to submit to invading forces, of others who did it because they had been raped, socially ruined. What I really want to say is that suicides happened in the U.S. too, after my family immigrated to the country that promised a better life. As a young girl, I imagined myself pressing my lips to my uncle’s temple to suck the bullet from his brain. I long to watch him smoke a cigarette while picking his nose and his belly button all at the same time. For another uncle, I wanted to squeeze the poison from his core to his limbs until it seeped out from underneath his fingernails, toenails. I could have washed his feet and hands clean. This uncle, my namesake, would have cupped my face in his clean hands, pulled it toward his and inhaled my cheek, swift but sweet, in the way that Vietnamese kisses do. I want to say that if I had personally known this family’s son, I would have wanted to embrace him and turn his face sunward.
What I want to say is that the Vietnamese word “nhớ” means both to remember and to miss.
I want to say that suicide became part of my language early on. This is not to say that my family openly talked of the suicides to impose a moral judgment upon the act or, conversely, to help each other to grieve the suicides in our family and to get through our respective bouts of sadness. Suicide was part of our language in that it was an unspoken expected course of action to cope with, and opt out of, life’s pain. It was a go-to thought. It was an understanding between us, despite the pervading silence of our household. Suicide became the way we said important things without knowing how, a language that wasn’t. When my mother came into my room and whispered to me that she was too sad and wanted to die, she told me that, if she decided not to live anymore, she didn’t want me to go on living without her and, so, I should die too. After that, I began to sleep in the room that my toddler siblings shared—an unspoken love for them, protection for all of us. Over the years, she expressed similar sentiments in countless letters slipped under my bedroom door, in voicemails left in the middle of the day. I suppose that this was a kind of love, articulated through our language of suicide. When my mother and I fought, I threatened to kill myself too, at which she would shake her head and ignore, even when I did actually hurt myself. This is, perhaps, how she told me with silence that suicide was not an act worth committing. And that was love too. We are all alive today. That is love unspoken.
I want to say that, since I was a child, I have often rolled visions of self-inflicted death around in my mind, like turning a dirty fly’s blue-green body to catch the sun, like the round moment when a wave lifts feet from the sand and the body goes afloat. These thoughts suspend time. They are respite. They help me escape myself, all of the confusion and alienation of growing up mixed, of not belonging to some group or another because I was too Vietnamese, too white, too poor, too tomboyish, too wild, too angry, too quiet, too serious, too something. More recently, thinking of suicide has offered me perspective on the ever-cementing fact that lovers do not commit to me because, they have told me, I am too “intense,” my moods too “tidal,” too “heavy” and “hard” because I cannot disentangle myself from all of the pain I have inherited. My friends, as committed and patient as they are, confess it is difficult to be around me for too long because my inherited sadness manifests in debilitating silences, bouts of which are impenetrable and ultimately hurtful. In trying to protect my loved ones from my ragged-edged inheritance, I hurt them anyway. I make them worry, just as I worry about my mother. And so it cycles.
What I want to say is that I do my best to break the cycle. Every day, I try.
What I want to say is that in my self-inflicted solitude, I feel less alone when I read literature, or, at least, I am drawn to pages addressing suicide more than any others in their works. Ishmael opens his tale in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick by confessing that his pursuit of “the watery part of the world,” the sea and the ship, was his “substitute for pistol and ball.” Virginia Woolf, in her last diary entry before she drowned herself, wrote, “A curious sea side feeling in the air today. […] Everyone leaning against the wind, nipped & silenced. All pulp removed.” One of the chapters in Lac Su’s memoir I Love Yous are for White People opens with a description of his “suicide jar,” a concoction of liquor he mixed and drank to escape his father’s abuse and his participation in gangs as an attempt to carve a sense of belonging in the streets of Los Angeles: “as the poison takes hold of my mind […] I feel like I’m supposed to feel. […] The next morning, nothing has changed.” In her short story “Hell-Heaven,” Jhumpa Lahiri renders a mother who dresses herself for self-immolation, stands for hours in the middle of the yard with matches in her hands, only to go inside “boiling rice for dinner, as if it were any other day.” It is these passages’ cleansing quality and their connective tissue across time and space that always kept me from suicide. They made me realize that the metallic shine of that buzzing fly and the buoyancy of those imagined waves were merely fleeting, idealized ephemera of a desperately lonely mind. These literary works prompted me instead to anchor myself with concrete possibilities, realities: my sister weeping when no one is looking, my dad sitting alone at his dark wood dining room table, all the students I would not meet.
I want to say to you that these were reasons to fight, fight for life as long as possible. These reminders of my capacity to hurt people sent me showing up on doorsteps of the people I loved and who loved me. They sent me to play hide-and-go-seek with the children in my family; doing so reminded me of when my cousin Nam first arrived from Viet Nam and I, an only child at the time, was so excited to have someone to play hide-and-go-seek with, to not be alone, that I peed my pants every time he discovered me behind a door or tucked in a cupboard; and I mean every time because for awhile he thought that American-born girls suffered some incontinence problem. These reminders sent me to fight by sometimes just going to the movies, where I could listen to others’ laughter and the sound of Raisinets tumbling out of their box, and to escape to a world where life was narrated according to a soundtrack, where someone had decided what was going to happen. I also watch Bart and Joe of Just Kidding Films who make me laugh about things that have pained me. These reminders made me dance—hard—to French electro-pop and early ‘90s hip-hop (and, yes, now “Gangnam Style” too) until I was too tired to feel sad anymore (dear reader, I seriously hope you take fifteen minutes of your day to dance out any of your own stress and sadness with those golden videos). When it got really bad, I reached further. Starting at twelve years old, I sought help from counselors through school or work where I refused pills, for better or worse, and insisted on being listened to. Though I encountered some disappointing therapists who were better at checking off boxes than listening, the good ones got me through the worst of times, and I would urge any one who experiences similar strains of sadness to do the same: to reach out. (If you don’t have access to counselors or therapists, you can reach out, or refer others, to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline). I wonder if the student who committed suicide ever reached out to anyone. I wonder what the last book he read was, perhaps even for a class at our school, and how he felt about what he discovered in those pages. I wonder if the words therein made him feel more or less alone.
But, of course, I did not say any of this. All of this is not really what the card was about.
What I did write in the card was that during the campus-wide moment of silence for him, my students and I bowed our heads. A couple of minutes in, I glanced up to see all of my students’ beautiful young faces thinking, praying. Brows were furrowed, eyes closed, lips moved silently above clasped hands. I tried to put this into words for the family. Then I added something my last lover told me when I was missing him even though he was right there with me. As I always tell my students about writing, the phrase was powerful because it stated a very complex idea in a very simple way. I wrote, You are not alone.
Do we speak enough about suicide? Are Vietnamese Americans more prone to it because of our history?