The art of the obituary: The special ed teacher

[Update: I told the truth in my sister’s obituary, so that others might choose to live (Washington Post)]

In our growing collection, we’ve read plenty of powerful essays on the nature of mental health, depression, and suicide, but we’re hard pressed to recall one as powerful as that for Aletha Pinnow, who took her own life in Duluth last month.

“I’m thinking, what could I have done? What should I have done? We’re all thinking that right now,” the principal of the school where she taught special education tells the Duluth News Tribune today. “But we know how bad it must have been for her to leave her kids. How bad it must have hurt.”

In the obituary, her family invites us to talk about it.

Aletha Meyer Pinnow, 31, of Duluth, formerly of Oswego and Chicago, Ill., died from depression and suicide on Feb. 20, 2016.

Aletha was born on Dec. 29, 1984 to Bonnie and Bryce Pinnow.

The parents promised a tiny baby to their older daughter (who was sorely disappointed by the giant 11 pound baby that came home with them). This was an auspicious start for Aletha, who spent her life defying expectations and charting her own hilarious and unique path.

She loved animals, theater, Halloween, Star Wars, cartoons, preparing food for loved ones, and cuddling with aforementioned animals. She did not love France (they know why) and William Shatner (who also presumably knew why). Aletha was fond of making her mom laugh until she literally cried and helping her dad do anything and everything. It is impossible to sum up a woman so caring, genuine, vivacious, hilarious, and sparkly. Those qualities were so obvious to everyone around her.

Aletha was her family’s whole entire world. She enriched the lives of countless colleagues and students. Unfortunately, a battle with depression made her innate glow invisible to her and she could not see how desperately loved and valued she was.

Aletha found her true passion in fifth grade when she decided to become a special education teacher. She graduated high school a year early to enroll in her future alma mater, Northern Illinois University (NIU), in anticipation of that goal. It is the ultimate understatement to say that Aletha loved working with people with disabilities (especially people on the autism spectrum). She was a special education teacher for over a decade and she was, as she was happy to tell you, awesome at it. She saw the potential and value of every single one of her students and she loved them with a ferocity that would make a rabid mother bear quiver.

If the family were to have a big pie in the sky dream, we would ask for a community-wide discussion about mental health and to pull the suffocating demon of depression and suicide into the bright light of day. Please help us break the destructive silence and stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide.

Aletha was preceded in death by her adoring grandparents: Barb and Dave Ashby and Orla and Don Pinnow.

Aletha is survived by her parents, Bonnie (Momster) and Bryce (Dadzilla) Pinnow; sister/seestar, Eleni (Smelly) Pinnow (Steve Rosenberg), and BFF Sara Clark. Aletha is also survived by an uncle, Mark (Casey) Ashby; aunt Charla (Doug) Antrobus; aunt Theresa “TT” Ashby; cousins Stacy (Igor) Zapadinsky, Leslie Antrobus, David (Dorothy) Ashby, Phil (Lauren) Ashby, and Steve (Maris) Ashby. Countless heartbroken friends mourn Aletha with her family. Aletha also leaves behind her devoted pitbull, Asta Louise, and two cats, Fido and Ralphie. Because Aletha was so dedicated to her vocation as a special education teacher, she also is survived by hundreds of students whose lives are immeasurably better because of her, and by colleagues in Wheaton, Chicago, and Duluth.

The family would also appreciate if friends and colleagues would share memories and photos of Aletha with them. This would provide us comfort as we find our way without her.

MEMORIAL SERVICE: 2 p.m. June 4, in the Church of the Good Shepherd in Oswego, Ill.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to endow a scholarship in Aletha’s name at NIU. Checks (with the memo line “NIU Aletha Pinnow Endowment”) may be mailed to: NIU Foundation, PO Box 746, DeKalb IL 60115.

“I saw this and thought, wow, it comes right out and hits you between the eyes. It’s courageous. It’s going to get people talking, and that’s what we really need,” Paul Goossens, a Duluth psychologist, told the News Tribune. “Depression is a perception disorder. People just don’t perceive themselves accurately, their value. This (obituary) really underscores that. She couldn’t see her own glow.”

“We want people to know she was so much more than a suicide,” her sister said.

(h/t: Matt Lutz)

  • Thomas Mercier

    I can’t think of anything to write right now that would contribute to the strength and beauty of that memorial, but I feel obligated to comment simply to say that I value it deeply and I hope it helps others find meaning.

  • In my opinion, this sums it up:

    “Depression is a perception disorder. People just don’t perceive themselves accurately, their value.”

    I believe it’s also a perception issue of those around people facing depression; how to recognize and deal with (help) those suffering with depression.

    There are MANY people out there suffering (or have suffered) that go unnoticed.

    /Of course, that’s just my opinion (and I may be WAY off base).
    //Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    • ec99

      I knew a college student who suffered from deep depression. The meds she was on seemed to be helping. Then, on December 23, the day her parents were going to take her back home for Xmas, she hanged herself in her dorm room. No one had a clue as to what occurred to have her take that action.

  • Justin McKinney

    Having lost my little brother to bipolar-related suicide almost 8 years ago, I applaud this family for asking to bring this discussion out into the light. Too often, the people who are lost don’t talk about things during their time here, and those of us left behind only talk about it with our own inner circle, instead of having a broader discussion.

  • Leann Olsen

    Thank you for posting this. I’m going to share this with my struggling 13 year old.

  • Suzanne

    RIP [tears]

  • John

    This is absolutely a discussion that has to take place. No one could walk in her shoes but it’s so senseless to lose anyone to suicide. The next day she might have been so much better. ….

  • lindblomeagles

    Thanks Bob for this reminder of the grave, seriousness of this disease.

  • bonnie pinnow

    Aletha was my beloved daughter. she was so loved so cherished by everyone. No one disliked her… NO ONE. I would ask this of all who may have read this. please enter into a contract for life with your loved ones at least once per year. maybe more often tell the important people in your life how much you cherish and love them. that you can not imagine life with out them. Promise them that if you ever feel depressed or “worthless” you will talk to them and make them make these promises to you. Talk about it, talk about your love. We hear so much negative from the world. Talk about love first and foremost. Bonnie Pinnow