I read the obituaries in the Star Tribune every Sunday. I like to learn about the people who died. Mostly there is nothing to learn other than age, where they’re from, who died before them and who survives them. But sometimes they are much more interesting – often poignant, every so often even funny. As you can imagine, I like those best because I can get a much better sense of the person and of those who loved them. There was one in particular this Sunday – a young man named Tyler P. Thoresen.
Yesterday’s paper also contained an article about a man named Jim Moore. Jim had a rather quirky sense of humor and one day when he was younger and lamenting the fact that no one wrote letters any more, he went to a map, picked Turtle Lake, MN, then picked a typical Minnesota name – Olson, found an Olson family in Turtle Lake, and then a few times each year he would send them postcards. “Hoping to go sailing tomorrow if the old leg isn’t bothering me too much. Jim” or “Was in Paris and saw Francois and Emilie. They send their regards. Jim”
I found that just spectacular – beautiful, random and kind of touching. The Olson family loved the notes. They had no idea who Jim was, but they still got a real kick out of getting the cards. They kept every one of them. Jim developed bile duct cancer and died in January. Jim’s friend sent the Olsons a note telling them about Jim, why he had written and that he had passed away. Jim was just 38.
Tyler Thoresen was just a month shy of his 28th birthday when he died. Tyler suffered from schizoaffective disorder and like Jim, the illness eventually killed him. Tyler’s obituary paints a picture of a great guy – funny, athletic and a lover of good food. What really got me was how his family chose to begin his obituary: “Tyler Thoreson, of New Brighton, chose to end his earthly struggles on March 20th, 2012…”
Mental illnesses are often sorely misunderstood and that ignorance leads to stigma – and that stigma, if you’ll excuse my terminology, is bullshit. People like Tyler, his family and loved ones face that stigma every day, despite all the amazing work that organizations such as NAMI Minnesota – to which they have directed memorials – accomplish. That stigma is tenacious. And that’s why I so appreciated their obituary.
Tyler’s family could have used some euphemism to describe how Tyler died, but instead they just said it and said it beautifully: “…chose to end his earthly struggles…” They went on, “While he was burdened with schizoaffective disorder for most of his adult life, that is not what defined him.” Indeed. And struggles they no doubt were as he took his own life.
Mental illnesses are just that – illnesses – and not only do the sufferers and their families have to deal with the illness, but with the stigma as well. This obituary is just one more step in the right direction. Take that, stigma. Screw you, ignorance.
I didn’t know either of these guys so it’s a bit presumptuous of me to be sitting here writing about them. But they both touched me. I guess that’s how we live on after death. The rest of us learn from those who left before us – in how they lived and how they died. Life is precious – and precipitous – so let’s keep an eye out for one another, reach out to strangers, and work hard to understand them and their suffering. Thanks for the lessons, guys. Godspeed and all that.
Full disclosure: My company has had the pleasure of working with NAMI Minnesota over the last eight or so years developing their educational materials, and it’s no doubt the most important work we do.