Last week a prominent artist in a community I belong to committed suicide on Thursday. I know him only through stories from my friends and the amazing art he created for the Indiana CORE Project last year (see image below). Watching my friends reactions reminds me of just how terrible suicide related grief really is.
Grieving Someone Who Committed Suicide
Every death of a human being sucks, hurts deeply and shifts things for those who know them. Suicide, in my experience, is the worst of the worst for those left behind. No death is easy. No grief a cake walk or a happy experience. There are particular elements that make grieving a suicide particularly difficult and painful.
Suicide has been a concrete part of my life since I was 16 years old. That year, one of my classmates committed suicide. He was part of my circle, my parish, but we were never really close. He wasn’t particularly popular either. Yet, hundreds of students came to the memorial service. People who sat next to him in class wondered if they had any responsibility for his death. It was crazy to observe, this massive ripple effect of one suicide.
Since that first experience, I have lost more friends to suicide. Closer friends. Intimate ones. I have yet to lose a client, and I know it will likely happen. I nearly always have at least one client that is suicidal at any given time in my professional life. I myself came extremely close to committing suicide several times my senior year in high school. Despair is a powerful emotion to try and escape.
The recent number of teenage suicides here in Indianapolis and this most recent death – all distant members of my social circle – make me once again aware of how much suicide deaths are hard to grieve. I think the hard part comes from the two questions those left behind always ask each other and themselves:
- What would push someone to the point that they would take their own life?
If you’ve never seriously thought about killing yourself, then this question seems impossible to understand. How could anything get so bad that suicide looks like a good idea? Taking yourself out, on purpose, is an extreme action. It’s a final thing. How can death seem preferable to life?
This shift occurs when life itself is unbearable and there seems to be no end in sight. Depression takes over. Not just feeling down, discouraged or worn out. True depression tells you that you are alone in the world with your psychological pain. That trying to change anything in your life is pointless. Every mistake you’ve ever made looms large in your mind, convincing you that you are a total failure. Every time your actions or statements hurt someone you love (as we humans are prone to do) it becomes more evidence that the world is a better place without you. Hope dies. Something precious and valuable is missing or has been taken from you, AND you believe there is no way you will ever experience it or get it back.
It’s a dark and terrible place to be. If this experience continues for too long, or occurs too frequently, suicide looks really appealing.
- Was there something that I could have done or said that would have made the difference?
No, not really. Maybe, but not really. Suicide is an intensely lonely action. When someone has reached a point that they are ready to end their life, they typically feel a sense of clarity and peace. Because the decision is so appealing at that point, they usually hide it from others and may even appear to be “doing better.”
Suicide calls us to feel compassion for the psychological pain of the person who did it and for those who survive them. It is not a time for judgment or recrimination. It is simply a tragedy. We feel powerless because the action of taking one’s life is such an extreme thing to do. In order to feel more in control of our lives, we will try to make ourselves responsible. By trying to blame ourselves for failing them in some way, we believe we will feel better. This perverse logic is false.
Opportunities for intervention may have existed before the decision was made and the action taken. These opportunities are easily missed unless the person is actively presenting them. What I mean is, there are a hundred possible reasons that a person who is thinking about suicide will never tell you, never show that they are depressed to an extent that would make you worry. Don’t beat yourself up for respecting their privacy. Be compassionate toward their memory and towards yourself.
Making a Difference
The best action you can take is using your remorse for good by improving things for those still living. Learn all you can about depression and suicide. Start to speak up about your own struggles with your friends and family. Realize that if someone says they are thinking about suicide they aren’t seeking attention. They are saying HEY! I am waking up everyday fighting to convince myself that there is more to life. Help me! So help them. Listen to them talk if they want or just keep them company if they don’t. Text them tomorrow and see how they are doing. Actively demonstrate to them that you are there, and you aren’t scared by what they are going through. Encourage them to seek professional help. Point out to them what is good and beautiful in the world. Try to relieve them of their shame about their struggle. Don’t assume you know what will fix it, be willing to follow their lead. Please add more ideas in the comments below!
On a larger level, we need to truly believe that depression is not a failure of moral fiber or personal character. Depression is a symptom of a brain problem, just like diabetes is symptom of a pancreas problem. Stop judging people for their struggles. Don’t say things like oh, she’s just bipolar. We need to learn how to be comfortable with all our emotions, not just the fun ones. We need more empathy and less judgment. Savor the human connection, in all it’s messy complexities.