Sunday, April 11, 2004

Some Thoughts on the Survivors of Suicide

Let me start this week's topic with a relevant poem of mine:

Your Mother

Your mother had to wash
Your brains off of the wall,

Scrubbing and scraping,

But that's what you do
For the sake of love.

She's read your note.

She's like a talmudic scholar
The way she tries to tease meaning

From your words,
Your final words.

She even tries to read
What you forgot to write,

As the why of it eats her days,

But all she sees
Is an emptiness that feels

Like a closed casket
Hole in the ground.

It is an open secret that I attempted to take my life when I was twenty-one via an overdose of sleeping pills. It was, without doubt, the worst decision that I have ever made and I am exceedingly fortunate that I had time to repent my decision. I came all too close to lapsing into a perfect and endless sleep. No, strike that. Suicide gets enough romantic imagry. I came close to dying and that is that.

Over the course of the next five years, or so, I confronted the depression that drove me to it and eventually mastered it. After I had extracted myself from harm's way, I set about putting together a project to help others who were contemplating suicide. It took the form of a web site called Songs of the Phoenix and it used, as its hook, the first one hundred poems that I wrote after my attempt.

I sincerely believe that the site did a lot of good. I got frequent emails from people seeking help and I offered both my personal advise as well strong encouragement for them to seek professional help. Often, the mere realization that someone else had gone through the same experience and suffered the same feelings seemed to help.

In addition to emails from people thinking about suicide, I got a surprising amount of messages from people who had lost loved ones to suicide. When I say surprising, I mean that in every sense of the word. I had not given much thought to what suicide does to those who are left behind. The pain and anxiety that came through these letters was intense and palpabale. Again and again, I was asked to explain the unexplainable.

One of the things that distinguishes the human animal is that we are truth seekers. When something happens, no matter how trivial, we like to understand why it happened. This desire for understanding is magnified by tragedy. When something terrible happens, our desire to understand becomes critical. We want to know what happened, why it happened and, if possible, we'd like to be able to assign blame.

When someone loses a loved one to suicide, these natural desires have a way of getting twisted around. The question of what happened is easy enough to answer but the reasons for why it happened are often hidden in a riddlework of cruel enigma. The worst question is the one of blame. They don't want to blame the person they lost, so they find themselves seeking to assign blame elsewhere.

Sometimes they blame their friends. Sometimes, especially in the case of teen suicide, they blame the authorities that we entrusted their children to. More often than either of these, they blame themselves. They ask themselves why they didn't see the signs. They wonder if they could have done anything to prevent it. Worst of all, they ask themselves if they did something to cause it.

There's a lot of myths about suicide.

There's the myth that someone who's suicidal always gives off clear warning signs that they are about to attempt something. The truth is that people who are thinking about suicide can be immensely subtle.

Then there is the myth of the suicide note. Myths rather. The first myth is that there will be one. Often, suicide is a spontaneous act. Relatively few suicides are actually planned. More often, someone whose depressed suddenly decides that they can't take it anymore and then acts upon that feeling at the earliest opportunity, which may be as close as a loaded gun or a bottle full of pills. The second myth of the note is that suicide notes can explain anything. A life is a complex thing and it's impossible to justify why someone would choose to forsake it in the space of a page or two.

The worst myth of suicide, however, is that it's romantic. Suicide is always ugly. There is the shock of discovery. There is the immediate and imponderable agony. Then there is the fact that someone has to deal with the body. That duty typically falls on the people who were closest to the victim. Even in the case of relatively "clean" suicides, such as death by overdose, that means that thier loved ones have to clean up the literal shit that the body expells when it dies. Finally, there are the questions. The unanswerable questions that people ask themselves in hopes of filling the terrible void that's left behind.

There is no romance to suicide. Ever.

When I have talked to survivors, I have tried to explain that suicide isn't a rational decision. People who kill themselves are usually in such an immense state of pain that they aren't capable of seeing a way out of their misery. It is little different than what wild animals do when they chew their own limbs off in order to escape from a trap. I try, above all, to explain that there is no blame and that it's not fair, to themselves, to suppose that they could have seen the signs in advance.

I honestly don't know how much comfort this has provided. I can only hope that it has, at least, been a little.

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