Some thoughts.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about suicide.

No, not me. I’m perfectly happy living my life until something else — preferably something quick and painless that occurs years and years from now — ends it.

It’s others.

Writing about Suicide

Here’s the situation.

I’m working on a memoir and one of the things that falls into the scope of the book is a suicide that touched my life in an unusual way. I need to write about it because it’s part of the story of that part of my life, but it’s difficult. The event was very dramatic to the point of being sensationalist. I don’t want to give readers the idea that what happened should be copied by any other sad sack who can’t cope. I want readers to understand the impact of this suicide on me and others. I want them to understand that what happened was wrong.

I refuse to refer to a person who died by suicide as a “suicide victim.” The victim is not the person who ended his own life. The victims are the people left behind, the ones tortured by memories of something they had no choice about witnessing. The victims are the people left to wonder, for the rest of their lives, why it happened or whether they could have prevented it. These are the victims of suicide.

So I’ve been thinking about it, trying to come up with a way to write about it.

I know what I want to say: that suicide is for selfish cowards.

Strong words, but when you’ve seen what witnessing a suicide can do to people, you can’t help but recognize the selfishness of the person committing suicide. A suicide doesn’t think about the people who see him cut his life short, often by violent means. He doesn’t think about the people — perhaps even a spouse or child — who find him dead, often in a grizzly state. He doesn’t think about the effect his suicide has on others — emotionally, financially, socially. Not thinking about others is the definition of selfishness.

Coward is a little tougher. The suicide that touched my life was a troubled man with diagnosed psychological problems. He’d tried once before. He was off his meds. Maybe he wasn’t a coward. Maybe his head was so fucked up that he just didn’t know any better. I try to think of him that way. It makes it a little easier to bear.

But it doesn’t do anything for the resentment I feel about being dragged into his final act.

The Others

I was lucky. The artist who committed suicide in the apartment building I owned wasn’t discovered hanging from the light fixture by me. It was his ex-wife. And the police kindly cleaned up after they took away his body, leaving only the smell of disinfectant and his oil paints.

And that woman I rented an apartment to the following year? She killed herself before moving in. I had a heck of a time figuring out how to get her deposit back to someone.


Today, I learned that a friend of mine from 20+ years ago committed suicide at work on Friday. We hadn’t seen each other in at least 20 years, but we kept in touch, on and off, on Facebook and Twitter. His Facebook picture shows him at a ball game, smiling up at the camera. He used to tweet about sports like it was a driving force in his life.

A mutual friend I spoke to today agreed that he was always cheerful and never seemed to be unhappy. Neither of us can figure out why he might have taken his own life. We’ll likely never know. We’re not close enough to the family to make contact and ask. So we’re left to wonder.

And I think about my choice of words to generalize all suicides: selfish coward.

And I hate to apply those words to my old friend.

But what else can I think? He did the deed at work — for Pete’s sake! — in the middle of a weekday. The company has brought in grief counsellors to deal with coworkers. He left behind a wife and four daughters. One of the girls was starting college this semester. Didn’t he think of all these people as he prepared to end it all? Couldn’t he imagine how they would feel? Didn’t he care?

And what could possibly be so bad that a 46-year-old man with a job and home and wife and family would kill himself over? Whatever it was, couldn’t he face it? Couldn’t he deal with it, with the support of his family and friends, to move past the difficulties and get on with his life?

Selfish coward. I hate to think of him that way.

Help Me Understand

I don’t want to think about suicide. I want to think about flying and eating cherries and doing a photo shoot at Lake Powell. I want to worry a little about my dog, who needs some surgery, and my sister, who moved back in with my Mom last November. I want to finish up this big pile of work on my desk so I can write some invoices and take a few days off. I want to look forward to my husband’s brief visit next week, which will be the first time I’ve seen him since May. I want to go out to eat something I’ve never eaten before.

I don’t want to think about how I can write about a suicide that touched me while thinking about the suicide of an old friend.

Can someone help me understand?

I don’t want pity. I just want to understand why it happens and how I can write about it without offending the real victims: the people left behind.

12 thoughts on “Suicide

  1. Maria

    I suspect that this end of the human experience is no less complex than Love and its friends on the nice end. Just like a teenager can feel lust, love and selfishness in the rush of a new relationship, I believe a person who ends his own life can probably be a victim *and* a selfish coward.

    The other thing that occurs to me is that selfishness usually connotes acting in a way that intends to gain advantage at the expense of others. The person that is able to overcome the strongest instinct–self-preservation–is likely not thinking of others much at all, or if they do only abstractly or in some warped way that he feels supports his conclusion. So, I guess I agree that it is always selfish, but not always with malicious intent.

    I tend to be more justice focused than mercy focused and so, like you, I too have always cringed at “suicide victim.” But, I remind myself that the brain is as much an organ as the mind is a center for emotion and a decision that perverted is borne out of problems with both. There are physiological and emotional (and behavioral) factors involved. Because I know a couple people that have tried to kill themselves, and I know these people are “good” people, I’ve had to soften my stance to accept that a brain can break, just like a liver or eye sight, and try to add more mercy to my approach than comes naturally to me.

    Hope this was what you were looking for…

  2. Dear Maria –

    There is nothing definitive that can be said about suicide – and the absence of definitive answers is usually dismissed as philosophical pondering. Living a live is living in an analog world of shades and unseen contexts while searching for binary borders and end states.

    As a physicist, the electron was once seen as a particle, then as a wave, and when quantum physics demonstrated that it was both, our very concept of reality was shaken.

    My experience with situations where people have taken their lives has shown to me that those who are coming near to the point of action see their lives, as they envision it in preferential terms, is continuously exhausting their inventory of options until their perceived ability to live a life of no options is no longer an option.

    Such occasions can be turned into a final act of giving to us all, if we elect to receive this gift. It reminds us to become more aware of what living “means” to us while we are living a ‘normal’ life. When our options dwindle, we can then better cope with this scarcity by knowing who we are and honor what is noble about us a human. In the absence of that awareness, our options are often dwindling. Drugs and alcohol dulls our senses so we can focus entirely on the artificial state of feeling ok when in fact we have opted to simplify our lives by removing reality so we do not have to deal with it.

    I can relate very much to your comments, and given that a few cold characters on a screen cannot couple all that well to how we feel, perhaps the space between these characters and words carries the message I wanted to send. My very best to you – Eberhard

  3. Maria, I am totally with you. I believe that you are correct in your definition of the victims of suicide. I, too, wonder how someone could feel so desperate that ending their life is thought to be their only option. My heart goes out to those who are left behind to deal with the “what ifs” and “why didn’t I” for the rest of their lives. With regard to our mutual friend, I only hope that his family was left with some knowledge of why he might have committed such a selfish act, so perhaps they don’t carry this around with them, wondering if it was something that they did or didn’t do, for the remainder of their lives. I can’t help but think how horrific they must feel – I know how we feel and we weren’t the ones closest to him.

  4. Thanks, everyone for your comments. I’m glad to hear that I’m not off base with my personal thoughts about the matter. Your comments will also help me write about my situation when the time comes. Thanks.

  5. None of us can ever fully understand another human being.
    There was a point in my life when I had gathered 90 sleeping pills (hoping it would be sufficient) after I’d lost everyone and everything that mattered to me. And, looking back now, I can see that there was no other thought in my mind except my own misery.
    I try to remember Morrie Shwartz saying “forgive everybody, everything.” (from Tuesdays With Morrie)
    However you choose to deal with these happenstances is ultimately your lonely choice.

  6. @Joan Blake
    I’m glad you didn’t take those pills. I hope you are, too.

    I guess I’ve never been in a situation so bad that I thought that was the only option. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve had some pretty crappy things happen to me — but I always felt that I’d get past them and I did. It’s hard for me to imagine thinking that the final option is the only one.

  7. As someone who actually considered suicide years ago when I was so young and naive, my thoughts then were that the world would actually be better off without me. I truly didn’t think I even mattered to anyone. So I genuinely didn’t think anyone would care if I died, either.

    Obviously, that kind of thinking couldn’t have been more wrong! But in those moments that’s what I actually believed. Scary, awful, and extremely dark place in my life way back THEN. Thankfully, now it’s hard to even imagine thinking such things… but I do understand why and the circumstances that led me to having no self-worth.

    I learned a lifetime of things about myself as I dug out of that dark hole. I won’t explain in a public place what all happened, but ultimately I changed my life drastically and who I allowed to be close to me.

    Perhaps for me at that point in my young life it took getting to that “bottom” to understand such things. It was all quite a defining moment in my life that turned me around. At the same time, I also know that going through that darkness helped me be the content, happy person I’ve become who appreciates every moment of life, the 2 kids I have now, and my close friends.

    I also genuinely believe that people (generally) who contemplate and even follow through with suicide really don’t want to die. They just need drastic change and feel hopeless and helpless about it being possible. The reality is, though, that there’s always a way to make that change happen, even if the person can’t see it.

    But there are also sick people who commit suicide as an act of revenge and all sorts of other warped things. I’m not writing about those kinds of people.

    • Sadly, I now have an idea of what that dark place might be like. I haven’t been there yet and hope things don’t deteriorate to the point where I go. It’s just horrible when you know someone who has let that dark place destroy his or her life, leaving the rest of us to just wonder why.

    • I tried to reply earlier but ended up getting a 500 server error after I hit SEND and it didn’t go through. So this is a test…

    • In a nutshell, just pay attention to how you’re feeling. You’ve got great support, which is a huge help. If you or anyone else even has a fleeting thought of suicide, pay attention and talk to someone about it right away. Know that it’s really just wanting something to desperately to change and not knowing of any options at that time. That’s key, IMO.

      Hope that helps a bit.

      I have a lot more to say, but not publicly. :-)

What do you think?