Why do they keep calling his death an accident?

I recently saw the movie The Post, a historical drama about how the reporters, editors, and publishers of the Washington Post decided to follow the New York Times’ lead and publish the Pentagon papers. The documents covered the top-secret government history of the Vietnam War that revealed, for the first time, the lies told to the American people about U.S. involvement in Indochina dating back to 1945.

Katharine Graham, the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, and editor Ben Bradlee risk their careers – and their freedom – to help bring long-buried truths to light.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Publish the article, which contains excerpts from leaked classified documents, and The Post itself may be doomed, both legally and financially; and Graham and her senior editor imprisoned. Refuse to publish, and the newspaper fails at its most essential mission: exposing political deceit and corruption in what is supposed to be a free society.

Graham inherited the paper from her father but not before he had first put her husband in charge. After her husband’s death, Graham found how difficult it was for female bosses to lead without the threat of being undermined.

Graham made a passing comment about her husband’s death which caught my attention. She said,

“Why do they keep calling his death an accident?”

Philip Leslie Graham was president and chief executive officer of The Washington Post and chairman of the board of Newsweek. He was a tall, bespectacled, scholarly looking man, an intimate friend of Vice President Johnson and a friend of President Kennedy.

Mr Graham was 48 years of age when he took his own life. He had been a patient at Chestnut Lodge of Rockville, a psychiatric hospital, for about six weeks and was on a day’s outing with his wife at their farm.

Mr Graham, a lawyer by profession, was widely known as a man of influence, a friend, adviser and confidant to a broad spectrum of Senators, Representatives, ambassadors, and newspapermen.

Mr Graham enjoyed playing golf but was also a staunch member of Athletics Anonymous, an informal group dedicated to avoiding strenuous exercise.

It is unclear why friends and business associates chose to refer to his death as an accident. It was clearly not. He shot himself with a shotgun while in the bathroom.

Perhaps they thought ‘death by suicide’ didn’t allow for a respectful remembering of someone’s life.
Perhaps they believed ‘death by suicide’ placed an unhelpful and unnecessary burden on Katharine, his wife.
Perhaps they felt embarrassed to have someone they knew well chose to end their life in such a brutal manner

Their response was not welcomed by Katharine Graham. She saw no value in concealing or distorting the facts. She had been ‘gifted’ a great sorrow. She needed time to process the trauma of losing her husband in such violent fashion. She needed space to grieve her loss. She needed to be grounded in reality not fending off misleading statements that suggested her husband’s death was somehow an accident.

People bereaved by suicide experience a range of emotions. It is likely Katharine experienced moments when she contemplated ‘Did this really happen?’

Jessica Hutchison lost her father to suicide. She recognises denial as a valid emotion in such circumstances. She says,

“Denial is our psyche’s response to the unknown. How can you cope with and process something that you do not understand?”

Marty Tousley has written about coping with disbelief and denial in grief. She says,

“Denial is a defence against the brutal reality that the special person in your life is gone forever. It blunts the impact of the loss, offers you a temporary respite and allows you to process those overwhelming feelings gradually. On one level, you recognise that your loved one has died; on another level you’re unable to grasp all the ramifications of that harsh and unwelcome reality.”

Denial is different from changing the narrative of how a person died. The latter can create further confusion in an already complex situation.

The failure of her friends and associates to accept the cause of her husband’s death denied Katharine the right to hurt and authentically express her grief.

In what is a tragic postscript I read recently that William Graham, the son of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, took his life in Los Angeles, California on December 20, 2017, in a death that mirrored his father’s more than 50 years ago.

Graham, a 69-year-old lawyer, taught trial law at the University of California at Los Angeles before years of focusing on philanthropic activities to benefit youth education and medical research.

Graham had suffered from a heart ailment for many years which was ‘painful and debilitating.’

William Graham’s death does raise the question about whether suicide runs in families.

There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is so. Ernest Hemingway’s family is a well-known example. There were five suicides in four generations. Hemingway’s father Clarence, his brother Leicester, his sister Ursula, and his granddaughter Margaux, besides the famous novelist himself, killed themselves.

Researchers have found that suicidal activity increases in families where there has been a suicide. The causal factors are less clear. Psychiatrists aren’t sure whether high-suicide families are plagued by genetic inheritance or learned behaviour.

Mental illness has long been linked to suicide. That’s not to say everyone with a mental illness is suicidal. Substance abuse disorders, depression disorders, and schizophrenia increase the risk of suicide and tend to run in families.

It is important to recognise that many factors – sociological, psychological and perhaps genetic – interact to cause suicide.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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