Haunted suicide sonnet: USA Today and Gannett launch huge effort to stem the tide

It’s pretty weird when a story at a major newspaper carries a trigger warning at the top of the article.

But this is a mega-story on suicide, written by a former editor at one of the top newspapers owned by the Gannett Co. It’s gripping reading until the very end.

Yet, there’s a religion “ghost” in this story; that is, a missing story hook connected with religion. It’s not hard to spot. It’s important, whenever there are references to religious faith, to look for specifics, for the basic facts. Where are they?

I stood and looked down into the canyon, at a spot where, millions of years ago, a river cut through. Everything about that view is impossible, a landscape that seems to defy both physics and description. It is a place that magnifies the questions in your mind and keeps the answers to itself.

Visitors always ask how the canyon was formed. Rangers often give the same unsatisfying answer: Wind. Water. Time.

It was April 26, 2016 – four years since my mother died. Four years to the day since she stood in this same spot and looked out at this same view. I still catch my breath here, and feel dizzy and need to remind myself to breathe in through my nose out through my mouth, slower, and again. I can say it out loud now: She killed herself. She jumped from the edge of the Grand Canyon. From the edge of the earth.

I went back to the spot because I wanted to know everything.

Written in first person by Laura Trujillo, a managing editor at the Cincinnati Enquirer when the suicide occurred, the article is almost a small book, with chapters, even.

Suicide is as common and as unknowable as the wind that shaped this rock. It’s unspeakable, bewildering, confounding and devastatingly sad. Don’t try to figure it out, I told myself, stop asking questions, assigning blame, looking.

Yet there I stood, searching.

Some of it is disturbing; how the mother tried to reach her daughter the morning she jumped but the busy editor merely texted her mom back instead of picking up the phone. And how she’d just sent her mother a disturbing email a few days before. It turns out that Trujillo insists that she had been sexually abused by her stepfather for years as a teen-ager and she’d finally gotten up the courage to tell her mom.

The knowledge that she and her husband had been living a lie may have unhinged the mother. It seems clear from the article that she gave up at that point.

It was only a matter of time before she’d jump into the Grand Canyon, which was driving distance from her home. Then at the funeral:

I wanted to ask my grandmother what happened, what she knew, the parts of the story she understood, her truth ... But when I saw my grandma, she looked at me, my husband and our four children and she waved us off.

She blamed me, I learned later, as did my mom’s sister and brother. My mom had told them I had told her about the abuse and she was upset. They thought she wasn’t strong enough to hear it. And maybe she wasn’t.

What’s mystifying about this piece is that faith plays such a hidden role. The narrator talks about the priest at the funeral whose answers were tragically off the mark.

I walked past the meditation chapel and through a healing garden and rock labyrinth to find the priest that my mom had been talking to the past few weeks.

My mom believed in God. I sat down and asked if my mom was OK. I thought he could explain.

Instead of answering, he told me a story about his own mother who had died and how on an autumn day a few years ago he was lying in a hammock and he saw her again.

He was just a man in a Hawaiian shirt and Birkenstocks telling me a story.

I wanted a new priest.

The story refers to a Mass a few lines down, so it’s easy to assume that the family was or is Catholic. However, Episcopalians might use the same language. Why not include this very basic fact in the story?

Also, a Catholic priest in a Hawaiian shirt and Birks? Meeting with a grieving woman the day before the funeral of her mother?

The writer tells how she too wished to commit suicide and how she almost flew to Phoenix so she could drive to the Grand Canyon and fling herself over the ledge. But a note from one of her children stopped her and she decided not to do to them what her mother had done to her.

Of all the things that held her back from the brink, religion clearly was not in that mix.

The mother had some sort of faith but the daughter apparently did not. And the one religious person the daughter turned to only talked about himself. There seems to be some kind of implied message there.

The story is odd in how the voice shifts. It is part confession, part news reportage. It’s about the writer’s personal devastation and then it swings into almost a detective story on how the mom left clues to her suicide plans months before she actually did it. There were the notes to loved ones; the setting of financial affairs in order; the giving away of cherished possessions.

Then there’s the detailed piecing together of the actual day of the suicide; how her mom took a certain shuttle, was observed by certain employees and how she took a certain trail to a certain ledge. We even hear of the weather that day. The article was foggy on whether the mother’s body had landed somewhere part way down or if she’d dropped clear to the floor of the canyon a mile below.

But for the most part, the piece sounds reporter-like. Then there’s the personal notes, the travail and the doubts. It’s tough to find decent photos to convey the idea of suicide but this story got around that by arranging for Trujillo and her daughter to re-visit the scene of her mom’s death and thus got lovely photos of the Grand Canyon for illustration.

One odd note: The mother had taken care that when she fell, her body wouldn’t hit any hikers or land on a trail. But there was one person she did hurt by killing herself: Her husband. That’s the same man who had raped Trujillo. Earlier in this piece, we’re told this about the man:

Her husband was 66 and sick. He drank a lot, and a brain tumor and stroke left him dependent on her. 

And with her gone, she knew he wouldn’t last long. Sure enough, without his caregiver, he died three months after she did. Was there revenge in there?

The USA Today Network ran this companion article on how suicide isn’t taken seriously as something that is preventable.

There was also a note from the editor-in-chief of USA Today explaining why the Gannett newspaper chain decided to run the mega-story. Short answer: It’s the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. There are 129 a day and for every person who succeeds, 29 others attempt it. In other words, there is a big news story here — attached to this very personal essay.

What I know from living in Alaska is that the further north you get, the worse the statistics get. Greenland has some of the world’s worst.

So what are we to take from this, in terms of the role of religious faith in this picture?

Most religions condemn suicide, as they believe life is given, and taken, by God. The Catholic Church — if, in fact, she was talking to a Catholic priest — has had a lot to say about suicide. However, there is nothing solid in this story about the faith angle.

The reporter was so meticulous about including many other details about suicides and why people do them. I’m curious why she didn’t waste a sentence on basic facts about religious beliefs and practice. Maybe because she thought they did her mother no good?

The article didn’t state it, but in the notes at the bottom, we learn that the author is no longer at the Cincinnati paper. Did she decide that a media job was too big a pressure cooker and that sooner or later she too would crack? We’re not told.

Gannett obviously believes a lot is at stake in this crisis, as it was pushing this story quite a bit this week.

I hope in follow-up stories that they interview clergy and other religious professionals who -– like secular counselors –- deal with suicide quite a bit. Since the newspaper chain is obsessed with coming up with solutions for this trend, why not turn to faith leaders who deal with it day after day? They might have some answers.

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