The newspaper’s response to an Island tragedy | Editorial

This week, The Beachcomber had to make a hard call. We had to decide if we were going to write about Palmerston Burk’s death, a suicide that hit Vashon’s teen and school community hard.

Our instinct was to write a story, in large part because to not do so — to ignore a tragedy that seemed to be on every Islander’s mind — was to play into the outdated and ill-informed notion that suicide is a stigma.

There was a time when suicide was not spoken of, when it was seen as a character flaw or, worse, a sin. We now know it’s the third leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 24 in America, a preventable but very real indication of depression, despair and mental illness.

We wanted to tell the story, because that’s our job and because it seemed like the right thing to do. And because it felt like a way to honor a young life cut short.

Ultimately, however, we deferred to Palmer’s family. And on Friday, Kathleen Gilligan, a courageous mother reeling from the pain of her son’s death, gave us the OK. In fact, she spoke candidly and openly about her son — his life, his death and her struggle to make sense of it.

She also spoke of her pain for those many young people who were close to her son. Even as she was experiencing an incomprehensible wave of grief, she spoke as a woman with a sense of responsibility for the larger community. We were struck by her strength and conviction.

Some may fear that by writing about Palmer, we’re glorifying what Brad Roter, a friend and family physician, called “a horrible mistake.” Some on Vashon fear copycat acts; it’s certainly been known to happen in other communities.

But Vashon is remarkably strong and tight-knit, and many adults are making connections, talking to young people and working hard to ensure the teens on Vashon fully comprehend the tragedy of his death and the importance of being able to work through a problem and trust that the next day will dawn brighter. We believe that kind of openness, education and outreach will have an impact on our teens and young adults.

At The Beachcomber, we didn’t know Palmer. But in the last few days, as we talked to those who did, a portrait emerged of a young man full of vigor and promise, beauty and intellect. He was loved. He had friends. He was solid.

We hope his family can find some comfort in knowing how fully embraced he was by the Island community and how deeply he’ll be missed.


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