“Suicide, seen as among the most selfish of acts, pushes a button in us that even murder doesn’t,” according to Clancy Martin:
When I was in treatment for depression, I found that meeting and talking to other people about suicide was profoundly helpful; I saw what a loss it would have been had those people succeeded. A friend once said to me, “Suicide leaves behind nothing but miserable people blaming themselves.”
My psychiatrist, a wise eighty-seven-year-old woman who has been practicing six days a week for more than forty years, told me, “Think of the example it sets. For your children.” That remains the most compelling argument I’ve heard against suicide: it sets an example — for one’s children, of course, but for others too. It isn’t that we want people to “tough it out.” It isn’t that we think the suicide has acted out of moral weakness. It’s that, when we look at the people we knew who committed suicide, they were often the very people we most appreciated having around. We need more of those people, not fewer.
A reader responds to this post:
I can go through periods when I think that life isn’t worth living. But I don’t have the will to enact a suicide. For when I think of those in my life who would be affected, it makes those thoughts moot. Life is sometimes not worth living for myself, but it is always worth living for others. I have a cat who depends on me; I have family and friends who love me; colleagues and clients with whom I am trustworthy and dependable; how could I break that love and defile that trust? I can handle my own black thoughts, but I couldn’t handle imposing them on others in such a way. My connections tether me to this world. I stay for them, when I can’t for myself. Suicide isn’t painless.
My wife tried to commit suicide once, by injecting herself with her diabetic husband’s insulin (that was her second husband, I was her third). She had three children very young (her first was born when she was 19, the third four years later), which ruined her life financially, and she felt she was an unfit mother. The incident happened long before we got together and when she told me about it all I could do was hold her. I too have suffered from depression and the occasional suicidal thoughts, so even though I’ve never actually attempted suicide, I understood what she was going through enough so that I could sympathize with her.
To feel like you’re inadequate, that you’re incapable of handling all the things life throws at you, unable to cope with the inevitable sadness that comes to any of us, is a common thought among suicidal people. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, the rich and poor alike feel the same thing. Some of us, myself included, feel like we’re nothing more than a burden to the people who love us, whether that means emotionally or financially, and don’t want others to have to exert any more energy on our behalf.
I can speak for myself, and I can speak for my late wife (who died several years ago, not from suicide), that what we want mostly is to feel wanted: we don’t always want to be cheered up, we would like people to tell us from time to time that they like us, to recognize that we are just sad sometimes and we’d like them to respect the fact that we have the right to feel sad. My wife and I were very happy for the five years we were together in great part because we shared that feeling of inadequacy and clung to it as a means of mutual support. In losing her, I still have the memory of that, and that keeps me going despite the many difficulties I’ve had since she left us.
She would be angry with me if I were to take my own life, and some days that’s all I need.
Update from a reader:
By chance I’ve been to three funerals in the last month: the first a relative, the second an acquaintance, and the last a coworker who committed suicide. There were many bittersweet moments at the the first two – smiles, stories, even a few laughs and you got the impression everyone left feeling better than they did going in.
The last funeral was shocking in comparison. Despite a wonderful service and communion, it was the grimmest affair imaginable. No smiles, no stories – just crying relatives and friends staring at their shoes. Shame, guilt and misery everywhere. You could see it suffocating all the decent, hurting people left cleaning up the mess.
Suicide definitely leaves something behind.
A reader writes:
I want to echo what your reader said about his connections tethering him to the world. I absolutely share the sentiment. I have an objectively great life, full of privilege, but I feel as if I’m always carrying around a massive dark truth about reality. At some point in my early 20s, I read a lot of existential philosophy and have been managing an existential crisis ever since. I purposely create responsibility and connections in my life to keep myself from being able to consider ending it. If I didn’t have my dog to take care of (and a family some day in the future, hopefully), I’d look at life in a “I could take it or leave it” manner.
I’ve never really responded to any of your posts but I felt compelled to write in about your new thread on suicide. Describing suicide as “among the most selfish acts” really resonated with me. In fact, it’s the exact lesson I learned after my failed (thankfully) suicide attempt at the age of 14.
I was in a coma for three days and I woke up to absolute devastation around me. My parents, brother, and friends were horribly affected. For years afterwards my mother suffered from a sort of PTSD, having frequent and intrusive flashbacks to the memories of finding me unresponsive in my bed, carrying me to the car, and driving me to the hospital. At the age of 14, I learned that my life is really not mine alone to do what I please. Although I had no “dependents” (my own children, an animal), I realized that other people’s happiness, emotional and physical wellbeing did depend on my continued existence.
I am now 27, and though I have struggled off and on with thoughts of suicide throughout my young adult life (thankfully less and less as I grow older), I have never seriously considered taking my life again. It probably seems morbid, but I would often picture my family and friends if I were to take my life again, how terrible it would be for them, and it gives me a strange motivation to keep on going.
At the age of 14, I simply was not able to comprehend the complex ways that my life intersected and affected those around me. Whenever I hear or read about teenagers taking their life, I think about how it might be possible to impart this same lesson on young people without needing a failed suicide attempt to learn it.
My brother committed suicide three years ago. Suicide leaves many questions, and not enough answers. I did a lot of reading on suicide after my brother died to try and find some answers. You might be interested in the research by Dr. Thomas Joiner. His theory on suicide is right on the mark, in my opinion. Three pillars: 1. Burdensomeness, which leads to the mistaken belief that your death is worth more than your life to others 2. Loneliness/Alienation 3. A fearlessness of death that builds up over time. All three need to come together at the same time, like a perfect storm.
My father committed suicide about two years ago, and one of the hardest things to think about is whether he knew how much his family all loved him. We know he loved us. We don’t see his suicide as some big middle finger at us. But what keeps me up at night is wondering whether, in his last moments, he understood how deeply we wanted him in our lives. If he knew that and still committed suicide, so be it. His was the result of a long and terrible struggle with depression, and I can appreciate that he desperately needed to find peace. But if he left us without knowing that; if his depression prevented him from seeing it – well, what a terrible world.
A reader writes:
Thanks for the discussion thread. But as a daughter who endured her father’s suicide when I was 12, I get upset when people like your readers say the act is selfish. My dad suffered from mental illness and depression, and if hanging himself from a bridge brought him relief, I can understand. One thing that helped me greatly was reading William Styron’s Darkness Visible. Styron was able to describe his depression succinctly and convincingly; I read the book in a few hours and immediately found the forgiveness I guess I needed.
Like many of your readers, I’ve had up close and personal experiences with suicide – family members, friends, acquaintances, sick, healthy, etc. I have thought repeatedly about doing so myself. I’m part of that 30% for whom SSRIs and other meds don’t seem to work, and talk therapy can only do so much. For me depression is as painful as I imagine a chronic debilitating disease and I have made peace with the fact that it has become the defining issue of my life.
I recently had a heart attack, and must admit that at a certain point I thought I could take advantage of the opportunity and not dial for help. Had the pain been less intense, I might not be writing this to you. I know exactly, without a moment’s hesitation, how much I am loved and how much pain it would cause if I were to follow through. The question for me: Would it cause more pain than me keeling over dead from a heart attack or refusing treatment for an incurable disease or any number of ways life presents us with returning our energy to the universe. Why is that? Why are those deaths socially acceptable?
I’ve been following your recent thread about suicide with a kind of bemused interest. Barring a bus or car accident or being shot randomly on the street, my death almost certainly will be suicide. I agree with your commenter several posts ago who received such a violent negative reaction: A right to life is meaningless without the right to choose death. It is for me a matter of when, not if. I cannot imagine not wanting to be proactive about choosing when and how I will die.
My first thoughts about suicide surfaced in my 30s, while I was under therapy. It was the one thing I could not name in the voluminous journals I wrote to my therapist. I could write around it, but I knew that if I named it, he would be legally (as well as professionally and morally) obligated to take action to take away my right, to remove whatever mechanism I had in mind. But still, the power and finality scared me then – especially since I am an atheist, confident that death is an end – full stop. However, even though suicide frightened me then, I was more scared by the possibility of relinquishing the right.
I am now in my 50s, and the idea of my suicide has been a constant companion for more than a decade. I think about it daily and I have grown comfortable with it. Indeed: It is sometimes the only thing that keeps me living, keeps me moving forward.
The last few years have been a difficult struggle. The amount of work it takes to sustain life far exceeds any pleasure to be found in being alive. This is not depression talking; I went through depression in my 30s and came out the other side. This is simply the cold calculation of reality. It takes way too much work just to stay alive for way too little payoff. It is only knowing that staying around to fight another day is a positive choice rather than an obligation that makes staying around bearable.
Thanks for bringing up the topic of suicide. Discussing it in the public forum helps to alleviate the stigma for those of us who have lost loved ones to suicide. I lost my 21-year-old son three and a half years ago. Like some of your other readers, I’ve done a lot of reading and talking to people since then.
I don’t think of suicide as a selfish act. As one person has told me, “Suicide is not chosen; it happens when pain exceeds the resources for coping with the pain.” I don’t believe that my son wanted to abandon his family and friends; he loved us deeply. I do believe that he wanted to end the terrible pain he endured.
I also don’t think of suicide as a sign of weakness. To the contrary, it takes a perverted sense of courage to complete the act of suicide. I raised my son to be strong and courageous, and to meet problems head on. I think it was those characteristics that he used … but again, in a perverted use of those usually admirable traits.
I agree with the reader who cited Dr. Thomas Joiner’s work, but with this refinement. Joiner says that the first two elements, perceived burdensomeness and perceived loneliness can come and go; but the third element – the fearlessness of death – is learned and then stays with you forever. And the way one “learns” not to fear death is through habituation to various forms of violence. This explains why combat veterans, police officers, prison guards, and doctors all have a higher rate of suicide than the general population. (And here’s a link to an article that describes interesting research going on at Harvard.)
A reader writes:
I’ve been reading the suicide thread and I just don’t understand how suicide is selfish. When torture victims break, we don’t call them selfish. People can be tortured by their brain’s messed-up chemistry as brutally as they can be tortured with stress positions and sensory deprivation. People break. That’s not a character flaw. Too much pain and a person will do whatever he or she has to to make it stop.
What could be more selfish than other people presuming that we should stay alive just to meet their needs? How is that not as, if not more, selfish than the selfishness they associate with individuals who take their own life? It’s my life, not theirs.
More readers share their stories:
I’ve known five people who have committed suicide. I agreed with two of them. The other three were needless tragedies, from what I knew of their lives. The common thing between them all: they were suffering, in one form or the other. The first ones were early in my life, and they were young as well. Most took their life with a firearm and left their family and friends emotions and well-being as mangled as they had left their corpses. They became unmitigated tragedies akin to murder.
In my 20s, a woman that I had grown up with killed herself. However, in her case, I knew why she had ended her life and I could understand her reasons. She had been fighting serious medical problems her whole life and in final years, the complications were severe. She had a horrible quality of life and she talked about suicide for several months before committing the act. My regret is that she used such a brutal method to end her suffering because she didn’t know any better.
Over the years, I have acted as a hospice caretaker for my late friends and I have witnessed the agony of their last days. Hospice does help, but we as a society are geared to having someone live to the end of their days, regardless of their desires or how bitter and traumatising the outcome and stigmatizing their death if they should choose to end their struggle early.
The one exception to this pattern was a friend who, suffering with late stage colon cancer, chose to stop fighting, live his life as best he could for as long as he could, and when it got bad enough, he committed suicide. The outcome was different. No horror or trauma. His friends and family were deeply sad, but we were glad his suffering had ended. He planned it, he had a farewell party, and he went peacefully. Death was going to have him, but he choose and controlled his terms to meet death. I cannot disagree with him on choosing that path.
The subject of suicide (and euthanasia) is troublesome and complex. We have no cultural framework to deal with them in a constructive manner. We need to talk about end of life issues more and quit shoving the subject to the fringes of society. I suggest that in the course of discussing suicide, we must recognize that it can offer an end to suffering when death truly is the only way out.
A dear friend of mine from college, an Iraq war veteran, took his life in 2011. His funeral service was the most difficult experience I had ever endured. He was 24 years old and had so many who loved him. We played rugby together and the men’s and women’s teams from our college both attended. We were all so devastated.
The reception was better. We shared funny stories and loving memories. Some of his artwork was on display. There were so many pictures of him laughing and smiling. I don’t know if it was to punish myself or blame myself for not seeing it, but when I got home I looked through every one of the pictures of him on Facebook to see if there was some glimpse of what drove him to suicide. Two years later we all try to remember him and smile, but I find the fact that he would only be 26 now so painful. Suicide leaves wounds.
Then last year my cousin took his own life. I experienced a new level of “difficult.” Sometimes I feel so selfish because he took his life just hours after midnight, hours after my birthday had finished, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to really celebrate again. My birthday is tomorrow. I was in Mexico at the time, got back three days later, and called my mother to say we had landed back in the states. That’s when I heard the news. I was in the middle of the Atlanta airport, sitting across from my fiance, and I have never felt more lost in my life. He was a hero firefighter. He was a devout Christian. He was always donating money and his time to charity. A little over 24 hours before he took his life, he had organized an ran a charity event that raised thousands. Over 900 people came to pay their respects at his wake. 900!
At the funeral our family was there for six hours, as mourners came through non-stop. Didn’t he know that he had this effect on everyone? Is it worse if he didn’t or if he did know and didn’t feel like it had enough meaning to stop him? Nearly one year later the wounds on our family, especially his parents and siblings, are as fresh as ever. I love him so dearly, but sometimes I feel so mad and selfish that he would make us feel this way. If he is at peace, does it make our pain less important? I’m still lost.
Our Failure To Treat Suicidal Thoughts, Ctd
by Chris Bodenner
A reader appears adrift:
I need help understanding this issue. Put frankly, I don’t know that I buy the imperative that we should be making a thing out of preventing suicide. Loved ones are hurt by suicide. But what else? I am not exactly suicidal, but it’s not at all infrequent for me to be acutely aware that I have no preference for being alive over not being alive.
I don’t know. I’m having trouble putting words to this. Maybe it’s our cultural aversion to death – now that the shroud of religion has become threadbare – that propagates this. Maybe it’s the opposite: a fascination with celebrity deaths as “tragedy” combined with our contemporary obsession with crafting a personal narrative out of every bullshit event in the world. Maybe it’s as simple as, if I ever were to kill myself, I’d want to be able to justify it. I don’t know. There is something that smacks of musty morality in the suicide conversation. Why should we be preventing suicide? Why should we be second-guessing individuals’ relationships with themselves?
That email provides a good reason to revive one of our most popular threads from last year, “Suicide Leaves Behind Nothing.” Many of the scores of emails we received went unpublished, such as:
One thing that seems overlooked in all these stories from loved ones left behind is the fact that we can’t hear the stories of those who left. We can only ever hear one side of the story, one side’s pain. (Suicides do sometimes leave a note, but we, the general public, usually don’t see or hear them except through the filter of loved ones left behind.) Personally, I’m with these two readers:
What could be more selfish than other people presuming that we should stay alive just to meet their needs?
People can be tortured by their brain’s messed-up chemistry as brutally as they can be tortured with stress positions and sensory deprivation. People break. That’s not a character flaw. Too much pain and a person will do whatever he or she has to to make it stop.
I disagree with the first one a bit in the case of children (including adult ones). If you’ve brought people into the world, you do owe them something. Children aside, though, the reader is spot on.
The second one calls attention to something that seems overlooked, which is that the very notion of selfishness is problematic in the case of those who are mentally ill, because their sense of self is either deranged (disarranged) or completely missing. In the case of depression, for example, by the time it’s extreme enough for the sufferer to contemplate suicide, they’ve lost almost all sense of self. The barrier between self and other is gone, or is so porous it might as well be. That’s the very reason they’re in such pain: they feel everything, and all of it cuts right to the quick.
There’s a certain amount of pain that’s unavoidable in the world. How much of it should be born by one person before we’re willing to let them stop?
Several more readers share their stories:
My brother killed himself twenty years ago, six days before my second child was born. No one in our family saw it coming. We all knew that he had been struggling with work and love, but just had no idea that he was so terribly depressed. Afterwards, my parents, five siblings and I began to reconstruct his pain and of course felt that we had let him down by not seeing his downward spiral. The guilt and questions were overwhelming. He and I were not particularly close and had definitely clashed in the past (which brings it’s own kind of despair), but even the brothers he had a close relationship with were riddled with what-ifs. It is hard to describe the anguish of watching my parents struggle with their grief.
Twenty years later, my heart still twists if someone asks how many siblings I have because I feel that I can’t say five; I have to say six, even though he is gone. He springs to mind every time I think about or prepare for my daughter’s birthday. The pain never really goes away, but I remember so clearly the moment that I reached a sort of peace about his death. It was shortly after my daughter’s birth and I was rocking her, weeping, wondering how we could ever deal with this awful reality when my husband came in and one of the things he said was, “Honey, he’s not suffering anymore”. I cannot describe the relief I felt at that moment. He had been suffering and we didn’t see it and we will have regrets forever and would do anything to change it, but he isn’t suffering any more. It is not a happy feeling, but it is a kind of peace.
Thanks for “listening”.
I’m a therapist and several years back I lost a client to suicide. He was a young man struggling with identity and relationships, and a painful rejection sent him into a spiral, overwhelming him. He denied having any suicidal thoughts, so his death was clearly a shock for me, and I will never know whether he kept those thoughts and plans to himself or if his suicide was impulsive and in reaction to the rejection.
I do know that his death changed me in so many ways, and marked a loss of innocence for me as a therapist (I was a relatively new therapist at the time). As intimately as I can come to know my clients, I now understand that there are parts of themselves they may not share with me, and that I can’t completely know them. I also believe that therapy and medication may not be enough to relieve the psychic pain some of my clients may experience, and that I have to accept the limitation of my work. Clearly, this is the hardest part of my job.
I wouldn’t say that suicide is selfish, but it certainly emerges from a very hopeless, narrow state of mind. I have to believe that I can make a difference in my clients’ struggles with this hopelessness, but I humbly accept that it may not always be effective. In that case, I do not believe I am in a position to judge that client’s decision. I can feel sad, angry, and devastated by that choice, but ultimately it is my client’s choice.
Well, as someone who had to break down the door of my brother’s bedroom after he killed himself (or, rather while he was still alive, barely), I find the title of your thread odd. Suicide leaves behind a lifetime of pain. That’s hardly “nothing”, and as for all your readers who think suicide is a selfish act, I strong disagree. My brother was not selfish. He simply wanted to escape the pain that my parents inflicted upon him (and the rest of us siblings) with their never-ending bickering and violence, which extended throughout their divorce.
I’m what’s called “an emotional wreck”, I know that. Nothing – not years of useless therapy nor years of being experimented on by misguided doctors who thought that prescribed drugs can wipe away memories – nothing can “heal” me. It’s accepting that fact that was the beginning of my new life.
When I stopped the hunt for outside salvation, I came to see the truth: that the scars that deform my very being could never be healed and that my goal is to keep on living despite the fact my scars so easily bleed when scratched. I am walking in the woods and come out into a clearing, look up, and see the same cloud formations that were in the sky the night my brother died – and SCRATCH! I think of my brother. I am in the grocery store and see the word “Swanson” on a TV dinner and SCRATCH! – it was his favorite thing to eat. I walk along the ocean, peacefully contemplating the waves, when a child runs up behind me with his dog and I look into his face and SCRATCH! I see my brother.
It never ends. I have prevailed, despite the fact that I went through years of emotional hell. I came to accept the new me. I had to accept that I would never be the same person that existed before I took a hammer and literally tore a door apart in order to collapse into a room where my brother’s face was covered with his brains after he shot himself. I’ve learned. Carry on is the only thing one can do. Accept the pain and carry on. Accept the scar that never heals and ceaselessly bleeds. It’s hardly “nothing”. I can only assume your thread is meant to be ironic. I hope so.
Anyway, I am glad you are posting about suicide. It touches so many people in so many ways and most people just don’t want to talk about it. Thank you.
One more reader:
I work in mental health and I just want to caution you about publishing opinions rationalizing suicide. Some of your respondents sound like they would benefit from professional help. It might be a good idea to append your posts with info on the national suicide prevention line:
If you are in a crisis and need help right away: Call this toll-free number, available 24 hours a day, every day: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You will reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a service available to anyone. You may call for yourself or for someone you care about. All calls are confidential.
It is with a deep honesty and powerful frankness that New York-based photographer Kristina Knipe creates a complex narrative of self-harm in her series I Don’t Know The Names of Flowers. Returning to her hometown in Pennsylvania, Knipe collaborated with others who struggle with self-harm by contacting acquaintances and posting on NYC’s Craigslist in an attempt to find healing.
“If You Don’t Kill Yourself, You’re Saving Someone Else’s Life”
Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, describes the contagion effect that spreads to the family, friends, and even strangers of people who kill themselves, making it more likely that they’ll follow suit:
From her bio:
Jennifer Michael Hecht is a poet, philosopher, historian and commentator. She is the author of the bestseller Doubt: A History, a history of religious and philosophical doubt all over the world, throughout history. Her new book is Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, out from Yale University Press. Her The Happiness Myth brings a historical eye to modern wisdom about how to lead a good life. Hecht’s The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism, and Anthropology won Phi Beta Kappa’s 2004 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award “For scholarly studies that contribute significantly to interpretations of the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity.”
The Dish featured the arguments of Stay here and Hecht’s ideas about atheism here and here – part of a thread asking, “Where are all the female atheists?” Popova loved Stay, calling the book “more than a must-read — it’s a cultural necessity.”