Eight years ago I lost my loving, amazing sister to suicide. I work in a small office, and my co-workers attended the funeral and were very supportive. Over the years, however, they will occasionally make joking references to suicide. Usually I leave, compose myself, return to my desk without saying anything, and attempt to concentrate on my work. It was the last straw today when two of them made suicide jokes for the second time in two weeks. I pulled out my phone and showed them a picture of me and my sister, and told them their jokes were a knife in my heart. What is an effective strategy to silence people who joke about suicide?
Anonymous / Boston
I am so sorry for your loss. How awful to lose a family member in that way. I hope you’ve been able to find the support you need, whatever that may be.
The strategy you chose is about as effective a silencing method as you could ask for. I expect your fully understandable outburst will shut your colleagues up for a long, long time in the office, and possibly make them more generally aware of how their speech might affect others. When folks are being callous about sensitive matters, or asking invasive questions or being pushy, sometimes you need to toss some cold reality in their face. For all readers, this is a useful technique to keep in mind as we approach Compulsory Fun Season, with nosy relatives wondering about children, or neighbors insisting you try their wassail. Even if you’re merely annoyed, remind them they could cause greater pain to others: “None here, thanks — and hey, keep in mind you never know who might be struggling with infertility/alcohol.” It’s a kind way to look out for your fellow human.
But this technique is best when you can be clinical and detached, and easily move on. What you said to your colleagues was not that — I hate to think how much that moment must have cost you, psychologically.
You were never obligated to suffer their jokes in silence. The first time it came up, you could have reminded them of your personal connection to suicide. They didn’t realize they’d been piling up straws all along. Not because they are insensitive monsters, but because the human brain is jerry-rigged and fallible. People shouldn’t forget about other people’s life experiences; we shouldn’t casually joke about terrible things, or use physical and mental illnesses or violence as metaphors — but we do, pretty much universally. Address the blunders of others as you’d like your own to be addressed.
Finally, I was raised with the myth that people who talk about suicide don’t do it. This isn’t true. If there’s a sudden increase in the “jokes,” is their behavior symptomatic of a larger problem in the office?
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.