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Geoff Carnell: ‘a lot of good’ came from Louis’s obituary

The media generally doesn’t report suicide unless it’s an exceptional situation, such as a murder-suicide or possibly the death of a celebrity.  However, code words are used that sometimes do allow us to read between the lines.

For example, if you see the words “died suddenly” and “no criminal activity” in the same paragraph, in many cases it means suicide was involved. You can probably think of other terms that obscure suicide as cause of death. 

But when it comes to obituaries in the newspaper, there are seldom any clues at all. It just isn’t mentioned when someone dies from suicide.

Early in February, Andy Jones and Mary-Lynn Bernard punched through that paper wall when they announced in The Telegram that their son, Louis, had “passed away by his own hand.”

That frank admission began a conversation that continued through Louis’s wake and funeral, and was subsequently picked up by media (see part one of this series).

The death notice was prepared by Andy and Mary-Lynn in consultation with Geoff Carnell, of Carnell’s Funeral Home. In an interview, I asked Carnell if this was the first time that suicide was given as the cause of death in an obituary.

“It is indeed the first time in my recollection that somebody was so honest,” he said. “Andy and Mary-Lynn asked if they could use the words ‘by his own hand’ in the notice. I said ‘if you wish, yes.’ They came up with that phrase and were very pleased with it. They described the battle that their son went through for years and were very candid about how that was his only option, and were saddened about how he was by himself. If it had been someone dying from a terminal illness they would have had family members by their side. They made that point, which I felt was quite profound. But in this particular case, he was on his own – Louis chose to be alone.”

That’s not unusual, of course. When people end their own lives they have little other recourse because loved ones in most instances would try to stop them. That said, Andy has pointed out in media interviews that his son’s real killer was metal illness.

“Exactly,” Carnell said. “And that’s what we don’t understand. That’s how difficult it is for all of us to comprehend that something else really killed him… I’m sure there are other more sophisticated names for it, but mentally he couldn’t contain what was inside of him … He was battling his own demons.”

Carnell has no hard numbers on how prevalent suicide is in society – that information is better known by the medical examiner – but he says it’s far more common than we realize. 

“All I can say is that it occurs more often than the public will know … You wouldn’t know it by reading funeral notices or listening to news stories because it’s something that is very private. People don’t want to make it public for whatever reason. It’s something that is extremely difficult to address when there is a sudden loss of life like that, particularly when it’s a younger person.”

Does he think others should be as forthcoming as Andy and Mary-Lynn were, in preparing their death notice? Should suicide be given as cause of death, where applicable?

“I can’t speak for others. But what I can say is there was a lot of good that came from the fact that they did speak out. The memorial service that was held for Louis was unbelievable. Once the truth was out there, everybody was much more comfortable with how he was remembered. It was a different perspective than a traditional funeral. It wasn’t one that was overly religious in the sense that we understand, but it was religious in the sense in which Louis… and his family understood it. It changed the complexity of the whole manner in which his life was celebrated, in my opinion.”

In the future, would he encourage others bereaved by suicide to be as forthcoming?

“I would do what I always try to do when I meet with the family, and that is touch on both sides. There is maybe a second way to do it now because of what they did. There is a way of tastefully explaining what happened.”

I remarked that families who suppress suicide as cause of death are placing themselves under an additional layer of emotional burden. They are stepping gingerly around a painful fact that no one wants to acknowledge out loud. If relatives could deal with the suicide openly during the wake and funeral service, wouldn’t that allow everyone to move forward with a better sense of ‘closure’?

“I think that’s an excellent point. That is what the ritual is all about – it’s a first step in the healing process. The quicker you can reconcile how the loss took place, the loss itself becomes easier. Andy and Mary-Lynn are also on a different journey because they want to make it meaningful. They don’t want his loss to be forgotten, and thus their advocacy toward mental health and trying to help others. So it changes the perspective and the equation completely by being up front. And don’t get me wrong: I’m not criticizing those who aren’t (disclosing suicide) because every situation is different, but they felt whole when they were finally able to speak about it.”

Suicide has many root causes but is often connected to mental illness. This is a discussion we also need to have, Carnell said.

“This is a deep, deep topic that the community hasn’t got a grasp of. Some do, but the community at large doesn’t. What we’re forgetting is that the jails are full of young people with mental illnesses… The mental illness facility that we have is Her Majesty’s Penitentiary. It’s a disgrace … These are the people who are down there, in jail. We’ve got it wrong as a community. We’re not addressing this. We’re pushing it off. We’re not treating it as (we would) a physical illness. We’re treating it completely different than if you had an illness that you could go to the emergency department for. We don’t know enough about it but it affects all of us, because this is what keeps the police busy day in and day out. These are people who are troubled. This has much broader ramifications. We’re only scratching the surface of this. Look at the billions of dollars we spend on cancer, and (mental illness) is having as detrimental an effect on the community as any other disease.”

What Carnell says about our jails is depressingly accurate. The recent case of Taylor Mitchell is a case in point. Mitchell clearly has mental health issues, yet he received jail time. Why is that? The penitentiary is a hellish place for anyone, but to lock mentally ill people in there – rather than give them secure hospital treatment – is unconscionable.

Perceptive though his comments may be, Carnell emphasized that he is not an expert on the subjects of suicide or mental illness.

“I’m not a champion or a leader in this at all. These are all my own perspectives. I’m not purporting to know more than anyone else. All I know is that having the privilege to serve Andy and Mary-Lynn allowed me to get that insight.”

Louis’s suicide was also referenced during his funeral, most notably during a moving tribute by Mary Walsh, a close family friend.

“I encouraged them at graveside, I said ‘what Mary said needs to be put out in the public.’ I’ve heard literally hundreds (of eulogies) and I was blown away by it,” Carnell said.

You can hear Mary Walsh’s eulogy here, thanks to CBC Weekend Arts Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

“Louis’s mother, the extraordinary Mary Lynn Bernard, said last night, ‘If Louis had had a physical illness, against which he fought for so long, and he had succumbed to that  physical illness, he would have died in a hospital, surrounded by the people he loved, and who love him.... But because Louis had a mental illness, to which after years of courageous struggle, he finally succumbed, he died alone, with no one around him, and nothing to ease the pain.’”


Next: In part 3, Andy and Mary-Lynn reflect on all that has happened since Louis's passing.



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