Commentary

Real conversations with family taught me about life after loss

Reflecting on the realities in New Mexico during National Suicide Awareness Month

September 16, 2023 3:30 am

The author’s grandparents Paul Loretto (left) and Gloria Kanteena (right) who is holding baby Shaun Griswold.

This commentary originally appeared in Source NM.

Editor’s note: This commentary discusses grief, loss and suicide.

If you or someone you know is in a crisis, call, text or chat the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. In Colorado, you can contact Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-TALK (8255) or text TALK to 38255. If you need help with grief and loss, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention offers advice and resources. You can also call the National SAMHSA Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP, with services in English and Spanish, toll free 24/7.

I learned about suicide through my young childhood curiosity when I wondered out loud why my mom’s father was never around.

Explanations were slow-going and came in bursts.

I was told things like: He’s not here. He died before you were born. He struggled after he fought in Vietnam. He’s gone just like grandma.

Finally, in my early teenage years I learned that my grandfather Paul Loretto died by suicide in Gallup, New Mexico, when my mother was just a pre-schooler.

It all suddenly made sense and opened my eyes to a horrible family pattern.

He’s gone just like grandma.

Gloria Kanteena, my grandmother, died in an unusual circumstance that was officially determined to be suicide. One of my earliest memories was fighting with my cousin at her funeral. I walked over to my mom crying. She said, “I know, I miss her too.” I responded through my tears “I got punched in the stomach.”

It took a lot to accept that my maternal grandparents struggled in life to the point where they felt it was best to leave.

Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on your perspective — it forced some heavy conversations most young ones do not have with their parents. My mother was upset when I told her what I learned about her dad’s suicide, even mad at the people who told me the details. It felt like a secret was unlocked and now she had to have a grownup conversation with her child.

She actually didn’t know much of the details either, and in a way, we learned about her father, my grandpa Paul, and tried to heal together.

We talked. We talked a lot. Still do, actually.

We share feelings and also discuss examples around us, sometimes in our home, about patterns that people have that lead them into depression, substance use, erratic behavior and anger. Things that can lead a person to even consider suicide.

We didn’t know that these conversations were also the two of us developing coping skills to help us recover from the type of loss that impacts many New Mexicans.

September is National Suicide Awareness Month. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a proclamation that includes a couple of numbers to help any of us living and recovering from this loss to know we are not alone.

In 2021 in New Mexico, 520 people died by suicide. Nationwide, more than 48,000 people died from this cause.

The rate in New Mexico is so high that our state is ranked fourth in the nation for suicide.

Statewide, suicide is the ninth leading cause of death for New Mexicans each year. More than 50% do so with a gun.

It is also the second leading cause of death for New Mexicans under 34.

That last figure gives me a bit of shock — and some personal relief.

I’m 35 going on 36, and if that means I escaped becoming a data point, I’ll take that achievement. Escape wasn’t possible for so many I know and love.

Some of the conversations between my mom and I about suicide would build off questions I had about whether suicide is on my path. Like, is it a family curse? Are we destined to this tragedy?

We still talk regularly about this, which to me shows growth and some positivity that we can survive the trauma such deaths root in families.

We are not, and probably won’t ever be, 100% healed. A large family is a blessing, but there can often be painful outcomes for cousins, uncles, aunties, sisters, brothers, friends, dads and moms that struggle in their own ways.

I got here through support from family and friends, open conversations about our feelings and how experiences affect us. Therapy is always encouraged, and I’ve benefited from that in countless ways.

I also always remember the ones who struggled so much in life, for whom it was too much.

Every day, I walk to my fridge and grab a cold water I put in the night before. A picture of my grandmother smiling, holding me as a big-headed baby in some larger sunglasses, is posted right by the fridge door handle.

In my hallway, there is a picture of my grandfather, the only image I have of him, in his Air Force uniform taken before he was deployed to Vietnam.

I give them both a smile and kiss. Then go about my day to live the life they wanted for me but that they could not experience.

Source New Mexico is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Source New Mexico maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Shaun Griswold for questions: [email protected]. Follow Source New Mexico on Facebook and Twitter.

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is the editor of Source New Mexico, a Newsline sibling site. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout New Mexico, including education and child welfare.

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