Private death
February 20, 2012 6:47 PM   Subscribe

An acquaintance from high school recently died at the age of 22. His family decided to keep the cause of death private. Help me out here -- why would they choose to do that?

I found out when perusing a facebook page of a mutual friend (who I know a little better than the person who died). The death actually occurred a few months ago, and all that happened was his stepsister announced on facebook that he had passed away and when the memorial was.

I got in touch with two people who I thought would know the cause of death; they didn't know. One told me the family had kept it private at the time of the memorial, but he always just assumed it was drug-related.

I just want to know why the family would be so hush-hush. I'm assuming it was probably drugs/alcohol or suicide, because those are some of the only ways you can die that would be, for lack of a better word, embarrassing, because it implies some level of fault with the person who died.

1) Am I being unreasonable in assuming it was drugs/alcohol or suicide? Why else would they keep it private?

2) Is the family justified in keeping the cause of death private if my suspicions are true?

If I speak frankly, I think their decision was stupid. I think it can be beneficial to get the word out because it motivates people struggling with the same issues to either straighten up or get help. I don't have any illusions about the perpetually amazing ability of addicts and otherwise down people to rationalize their situation and stay on their present course despite everything; but still, there's always a chance this information would help someone. Someone died and they were 22, alright, just fucking tell us why!

I would never contact his stepsister an ask her why, because I would be afraid that would bring her pain, however I can't shake off my feeling that they are painfully naive. I am surprised at the amount of fascination I have had in the past few days surrounding my search for the cause, and the anger I have felt towards the family, because he was not a someone I would call a friend. If I am being an insensitive asshole, I just want someone to tell me.
posted by victory_laser to Human Relations (64 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Drugs, alcohol, suicide, death during an illegal activity (attempted burglary, or worse), something kinky involving sex (e.g. asphyxiation), HIV, or even just death by stupidity that the family is embarrassed about.

While I can understand your take on it, I think the family might have good reasons to keep it quiet. Maybe some extended family members are super judgmental and don't themselves even know the reason for death, but would be difficult if they did know. Maybe family or friends criticised the parents for their parenting for years and would use this as "I told you so" fodder. Maybe someone in the family wants to run for political office and is afraid this would cause problems. You can't know why they are making this choice, but even if it isn't rational, who is 100% rational when their kid just died?
posted by lollusc at 6:52 PM on February 20, 2012 [5 favorites]

You kind of are being insensitive. Look, it's simply not a decision you get to make. They aren't obligated to turn the death of their loved one into a tool for your cause, and your desire to know doesn't trump their right to keep whatever details private that they want.
posted by axiom at 6:52 PM on February 20, 2012 [121 favorites]

Maybe it was drugs. Maybe it was suicide. Maybe it was a longstanding genetic condition that affects other members of his family. This is none of your business and this isn't even a close friend of yours.
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:53 PM on February 20, 2012 [26 favorites]

Yup. Leave it alone.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:53 PM on February 20, 2012

Maybe they don't want their child's death to be some morality tale for the town.
posted by sugarbomb at 6:54 PM on February 20, 2012 [58 favorites]

If it makes you feel any better, things like this usually don't stay a secret for very long. One way or another, this cause of death you seek will probably come out. And who knows, it might just take some time for the family to volunteer the information once things settle down.
posted by thorny at 6:54 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

2) It's their business, not yours.

1) Yes.

I do see your point that demystifying suicide and overdose creates an environment of openness that helps people talk about this stuff before it's too late. I really do. I think that's a great stance to take and I honor you for it.

But in this case, it's not at all your call to make. If this is how the family of this person chose to deal with their family's loss, whatever its causes, you're being a jerk to second-guess them in their time of sorrow.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:54 PM on February 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

If I am being an insensitive asshole, I just want someone to tell me.

Yes. You are. Autopsy these days is not done automatically, so cause of death may not be definitive. It's possible your classmate fell out of a tree, died while having sex, overdosed on something he thought was drugs, drowned in the shower, or any number of things, but the end result is the same for his family. He is gone and they don't want the details out in the world.

Stop searching. And be aware that if the person was a suicide, this:
it can be beneficial to get the word out because it motivates people struggling with the same issues to either straighten up or get help

is really really not true.
posted by bilabial at 6:55 PM on February 20, 2012 [32 favorites]

Maybe you are being an insensitive asshole, but you know what, sometimes that's ok. Just realize that being this way won't win you many friends.

Follow your heart and learn from the experience.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:55 PM on February 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, and with suicide, often acquaintances and friends get REALLY insistent on wanting to know all the details. (How did he do it? Who found him? Did he leave a note? Why did he do it? Did you know he was depressed? Did the police investigate? Are you SURE it was suicide?) and rehashing this or telling people to STFU is super stressful for the family. Choosing not to release cause of death bypasses this a little, because it's a polite way of telling people they don't want to talk about it.

Don't ask me how I know this.
posted by lollusc at 6:55 PM on February 20, 2012 [44 favorites]

You are also around 22?

I would gently suggest that this is way more about you and sudden feelings of mortality than anything to do with this person and his family.

You know it's not your business right?
Maybe get to the root of why you feel so strongly about it.
posted by pantarei70 at 6:55 PM on February 20, 2012 [42 favorites]

As an old person who was involved with groups like ACT UP back in the day, and as someone who grew up in a WASP/Irish family where keeping secrets was like an Olympic event--my grandmother and great-aunts used to say "C-A" instead of "cancer", for instance--I am really sympathetic to the idea that our society is only as sick as its secrets and that perpetuating a culture of shame around certain causes of death is a crap thing to do.

But recently bereaved parents and siblings don't have to be the banner-carriers for openness. thorny makes the really good point that eventually this information will most likely make its way into the sphere of friends and acquaintances and distant relations, and maybe then is the time for people outside the family to have frank discussions about how Tommy might have gotten help sooner, or whatever lessons they feel they want to take from this sad event.

Give the family the space they need to deal with their sorrow and their loss. If and when you find out what was going on with your acquaintance, you can honor his memory more specifically--if you feel the need to do that--by donating to related causes.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:01 PM on February 20, 2012 [15 favorites]

Even if it was something that wasn't "embarrassing" like, I dunno, having a massive heart attack at an early age for genetic reasons, the family is in mourning and is totally justified if they don't feel like detailing the circumstances to every acquaintance the young man ever had. Any death at 22 is going to involve a lot of questions from curious people, but the family is not obligated to share and you are not entitled to an explanation.

Think about what's really driving your frustration instead.
posted by asciident at 7:01 PM on February 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

2) Is the family justified in keeping the cause of death private if my suspicions are true?

The family doesn't have to justify anything to anyone. They have the right, morally, ethically, and every which way, to deal with their family member's death in whatever manner they choose. No one has the right to dictate to them what their emotions should be, nor how they should deal with them.
posted by MexicanYenta at 7:02 PM on February 20, 2012 [16 favorites]

Sometimes people just want to be private about things. The more emotionally fraught the situation, the more likely they're going to want to be private. It's really, really OK if they don't want to publicize the details of their lived one's death, you know?

I suspect, in fact, that you'd still be excessively fixated on this situation even if you knew the cause of death. This is the hook you're hanging your fascination on, because it's shiny and seems strange to you and maybe it's socially appropriate to be questioning this action on their part. You're probably fascinated and interested because 22 is a young age to die, and it's around the same age you are, and oh BTW there's a mystery, which is basically a giant heaping pile of confusion and unresolved emotion. That's OK - but it's not up to this family to resolve the tension you're feeling, because the tension is really not their fault.

(or, what pantarei70 just said.)
posted by SMPA at 7:02 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

And lollusc's point is a really good one. See what you're doing here? They don't want to answer a bunch of questions about this at the calling hours or funeral. When someone dies so terribly young, the folks their own age they leave behind are usually desperate for reassurance that this won't happen to them, too. The bereaved family shouldn't have to counsel their son/brother/grandson/nephew/etc.'s classmates about your fears of mortality.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:04 PM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's the family's right to keep this person's cause of death private, if that's what they want. Instead of demanding that they share information that is OBVIOUSLY PAINFUL, put yourself in their shoes. Imagine how you would feel if someone in your family died and some random acquaintance of your dead relative started bleating all over the social networks that it's just not right for you to have privacy.

How would that feel, to you? Would it hurt you, cause you more grief? Do you not think that's what prying into this issue might do to this person's family?

Have some damn compassion.
posted by palomar at 7:04 PM on February 20, 2012 [7 favorites]

Wow, judgmental much? It's none of your business why the family chooses to keep the cause of death private—they really don't owe it to anyone, much less you, who barely knew their son. And they certainly don't need to justify the reasons why they chose to do so.

Also, you don't know if they died for "embarrassing" reasons, which seems to be your whole basis for wanting to force these ppl to reveal the reason.

Step back and, as others have said, think about why this is bothering you so much when you have very little involvement, if any, to the deceased or his family.
posted by violetk at 7:06 PM on February 20, 2012 [5 favorites]

I know more than one family who has lost a young adult child to addiction. In almost every case, they've been through the emotional ringer for years and years by the time their son or daughter dies, and they really just don't feel like talking about it anymore, least of all to people who don't know their family well enough to have even been aware of a long-running, very serious problem.

Mind your own business. This may be an annoyance to you, but to the people who truly knew and loved your friend, it's a tragedy. That is a massive difference. Let this go and get on with your life.
posted by something something at 7:09 PM on February 20, 2012 [9 favorites]

I think it's entirely normal for you to want to know what happened.But it is also entirely normal for the family to want to keep it quiet. I suspect you will eventually find out, but right now is not the time for you to go hunting for answers.

I think people are being a bit hard on you, myself. Morbid curiosity is normal (taking that to the level of pressuring people to tell you things they'd rather keep quiet during an intensely painful time, however, is not).
posted by biscotti at 7:09 PM on February 20, 2012 [7 favorites]

I hadn't noticed the part of your post where you say you don't even consider the deceased to be a friend.

That makes this even worse, frankly. These are real people dealing with real pain. The reason for their grief is none of your business, and your need to know intimate details of the death of someone you don't even consider a friend is... wow, just not okay at all.
posted by palomar at 7:11 PM on February 20, 2012 [5 favorites]

There's this thing about death, that if we just knew how it happened, we can reassure ourselves it won't happen to us. This is, of course, hogwash but it's virtually a knee-jerk reaction; eventually you kind of outgrow the instinct as more and more people around you die.

In the interim, realise that your curiosity is entirely natural but this really is about you and not about the person who's died.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:15 PM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Celebrate the life that's been lost and get on with yours. That's what the dead guy would want you to do.

The specific answers to your two specific questions are yes and yes.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:17 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

If I speak frankly, I think their decision was stupid.

Well, it's their family - and, frankly, their decisions have little to do with you.

are some of the only ways you can die that would be, for lack of a better word, embarrassing

That kind of view is exactly why people aren't terribly public about these things.

I would never contact his stepsister an ask her why, because I would be afraid that would bring her pain,

Continue with that line of thinking.

If I am being an insensitive asshole, I just want someone to tell me.

Incredibly insensitive.
posted by mleigh at 7:21 PM on February 20, 2012 [9 favorites]

Is the family justified in keeping the cause of death private if my suspicions are true?

I your wording here to be kind of odd. They aren't arranging a cover up here; they are keeping details of a personal, painful event private. There is nothing that they need to "justify" to you or anyone.

And if you do pursue this and find out of the cause of death, please respect the family's wishes and do not make your discovery public information.
posted by Nightman at 7:35 PM on February 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

When I lost a good friend many years ago, it was incredibly upsetting when people would ask what happened. Because they'd put on their best wide eyed sympathy faces in preparation to hear a more "tragic" story involving a car accident or horrible disease. Watching those faces change as they devalued his life upon hearing it was something that they considered to be his own fault was extremely traumatic and angering for me. So unless it was someone I knew well, I usually went with some version of I'd prefer not to talk about it. I pretty much knew people assumed drugs or suicide, but I really wasn't interested in hearing their thoughts on either. Since they weren't sure which to think it was, they kept their mouths blissfully shut. It was self preservation for sure, but trust me, those kinds of deaths are fucking brutal for the survivors. Let them have their space.
posted by troublewithwolves at 7:39 PM on February 20, 2012 [30 favorites]

You know, if you were close enough to the kid and his family to have an opinion on why they should or should not be public about the way a family member died, you'd've probably known the person died in the first place.

Since you didn't know them well enough to know he died, come to the funeral, grieve with them, or help them recover in any way they can, you are definitely being a jerk for being so judgmental over how they choose to share info on his death. Their child/brother's death isn't your teaching story, and it's really gross that you're using how they're choosing to mourn as an opportunity to get on a high horse.
posted by spunweb at 7:41 PM on February 20, 2012 [9 favorites]


1) Am I being unreasonable in assuming it was drugs/alcohol or suicide? Why else would they keep it private?

Don't assume.

It can be anything from embarrassment to just wanting people to leave them alone during this time / not wanting to talk about it / wanting privacy for the sake of privacy. Or any of a thousand different reasons

2) Is the family justified in keeping the cause of death private if my suspicions are true?

Yes... fuck yes. Keep your nose out of it. Learn to live with not knowing. Move on, it has nothing to do with you.

posted by edgeways at 7:43 PM on February 20, 2012

If I am being an insensitive asshole, I just want someone to tell me.


This is not about you. This is not about some sort of opportunity for a public-service announcement.
posted by pompomtom at 7:45 PM on February 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

I know of familes who have lost children about that age to cancer. In at least one case, they only published the cause of death to keep people from speculating it was something the person would never do. Otherwise they would never have specified and cancer is definitely not embarrassing. Furthermore, if you read obituaries of the deceased of any age you will see many not specifying cause of death.
posted by michaelh at 7:45 PM on February 20, 2012

If I am being an insensitive asshole, I just want someone to tell me.

You are being an insensitive asshole. My father died last year after being a lifelong alcoholic. The cause of death was, surprisingly enough, not alcoholism. That said, the cause of his death was also no one's business. As many people have said above, having a loved on with a chronic addiction is its own brand of hell. Even when you are alive people keep pushing you to do something, help them, save them, because they're not doing it themselves. They themselves may tell you this, imply that if you were different they might be able to get better. It's awful.

Once they die, there is [if I may speak about myself only] a crushing amount of sadness combined with this terrible amount of guilt/relief. You finally get the verdict on whether you could save them: no. And you can finally start to have a life that doesn't revolve around them and their life-killing disease. It's always hard, under the best of circumstances, to deal with the death of a family member. Being in a situation with this sort of conflicted grief makes it worse. Keeping private family business private is their right, especially at this difficult time. May you never be in a situation in the future where you read this question and finally realize just how insensitive it is.
posted by jessamyn at 7:50 PM on February 20, 2012 [41 favorites]

If you are a young person, you might be accustomed to absolutely everything being posted online somewhere you can find out about it immediately. This might be one of the first significant things you've wondered about and not been able to find out about, and it might be disconcerting for that reason (just because frustrated curiosity is a new experience).

But that frustration is your own problem. (I sympathize, I get frustrated over things like this too.) The family -- assuming no foul play -- is under no obligation to tell anyone what happened. No rationale about "speaking out" or "raising awareness" or whatever trumps their right to grieve and keep to themselves.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:54 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think there's a lot of truth to pantarei70's comment.

I don't think you're an asshole. The fact that you're coming to AskMe asking to have your thinking double-checked by an objective, adult audience not connected to the death of this person proves that. A real asshole wouldn't have the self-awareness to question their assumptions the way you are, or would flout them someplace where they'd have the potential to damage someone's feelings other than their own.

I think you are coming from a very decent place with this question. To you, this family's silence signifies disrespect for their child, because it conceals, indicates shame over something there should be no shame over, and/or because it prevents this child's death from being used to accomplish good. (Again, I think this is your thinking.)

Your thinking on this is going to come across as rude because you're not familiar with the social norms surrounding death. You're young enough that you probably haven't encountered it much, and you don't understand the depth of this family's pain, and how society views that pain as giving them broad discretion in how they handle the death of their child. It trumps absolutely anything else you could possibly throw at this situation, even things that would be entirely valid in any other context. The death of a child equals negative infinity.

If Mitt Romney refuses to release his medical records, that would be a very different story, and would signify that something is up, because normal behavior is for presidential candidates to do this. This isn't a comparable situation, but in your mind, I think you're treating it like one. (You don't mention Mitt Romney or presidential medical records, but I think the analogy fits.)

Please, for the love of God, the next time you disagree with anyone who is an authoritative source on anything, assume the problem is on your end, not theirs.

(Here the authoritative source is the kid's family, and the subject is the best way to handle the information about the cause of death.)

This is a habit of thought that will make your adulthood a LOT more pleasant.
posted by alphanerd at 8:04 PM on February 20, 2012 [23 favorites]

If I speak frankly, I think their decision was stupid. I think it can be beneficial to get the word out because it motivates people struggling with the same issues to either straighten up or get help.

I don't think anyone's way of coping with the tragically young death of a family member deserves to be called "stupid." That is massively insensitive of you.

It is entirely reasonable that they do not want their family member's death to be "used" in any way, even for the salutary purpose of motivating anyone. Perhaps they think his death should not be motivational. Perhaps they can't stand the thought of him lingering in everyone's mind as "the suicide" or "the addict who overdosed." (I've mentioned before that a member of my Scout troop committed suicide when I was in middle school, and the fact that he killed himself is my overriding memory of him. Maybe they don't want that--they want to leave some doubt.)

Your obsession with finding this out seems rather morbid and unseemly. Contacting acquaintances with the sole purpose of finding out the cause of death is, well, tacky as hell, especially considering that you weren't close enough to be at the memorial service.
posted by jayder at 8:04 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another vote for insensitive asshole. It's none of your business. I've lost several people in their 20s to suicide. The cause of death wasn't revealed, out of respect for the person who had died. Imagine the endless speculation about why he did it. Imagine the people who would (wrongly) blame his friends and family. Immediately everyone would think they could guess at this person's deepest secrets. You're driving yourself crazy as it is - if you knew it was a suicide, then you'd start obsessing about why he killed himself (or started using drugs, or whatever).

I would say this IS about you and your obsessiveness. Please STFU around his friends and family.
posted by desjardins at 8:05 PM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

If I am being an insensitive asshole, I just want someone to tell me.

Since you asked, I'm gonna put my vote in for this. You don't know this person barely at all; certainly not even to make even a passing judgment about their life, and you don't have any right whatsoever to pass judgment about their death, either.

Your feelings about the rightness of getting the "truth out there" are empirically suspect and you have struggled to make a case that hearing about Thing X will help/hinder anyone else. This is a person we're talking about, not a principle.

Morbid curiosity is a sometimes natural feeling; attempting to gussy up venal nosiness into a moral judgment - on a grieving family that has lost a member most prematurely - is pretty distasteful and a component about what's getting people's backs up here I think. This is exactly the kind of thing that people grappling with a loss are afraid others are thinking. Exercise some more compassion, and understand that no one has an inalienable right to someone else's information. Your suspicions are unfounded and without merit in any sense of the word
posted by smoke at 8:22 PM on February 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

If your reaction to a tragic death is to criticize the actions of the bereaved family, especially for being protective of the privacy and dignity of their lost loved one, then it is you who are painfully naive in this case.
posted by milk white peacock at 8:35 PM on February 20, 2012 [7 favorites]

I'd like to back up what troublewithwolves said. It pretty much mirrors my experience. People follow a specific script, but when you veer off that script (drugs, alcohol, suicide, obscure disease or genetic condition, unknown cause of death) they start asking insensitive, hurtful questions. I'd like to add that a complicated death also attracts gossip and quick judgement from onlookers. Neither of those are at all pleasant for the survivors.

I am surprised at the amount of fascination I have had in the past few days surrounding my search for the cause, and the anger I have felt towards the family, because he was not a someone I would call a friend.

Mull over it for a while, get it out of your system, and then move on and forget about it. I think it's normal to really want to know. I had a coworker die recently and the first thing I did was find out how it happened, and I would have been troubled for a while if I couldn't. But I'd never demand the information, and me being troubled for a while is nothing compared with what his loved ones have to go through. The anger and frustration you feel is entirely misplaced.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 8:37 PM on February 20, 2012

This family's pain and loss is not your business, or the public's. Why do you care about the potentially-salacious story behind this person's young death, if this wasn't even a friend of yours? Considering that fact, your question comes across as pure indignation that a bereaved family's privacy is impeding your rubbernecking at the scene of whatever may have happened. Is that really the problem? I suggest you read this question out loud and then ask yourself.
posted by anonnymoose at 8:42 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

WOW. I think part of the reason so many people are answering is that perhaps I implied that I had an inclination to contact them and ask.

I would never do that.

I just new my gut reaction was insensitive and I wanted someone to tell me that was so.

Case closed.
posted by victory_laser at 8:43 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

P.S. As someone who has lost a loved one who was complicated and imperfect, they probably really need some compassion and empathy right now--not judgment about their naivete or stupidity in how they're handling the loss. I'm sorry if I came across as harsh, but please--try to put yourself in their shoes.
posted by anonnymoose at 8:46 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

About a year ago a girl about the same age from my town died from a drunk driving crash. She was drunk and was racing her friends. The death, I think, made a lot of kids who were involved in some really stupid shit wake up a little.

I think that is what is motivating my feelings towards this. I hung out with "those kids" in high school for a period, put myself at risk, and suffered some negative consequences in terms of my relationship with my family. I distanced myself from that group of people, but still harbor some resentment towards them and their way of thinking. I associate the guy who died with them and that is part why I feel the way I do.
posted by victory_laser at 8:55 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

How about let's stop the pile-on? He gets it.

Anyways, one thing that hasn't been mentioned. While your ideas about "getting the word out" sound noble, they may be misguided. In suicide, for example, publicizing the details of a death *very* often leads to "copycat" suicides. So publicizing the details would be counterproductive.
posted by lewedswiver at 8:56 PM on February 20, 2012 [6 favorites]

*why I feel the way I did.

Thanks for giving me some insight into what his family may be feeling and their rationale for this. It makes sense.
posted by victory_laser at 8:57 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

About a year ago a girl about the same age from my town died from a drunk driving crash. She was drunk and was racing her friends. The death, I think, made a lot of kids who were involved in some really stupid shit wake up a little.

And in that case, it probably felt like at least some good came out of her death, right? It meant that a senseless death became slightly less senseless, if it meant that other kids avoided making the same mistake. But without anything similar this time, you may be left with an uncomfortable sense of meaninglessness, which manifests itself in feeling like his family is depriving everyone of the potential useful lesson to be learned from his death (Don't Drink & Drive; Clean Firearms Carefully; Check Out Mysterious Lumps Promptly, In Case They Turn Out to Be Fast-Acting Cancer).

By extension, this also means there's no way for you to put the reminder of your own mortality at arm's length, no way to comfort yourself that you're not equally in danger of dying at 22 (you don't drink and drive; you don't own a gun; you're lump-free). But mortality has got us all somewhere on its list; 22 or 102, doesn't matter. Are you going to die tomorrow? Statistically speaking, probably not. But could you? Well, sure.

And I think that in this way, all deaths are more or less about the same, in terms of meaningfulness vs. meaninglessness. So if we are to make meaning out of anything in this existential conundrum, it has to be in how we choose to live, regardless of how we might die. There's an exercise in Buddhism in which you meditate on your own death as if it might really happen today. And it makes you think: if that's so, how do I want to spend what remaining time I have on earth? Do I want to spend it playing video games, or climbing a mountain? Do I want to spend it being indifferent to the people around me, or connecting with them fully?

If you want some sort of meaning to your acquaintance's death, you don't actually need his family to provide it for you.
posted by scody at 10:43 PM on February 20, 2012 [10 favorites]

I don't think you're being an asshole and I'm irritated that you're getting a pile on here. I don't agree that getting the word out about suicide/drug related deaths is some kind of public service, and I do think it's within the right of the family to say whatever they want, but I do think it stigmatizes suicide and drug related deaths to not mention cause of death in those cases. That said, it's not each particular grieving family's duty to try to address that stigma, it's more society's as a whole, and as we know "society" does little to nothing as a collective group.

Also, I feel it's natural for people to be curious about how a very young generally healthy person might have died. I think it's instinctive in a way, and it's just something we're bound to worry about. So I wouldn't question your impulse to want to know, but you should also understand that the family's right to discuss this in the way that's comfortable for them and that they think best represents their deceased family member is more important than your impulse.

In summary, you're not an asshole, but you should still respect and understand the family's wishes. Sounds like you're on board with that plan, which is great.
posted by sweetkid at 11:01 PM on February 20, 2012 [6 favorites]

I think you may be tapped into the media/TV narrative trope in which young deaths either offer stern lessons for the community or become a way of bringing people together though shared grief and "being able to talk about it". Except that that's all a bit bullshit, for reasons stated above, and it's worth thinking about why fiction (or crappy newsmagazine-style journalism) is so insistent about imposing some kind of productive meaning.
posted by holgate at 12:49 AM on February 21, 2012

Leaving aside this particular acquaintance's death:
I think this has hit you so hard partly because of your own age: partly because people your age "aren't supposed to die" --- only OLD people die, right? --- plus you probably haven't experienced many people's deaths yet.

And I think your thesis that a death caused by alchohol/drug addiction or suicide would act as a deterrent to others is also flawed; maybe, just maybe, it would scare a few people into getting help, but the vast majority would just assume (as human beings tend to do!) that death could NEVER happen to THEM.

Finally, so what if someone's family wishes to keep information to themselves? Unless it was something that affects others ("ohmygawd, there's six cases of contagious smallpox right next door!") it really makes no difference.
posted by easily confused at 3:17 AM on February 21, 2012

but still, there's always a chance this information would help someone.

This is the kind of thing people say when a celebrity is 'outed' by the media. People have their own reasons for keeping something private, and not everybody, or every family, wants to put being an ambassador for a cause over their own private concerns.
posted by mippy at 3:45 AM on February 21, 2012

The death, I think, made a lot of kids who were involved in some really stupid shit wake up a little.

No, no it did not. A few years from now, there will be a whole new group of stupid kids who don't know/ don't care and they'll "learn" things or not depending on the Cosmic Oddsmakers, just like the rest of us. Just accept and move on.
posted by yerfatma at 6:44 AM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think the point's been made that it's not your business, which it isn't, and that you have nothing to be irritated about, which you don't.

But I think that while your question definitely sounds insensitive, that isn't necessarily the end of the road. Frankly, your level of interest in this -- you say yourself that you're surprised how much time you're spending thinking about it -- might benefit from some attention, precisely because it's sort of socially "off," which you seem to recognize. You say yourself that both your fascination and your anger seem excessive to you, and I agree that they absolutely are. It kind of raises a couple of red flags for me, not that you're a jerk, but that you have something on your mind that's making you really overinvest in this family you don't know well and what decisions they make about privacy, which you are interpreting as secrecy (which is different). Maybe sit down with somebody you trust and chat about it and see what you can figure out.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 6:55 AM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

If the police or DA's office were even slightly involved, then I will tell you there is a way to quench your curiosity.

Given this morbid thirst of yours, I would not go out of my way to be your friend. However, people like you exist throughout the ages, and help society uncover secrets for the public good. This is different though - Think wisely about this step - you will get your answer, but you may get more than you bargained for as well. Let things be.
posted by Kruger5 at 7:10 AM on February 21, 2012

At first I thought your question entailed something about the parents keeping quiet about the death and not announcing the memorial service to anyone who would have wanted to come, and that would have been something to be angry about. But they didn't. Instead, they just remained quiet about the exact cause of death, and that's their prerogative.

I think it can be beneficial to get the word out because it motivates people struggling with the same issues to either straighten up or get help.

A couple things, here: first, the world is not your afterschool special. Second, people are not obligated to serve as "examples." Not every sickness, death, or difficult life issue obligates all of the affected to "help some good come of it" in some kind of inspirational story. I mean, if that's how the individuals decide to cope, then that's fine, but it's about how those directly affected deal with their grief, not out of some kind of obligation to help you. And if they decide that this isn't how they want to deal with their grief, then that's fine, too.

This is kind of like how our culture seems to default to the extrovert's view of the world, because they're the ones who are always talking about it, and everyone else, by their nature, is quietly going about their business. We only have this concept that "it can be beneficial to get the word out because it motivates people struggling with the same issues" because we only hear from the people who decide to take a death and turn it into a "cause." There are lots of people who work out their grief in private, and we just don't hear about how "inspirational" their stories are.

I might also add that if you're close enough to the family and friends of the deceased, you'll probably be able to find out. However, I would resist your temptation to try to "get the word out" because you think it will help "people struggling with the same issues," because, honestly, it would be more about making it all about you.
posted by deanc at 7:30 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I take back my insensitive asshole remark, which was a kneejerk response from being the family member of a 20something who shot himself. Whatever the cause of this young person's death, I hope you find some peace.

Even if he died of something completely unpreventable, there are plenty of other people who are killed by drug use, drunk driving and other risky behaviors. If you want to help people who struggle with these things, we can help you find a local organization for which you can volunteer. I think it's good that you're thinking of the health of the wider society.

I see from a previous question that you are a visual arts or film student? That would be a GREAT way to get a message out without making it specific to this young man.
posted by desjardins at 8:03 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd like to offer some insight on why a family might decide to keep details private. A few years ago two of my daughter's high school classmates were killed in an alcohol-related car crash. I was asked to telephone 25 other parents to convey plans for helping the families involved as well as memorial service information. Most parents received this information with sympathy and grace, but I was shocked and dumbfounded at how self-righteous and judgmental a handful of parents were. After that experience I completely understand the family's wish for privacy. I'd never want to provide the opportunity for those kind of people to sit in judgment, gossiping and feeling superior, while I was facing the unimaginable loss of my precious family member.
posted by MelissaSimon at 8:04 AM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

It sounds to me that you had an inkling that these reactions of yours were insinsitive. And that part of your discomfort comes from the guilt of having these reactions at all. You understand that these things should not be brought up with people connected in this event, because you genuinely don't want to cause anyone more hurt.

But you have these reactions and thoughts, and you're trying to process them. These are your honest reactions, that you sense aren't helpful or appropriate, so you come to askme to understand what is wrong with all of this. You're trying to learn more about this whole bag of mortality, so that you're more likely to have sensitive reactions in the future.

So yes, everyone telling you that these reactions are insensitive, unkind and ininformed are correct. You are acting like an insensitive asshole. That doesn't mean you *are* an insensitive asshole.

All of us have ungenerous and insensitive reactions to hard events in life. What seperates to good from the asshole is controlling and figuring out these reactions. I think that's what you're doing. You're learning, and you'll do a bit better next time. I think coming here to explore these issues was a good idea. Askme is full of wise people, and not connected to the pain of this tragedy. It's easier to learn with help than by tackling it on your own.
posted by f_panda at 8:15 AM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't see how you are being an insensitive asshole as you aren't doing anything insensitive. You are entitled to your opinion on this, just as the family is entitled to keep the circumstances to itself. That being said, I wonder if your opinions aren't just a rationalization for simple morbid curiosity.
posted by borges at 9:48 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

So much has already been said, but I wanted to chime in to say a few things too. I really don't think you are being an insensitive asshole. I think that you are being very judgmental, but if you were an asshole you would have sent messages to grieving loved ones like the 22 year old's sister.

To add on to what MelissaSimon said: it's wise to keep details about deaths private because the deceased person obviously can't defend themselves. People will say a lot of things to feed their own need of being right or whatever reason they have. However, it's disrespectful of people to gossip or be judgmental towards another person when you don't REALLY know them and they are no longer able to defend themselves.
posted by livinglearning at 11:43 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Young people die from a variety of things (my job makes me privy to way more than I need to know sometimes.)

Trust me, if these folks are keeping it quiet it is for very very good reasons. The truth is eventually it will most likely get out what happened, but most of the time family silence tells you anything you need to know to start with. (I mean that, if it's something like a disease or an accident, most of the time people have an urge to discuss it. If it is suicide, 9 times out of 10 family lips are sealed.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:54 PM on February 21, 2012

You're curious, which is natural. In this case, there are a number of reasons why they might not want to share the facts. Part of respecting people is accepting that you don't get to know stuff. It's a good thing to learn, as there will be many situations where you will not be able to know stuff; acceptance is key.
posted by theora55 at 3:29 PM on February 21, 2012

I guess I will be an outlier, and say that I don't think relatives should automatically get a blank check in the aftermath of the death of a family member. They don't 'own' that person, or their life, or their legacy, or automatically supersede friendships and senses of connection and mourning from others. I do believe it is insensitive to keep the information unknown, especially in the case of a circle of young people who may feel cast very afloat in the aftermath.

Perhaps I am also being insensitive, but the idea of my own (dysfunctional) family taking direct ownership for the details of my possible death is positively chilling, and believe I would feel the same way even if they were less dysfunctional. There is always terrible pain after a death, but the secretiveness sounds a bit narcissistic, even after reading the personal accounts of family members who went through similar things.

Just my personal perspective, without any sense of morbid, self-righteous fascination... simply fairness to the concept that one is not owned by their families (and their possible fear of moral judgments or perhaps bad reflection on themselves, or fatigue from answer repetitive questions) and the sense of unfairness of those in a position to secret-away information when others may care very deeply and never receive the sense of understanding which could help them come to terms with what may feel like a very serious loss (even if the OP wasn't the person's best friend). Poo-pooing the considerations of others by saying it is not their business is positively patronizing, and does not reflect the world of interconnection that I live in... I don't know about any one else's world.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 4:35 PM on February 21, 2012

If I speak frankly, I think their decision was stupid.

I can almost guarantee that if you're ever unlucky enough to lose someone in one of the ways you've mentioned, you will feel entirely different about this. The problem with your analysis of the situation is that it's 100% logical - you are leaving out the vast, vast amount of emotional pain these people are going through. I hope for your sake you never experience it for yourself.
posted by whitelily at 9:07 PM on February 21, 2012

(I mean that, if it's something like a disease or an accident, most of the time people have an urge to discuss it. If it is suicide, 9 times out of 10 family lips are sealed.)

A friend of mine died in his late 30s of what I SUSPECT was a diabetic/insulin related car accident (going by what bystanders said.)

He was so young, and so healthy that the shock and grief of it seemed to have taken his parents clean off their feet. As far as I know there wasn't even an internment service. There was a very uninformative obituary & that was it.

The very few friends of his that I knew got together to have a hike and talk about him a little but I have no idea about the rest of his circle- his employees, his collegues, his gym buddies. It was very unsatisfactory for us not to be able to go to a memorial but it was really up to his parents, and they weren't capable of doing anything.

There was nothing shameful about his death (as far as I know) but his parent just weren't up for talking about it or, pretty much anything else. I often wonder how they've held up since his death, he was so much their pride and joy.

My point is: Cut his parents some slack.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:07 AM on February 24, 2012

Also, a little tip:

His friends and other acquaintances won't appreciate being asked, even if they don't know the answer. If you ask and even worse, if you insist or complain, you will look very inconsiderate. I know it's hard, but the only polite and caring way of finding out is if somebody volunteers the information to you without coaxing.
posted by Tarumba at 8:04 PM on February 26, 2012

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