Arne Vainio: Let's start to banish the shame associated with suicide

Arne Vainio. Photo from Walking Into The Unknown / Vision Maker Media

Sons of Suicide Seldom Do Well
By Arne Vainio, M.D.

“Sons of suicides seldom do well. Characteristically, they find life lacking a certain zing. They tend to feel more rootless than most, even in a notoriously rootless nation. They are squeamishly incurious about the past and numbly certain about the future to this grisly extent: they suspect that they, too, will kill themselves.”

-Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.

My father's suicide is never far from my mind. I go outside at night and I look at the stars and I think about him. He committed suicide when I was 4 years old. Our family fall apart after that and my mother remarried an alcoholic lumberjack.

After my father's death, my mother started drinking hard. My father owned a tavern called, of all things, the Good Luck. After his death, my mother tried to keep the business going. She was drinking with my aunt and my uncle and she left my six year-old sister in charge. We did what any kids who were living in a bar would do, and we started playing with matches. It wasn't long before the entire upstairs of the house was on fire and we did what any kids in trouble would do next.

We hid.

Someone driving by saw the flames coming out of the upstairs windows and he kicked the door in. He came into the burning house with a rag over his face and dragged us, one by one, out of the inferno. There were no cell phones back in those days in 1963 or 1964 and he drove us down the gravel road to my grandmother's house. I don't know how long it was before my mother came back home and I can’t imagine what it felt like to see the smoke from the burning house in the distance and as they got closer and closer, realizing it was her house. I can't imagine her grief and her guilt when she saw the house completely engulfed in flames. There was a crowd there and I don't know how long it was before she found out her kids were alive.

We didn't have any place to stay and we got separated for a while. My older sister and I stayed with another family and the only thing I remember is that their daughter, who was about my sister’s age, slept with her eyes open. We all slept in the attic and my sister and I would wake up and go watch her sleeping with her eyes open.

I started drinking when I was 12 or 13 and I was one of those drunks who cried all the time. Even when I was 4 years old I blamed myself for my father’s suicide and drinking allowed me to cry. I knew I had to be a burden to him and I just never knew exactly what it was I did wrong and no one wanted me to talk about it. I crashed my first car when I was drunk and 14 years old. I spent the entire summer of my seventeenth year drunk and driving fast and suicidal.

What I wanted more than anything was to go out in a flaming wreck and be a hero in my high school. There were other kids over the years who died in car accidents and almost all of them were drunk and driving fast cars. The entire community would mourn their losses and remember them as caring and promising and with bright futures ahead of them. We would speak of them in hushed tones and would go almost reverently to the places where they died and we would walk and measure how far they went and look at the trees flattened by their cars. We didn't think about death in the way I do now and we didn't relate their deaths to our own eventual deaths.

I didn't come from a family where people had dreams for their futures. I never thought about being a doctor and I never knew college was an option. My family history has always been to go on to lives of alcoholism and generational desperation. My aunt Harriet drank herself to death when she was 27 and my uncle Roger used to come and visit us once in awhile. He was fun and always laughing and always drove fast and he drank with the adults in my family. He promised me when I turned 16 he would give me whatever car he was driving at the time. I waited for him on my 16th birthday and I paced around in the house and I stared out the windows long after it got dark. He died in some sort of accident in a recycling plant in Montana when he was still young.

All the while I was growing up, whenever I drank I would think about my dad. I always imagined us doing things together and I envisioned him guiding me out of the tragedies I got myself into. I would call his name into the night in my drunkenness and grief and wait for an answer that never came.

I asked one of my elders a long time ago if there is a ceremony we could do for my father. My father wasn't Ojibwe, but Finnish. I was told there was no ceremony for him and that one day when I made my own journey to join my ancestors there would be spirits waiting to try to pull me from my path. I was told they would be unrecognizable as people but would reach for me and try to pull me away from my reunion with those who went before.

I was told my father would be one of those spirits.

None of us are comfortable talking about suicide. I forgave my father one night at a ceremony meant for something else. I was alone outside and I could hear the drum group singing inside the ceremonial hall. I put my asemaa into the fire and it burst red orange and I watched the smoke take the sparks high above and between the bare trees into the starry night sky. It was just me and my father and the deafening chorus of frogs in the spring as I asked his forgiveness and I gave him mine.

Omakakiiwininni. Frog men is one of the names Ojibwe people gave to the Finnish people a long time ago because they thought the Finnish language sounded like frogs.

What’s Left: Lives Touched by Suicide.

This is a traveling multimedia exhibit and features artists in all venues to create a dialogue about suicide and mental illness with the goal of reducing the stigma surrounding them. This will be on March 4, 2016, this Friday at Trepanier Hall in Duluth, Minnesota, and I will be one of the featured speakers. I don’t for certain know what I’m going to say.

Email me the names of those people in your lives who have committed suicide. Just the simple act of having those names spoken among the hurt is a place to begin and healing begins with those of us left behind.

A long time ago I came to the conclusion that if I let my demons hide in the closet and come out to scare me every night, they will do exactly that. The only other option is to open the closet door and let the sunlight in.

We need to shed some sunlight on suicide. Send me the names to read and together we can begin to banish the shame.

Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be contacted at

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Arne Vainio: Starting a new medical segment for Native Report (12/15)
Arne Vainio: A mother opens up after the death of her child (11/16)
Arne Vainio: Happiness comes from my life of medical service (10/16)
Arne Vainio: Learning to dance to bring healing for our people (09/24)
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