What It Was Like to Hear News of Kate Spade's Death as a Suicide Loss Survivor
I was in a church when I heard the news of Kate Spade’s passing. When I say “church” I mean it was absolutely the most beautiful church I have ever seen — the kind of fantastical church with intricate details on every surface that most people have only seen in movies. Ironically, I was not attending church for mass this day. I was there working as the on-set hair stylist, filming a TV show. It was there amongst cast and crew that I heard the headline aloud for the first time.
It hit me hard, but I felt relief in hearing it was suicide. I know it sounds bad but there is only one reason why that detail could possibly put me at ease. It’s because the reporting was certain, stated in complete clear language in the news media, and no one had to wonder as to the cause of death.
June 5, 2018, news of the designer Kate Spade was released stating that her housekeeper found her dead. We were all in shock. I think most people around me at the time were shocked that the revered, colorful designer took her own life. There was now a darkness around her that we had never seen before. I could see confusion on people’s faces as they questioned how someone like her could take her own life.
I was in shock, particularly that the media was so quick to say it like it was — a suicide. Not only was the word “suicide” right out there, the description of how she took her own life was also released. There was no question for us, the public. How many times do we hear a public personality has been “found dead” and are left with questions and conspiracy? We read of “natural causes” with hesitation or that is was an accident — then we all wonder what really happened but don’t really know. We quickly lose our curiosity, flooded by newer media coverage in the days following.
So, I felt relief, or better said, I felt release when people were saying the word “suicide.” There’s so much hiding when it comes to suicide, both before and after.
And this time there was also a note. We very seldom hear about notes.
The note really got to me. It hit me hard. Hidden from my co-workers that day the news broke, I was crying inside. The note revealed that she left behind a daughter. Kate wrote to her daughter in the suicide letter and tries to explain to the child that she is loved and not to blame for her mother’s death. I thought about that girl — losing her mom — immediately and forever changed after this tragic event. Who will tell this little girl her mother died? How will they tell her? Will they show her the note? Will her mother’s words comfort her?
Then, like a punch to the gut, it hit me. I remembered.
My family doctor let it slip out, but then tried to cover it up by saying she was confusing my family history with another patient. I was 15-years-old the first time I heard that my father killed himself — I was two years older than Kate Spade’s daughter. I never questioned his cause of death prior to that. In that moment, everything changed for me and the questions began. I remember what it felt like to be the kid trying to figure out the big questions most people don’t face until adulthood. It is a unique experience to be the kid who is already familiar with tragedy. I remembered the various times as a child when people would ask about my parents and I’d have to repeat every time that my father passed away.
At the time my father died, my mother was three months pregnant with me, and my sister was 6 years old. I wonder how he could have left us. I wonder if he knew that mom was pregnant with me, and if he did, did he not want me or did he not love me enough to stay? If he didn’t know, and he had learned of her pregnancy, would he have chosen differently?
When you lose a loved one to suicide, you are left with so many questions. When you have so many questions and can’t ask them, it makes it so much worse. As a child, we can only perceive situations based on our limited life experiences, which means with each and every experience, children are forming beliefs based on themselves and the world around them.
I remember what it was like when I got old enough to start noticing the puzzled look on people’s faces when I couldn’t give them a satisfying, acceptable and “normal” cause of death. As a child, I didn’t know what that puzzled look was about, but to me it was the way that people looked at me differently when I told them about my dad. I started to believe I was different and I started to question if I was “normal.”
The thing that stands out the most for me when I remember being a little girl is being unstoppable, happy-go-lucky, joyful and confident. I remember looking in the mirror at myself and thinking, “I’m meant for big things — I’m going to do something great!” I thought I was amazing in the most innocent way possible — an unquestioned confidence that only a child holds. The thing is, I remember that because I also remember the day I looked at myself in the mirror and for the first time wondered if I’d ever be truly happy or if I was doomed to be sad forever because my dad died.
In some ways, I have been fortunate that from an early age I was curious in the face of tragedy. I searched to find answers for those questions and I fell in love with the fact that there are always more mysteries waiting right behind them. My journey through grieving the loss of a loved one from suicide has been a long one — with many twists and turns. I have found my voice and purpose through it. Most days I love the person I am because of my story and see what I am able to give back to this world differently because of it.
It’s those questions and curiosities that make me tick as a person — that make me feel happy and alive. They make me wise, compassionate and empathetic — although during rough patches those questions and curiosities about depression and suicide can make me feel alone and isolated. I believe with loss, tragedy and trauma comes an opportunity for growth. There are lessons to be learned. But it’s no fun to go to school for these lessons alone and often many of us do.
I think about Kate’s daughter and I wonder how this will affect her. I think about what it will be like for her to now have to tell people she meets that her mother ended her own life. I’m 34 years old now and I’m still met with puzzled faces and uncomfortable responses when I talk about my father. Even though the details surrounding the cause of my father’s death are out in the open now, it’s still not something that people talk about. Therefore, I don’t talk about it often and I feel the need to be careful when I do — to protect others, to stay silent for those who aren’t familiar with depression severe enough to cause people to take their own lives. I think if suicide and self-harm were discussed more openly, there would be a revelation for those of us who have been affected by it.
Mental illness is incredibly isolating for all involved. It’s isolating for those who live with it and equally for those who are supporting loved ones who struggle — as well as those grieving a death by suicide. We need to encourage and support open dialogues surrounding self-harm and suicide.
When it was openly stated in the news that day, I felt relief because it made me think we might be closer to a time where those of us affected by self-harm and suicide can just say the word: suicide. I felt relief because it made me, and potentially many others, closer to feeling a little more comfortable to ask for help or support when needed.
In the moment I heard about Kate Spade’s death, I didn’t speak up. I didn’t confess my thoughts about feeling relief. I didn’t share my own personal connection with suicide nor that I could relate to her little girl. This wasn’t something I wished to share in the moment. I was so shocked by it that I just wanted to read more news, get it straight and gather all the details they were releasing.
On June 8, 2018 — just three days after the news hit about Kate Spade — we lost another well-respected public figure to suicide: Anthony Bourdain. I was sitting at the kitchen table with my mother and my brother-in-law. I woke up early that day to be sure I would have time to sit down and continue working on this essay before returning to a long day on the set of the TV show where I knew everything else would have to be temporarily forgotten. As I sat with my family, writing about my reaction to hearing of suicide on the news, I was interrupted by a radio broadcast about Bourdain.
Since then, I have been witness to various conversations on the subject of suicide — one where a man stated, “What’s wrong with these people?” when speaking of the people lost. I remained quiet in that moment, but not unaffected. I thought, he clearly has no experience or relationship to suicide or any understanding of how mental illness works.
I do though. I know what it’s like to lose someone and feel anger towards them for leaving. I know the sadness for being unable to help or change the outcome. I know the compassion and understanding I’ve learned to have towards my father and all others who struggle with suicidal thoughts. But once again, I remained silent.
I also remained silent as I overheard my mother talking about suicide. Again, she was talking to my brother-in-law while I was in a room down the hall. I hadn’t heard them talking until I heard the word “suicide” come out of her mouth. It was followed by things they were both hearing about Bourdain. My mother spoke confidently about things she had learned about suicide. There was an ease and openness to the conversation. I remained silent as I smiled — perceiving this as a sign my mom was also finding relief in the ability to talk about these current public figure suicides, because others are too.
I’m not sure that we beat anything by fighting. I’m not sure on my stance on becoming loud and rebellious about any given cause. I don’t have the answer nor the cure to mental illness (if there is one). But I do believe in awareness and attention.
Maybe that’s the thing — maybe by ignoring or suppressing the subject we are silently fueling it and making it worse. Maybe if we accepted mental illness, said hello to it and let it see that we know its presence, there would be a shift in perspective — make peace with it, embrace it with love and open arms.
When we acknowledge and learn rather than suppress and ignore, compassion is born, healing begins and shame, stigma and judgment can fall away.
Maybe if mental illness and suicide was more commonly discussed in the early 80s when my mother lost her husband and we lost our father to suicide, it could have alleviated our confusion and eased our healing.
Maybe if there was more discussion and therefore attention brought to those affected by mental illness it would be easier for them to speak up and live on with us.
One of the hardest parts of having a personal experience with mental illness and suicide is wanting to talk, being ready to talk, but feeling the discomfort from the people around us because they aren’t ready to hear.
I’d like to suggest that we ask more questions and we listen more actively. It’s a conversation to which that everyone needs to be open. For those sharing, we need to be humble and welcome questions from those who are looking to be informed and respectfully educate them.
We need to talk.
We are ready to talk and need to know that the world is ready to listen.
In this time of grief, I lend you my own courage in the hopes that over time you will find your own strength and healing.
Follow this journey on MalloryJamesGlenn.com
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