What’s left unsaid

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Last Monday, we pinned ceremonial ribbons of red, green and yellow onto our oldest son’s Webelos uniform. It was a proud moment. I remembered having my Webelos ribbons pinned onto my Cub Scout uniform when I was his age.

Remembering is like a hole in the dam; one hole quickly becomes many. It was a spring day on the northern edges of Northern Minnesota’s Sax-Zim bog. The year: 1990. Winter had just released its icy grip on the ditches and swamps, moving water in rapid, babbling currents all around us. For several days my friends and I had raced small objects down a drainage ditch on the Cherry School playground. Half a popsicle stick became a sailboat. A weathered piece of bark became a submarine, which I called the Nautilus.

I think the reason I remember these details so vividly is because one of these days in 4th Grade, a message came over the loudspeaker telling me to come home on the bus instead of going to my Webelos meeting after school. My sisters and I ran into our house on the junkyard my dad and grandfather ran. Our parents sat us down in the living room and told us that Uncle Scott had died.

The first thing we were told was that he had been shot, but the police were trying to figure out whether it was a murder, or maybe something called a suicide. It was under investigation. We were shocked, saddened, frightened and confused. My parents had rented a video game for us to play. They sent us to our room to play, while the phones rang through the day and night. I distinctly remember my dad telling someone “He was just sick. That’s how we have to look at it.”

There was no investigation. I would learn that my uncle had been racked with deep depression for years. A born-again Christian he had found a supportive community in the Twin Cities and he met with them often. He prayed with others. He prayed alone. When it got worse, he was advised to pray harder. He did. But he was clinically depressed. It got worse, and one night he died alone in his apartment.

The phone rang. This is the part of the story any family affected by mental illness and suicide knows. It’s the same thing that happened to the family of Megan Bauer. On March 27, 2013, Megan ended her life at the age of 34 after a long battle with depression. She was almost the same age as my uncle when he died. I know Megan’s dad John through my work at Northern Community Radio.

Moments like this leave us two options: sink, or swim. Fortunately for John, his family, and perhaps countless others, John has found a project that will help others cope with the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide. Taking a leave from his job, Bauer has begun crafting an interactive multimedia art and interview project exploring the emotions and aftermath of suicide from mental illness. “What’s Left” is set to debut Sept. 4, 2015 at the MacRostie Art Center in Grand Rapids.

Says Bauer: “The goal of ‘What’s Left’ is to create a proactive dialogue on suicide and mental illness to break the stigma that surrounds both, in the hopes that we can literally save lives.”

Bauer wants “What’s Left” to become a traveling exhibit and curriculum for schools. The goal is simple. Remove the stigma from mental illness so we can talk about the things that cause people to take their own lives. Bauer has a Kickstarter fundraising campaign going now, set to close Dec. 9. The website, www.whatsleftmn.com, explains more. The videos found there tell Megan’s story, what’s left for the family after, and how to help.

The last conversation I remember with my Uncle Scott was a few weeks before he died. He was looking at my red, green and yellow Webelos ribbons where I kept the pins I had earned. One of them, a set of gears, represented the engineering badge. Hey, he said, you could be an engineer like me. I don’t remember his words. Or his voice. But I remember I wanted to be an engineer in that moment. That same day I remember telling him he was my favorite uncle. I thought his mustache was cool.

We can’t bring back the thousands of people lost every year to mental illness. It’s easy to let shame and regret replace the better memories. Perhaps, through conversations like this, we can learn to make peace with these feelings. And as John often repeats in talking about the What’s Left project, maybe we can save one person who’s on the edge.

Just one would be worth it.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. Aaron,
    Thanks for righting this. It is an issue that hits more families than people seem willing to admit or accept whether because of denial or fear of involving others in our personal issues.

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