Aaron Hernandez, the former Patriots tight end convicted of murder, wasn’t awesome. I get it.
But the storm of jokes about his death that took over Facebook was disheartening. When in doubt, it’s usually best to err on the side of holding back jokes and memes out of respect for those who have lost family and friends to suicide.
I suggested as much via Facebook and, being a columnist and all, I wasn’t surprised to be on the receiving end of a lot of “Yeah, but…” comments, followed by a number of elementary defenses of the aforementioned offerings.
“He was a mobster.”
“They’re just jokes.”
“If you don’t like it, just scroll past it.”
Many who lose people close to them to suicide tend to have their wounds ripped open any time suicide finds its way into the news. It might seem validating to many to revel in the fact that someone who has done horrible things has ended his own life. But taking jokes to social media does little to ease the psychological stress of the aforementioned survivors nursing these freshly reopened wounds.
Even if you’ve got the most original zinger you’re sure hasn’t been made by 1,000 people before you, remember that for many that punchline might needlessly remind a mother of the time she came upon her lifeless son. It might reopen the brutal cycle of asking about the friend or loved one they’ve lost, “Is there anything else I could have done?”
In no way am I suggesting that what Hernandez did is defensible. I’m encouraging nobody to feel bad for him. But I encourage people — those making the obvious, mediocre jokes and spreading memes — to remember that suicide maintains its own body count. Often, many of those suicide leaves behind suffer silently.
I encourage the same expression of empathy for these people that folks pretend to hold for Hernandez’s victim.
I’ve lost many great, dear people to suicide. I know many who have lost friends, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers and other family members to this beast. Yesterday, after watching the tired jokes stack up, my heart broke, and broke again, for these people.
I just had coffee with a friend who was wading through the darkness of the first anniversary of his father’s suicide. A dear friend and co-worker just lost his son to the same. For many, the grim joke is on Hernandez. For many more, all they see is the method by which they lost their loved one and their life turned dark.
Really, I think people say something in passing and think, Hey, if you don’t like it, change the channel. I saw many suggest as much in the aftermath. It’s worth considering, though, that social network channels aren’t themselves “channels” in a traditional sense but outlets that maintain general audiences. It’s not out of turn to suggest one be aware of the audience, no? Perhaps I’d feel differently if I didn’t know many — not just a few — who are affected by the equivalent of a crippling depression when re-confronted with the suicide of those in their lives.
Facebook is literally where many spend the majority of their time online. I can’t imagine these folks advocating for clusters of people making loud, gauche jokes about suicide at a grocery store and then suggesting those who are offended should just go to a different aisle.
Queer kids struggle with suicide, as do veterans, at higher rates than most; suicide touches people from every background.
The aftermath of suicide affects many, and it can be difficult to imagine what it’s like to have these wounds ripped open time and again.
Hernandez is an unsympathetic target, and as a result, an easy one. Jokes about his death are low-hanging fruit; they’re tempting to share. Remember, though, that for many, all they can see in a joke about suicide in a quasi-public forum is an uninvited, tasteless reminder of loved ones lost to an oft-overlooked tragedy.
To reach a suicide prevention hotline, call 888-568-1112 or 800-273-TALK (8255), or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was a teenager. He’s an owner-partner of a Portland-based content production company and lives with his family, dogs and garden in Cornish.