There are a myriad of reasons why people decide to take their own lives, although there is a preponderance of suicides due to mental illness, maybe even as high as 90%. What about the other 10%? These are people who may have found themselves depressed due to a certain event or set of circumstances; perhaps experienced a temporary imbalance that escalated due to medication fluctuations; or even faced a temporary (but seemingly permanent) problem for which he/she was unable to see a good resolution or one which was tolerable to him or her. It is the loss survivors of the latter group to whom this essay is mostly addressed.
Furthermore, please note the following is more an overview of what has been written about suicide through the ages (and not always correctly) vs. a definitive tome explaining the whys of this tragic loss of life or how to prevent it. As with everything in life, and especially regarding this delicate subject, not all that is mentioned here will resound with you. Using your own discernment, take what fits into your life and please discard the rest.
I present this piece to you as food for thought and to alert you to different perspectives from various areas of knowledge including philosophy, psychology, and literature.
In the oft-quoted speech of Hamlet, penned by William Shakespeare, the character ponders the same question asked by many who may consider suicide as an escape from their life: "Shall I be OR not be?"
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them. To die: to sleep –
No more, and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to; 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep –
To sleep, perchance to dream: ay – there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil ….
There is a distinct problem with Hamlet’s thought processes.
1. There’s nothing noble about suffering, especially for those who have a mental illness. Most times, they are not given the choice to “take arms against a sea of troubles.” Their minds are controlled by their illness, which deprives them of having an arsenal filled with healthy coping mechanisms.
2. Death should NOT be confused with sleep. It is a misnomer held by those who are thinking about taking their own lives that, if they can just close their eyes forever, their pain will end.
It has been said that death is more about the survivors vs. the one who has died. This is quite true, and death by suicide leaves behind a wake of pain-filled issues for these so-called survivors. In fact, as Alison Wertheimer, in A Special Scar, says, “In most cases, suicide is a solitary event and yet it has often far-reaching repercussions for many others. It is rather like throwing a stone into a pond; the ripples spread and spread.”
If not addressed, these ripples can turn into tidal waves and sweep the loss survivors into a sea of life filled with tumultuous guilt, pain and shame. Although family members and friends who remain alive following the death of their loved ones by suicide are called “survivors,” it is truly up to each individual to ensure his/her own survival after experiencing this type of death.
Because a suicide is so shocking and unexpected, the grief process can become complicated and multi-layered. Linda Lee Landon, in Life After Suicide, said that “suicide creates a monstrous emotional upsurge of shame and guilt. Everyone participates in feeling responsible and even shamed at knowing the suicidal candidate. If these feelings are not healed the vampire of suicidal death can strike again and again.”
While what Landon states is often the case, it is not true in all instances; there are many who early on can make the conscious decision to avoid taking on the shame and guilt that is often associated with suicide. Others may have a hard time releasing them and these emotions become vampire-like by sucking the life blood of the loss survivor. This greatly hampers their path toward healing. It is important to work through feelings of responsibility for not being able to stop the fatality from occurring. Without taking this important step, guilt can cast a shadow over the loss survivor’s life and remain the underlying emotion in all his/her subsequent actions.
Many loss survivors berate themselves for not seeing the signs that led to the death of their loved one. Although in a retrospective examination, the signs of looming trouble may have been flashing wildly, it is only possible to live your life going forward and react appropriately to the information in front of you. If you can accept the fact that in many instances there may not have been overt signs of trouble to alert you to a person thinking about taking his/her life, the guilt of not being able to stop the act can begin to be lifted and genuine mourning can commence.
In truth, life is a gift each person is given, and it is up to each individual to either accept it or reject it. However, it must also be taken into consideration that a person contemplating suicide may not be specifically “rejecting” life, or even rejecting his/her family. Instead, it was their capacity to cope with their pain that was exceeded. Although loss survivors may also be in great pain about their deceased loved one, by searching for ways to work on their grief in a healthy manner, they can consciously decide to release this pain and embrace life. The simple fact that you are reading this article means that you are searching for ways to relieve your pain and live fully again.
Speaking of suicide, or even admitting to your own suicidal thoughts now and then, carries with it a burdensome stigma. It is for this reason that many do not ask for help. Earl A. Grollman said that “suicide is a whispered word, inappropriate for polite company. Family and friends often pretend they do not hear the word’s dread sound even when it is uttered. For suicide is a taboo subject that stigmatizes not only the victim but the survivors as well.”
It does not have to create a stigma. As a suicide survivor, I try to get the word “suicide” in as many conversations as I can. The more that word is out in the air, so to speak, the less society will fear it. With the taboo lifted, the available help will be accessed more freely and without shame.
There are some who may, in the darkness of night and upon reflection of their life, feel they face too much of a struggle. And, even though they “carry the responsibility of fighting against the temptation of suicide and despite that every one of them knows … that it is nobler and finer to be conquered by life than to fall by one’s own hand” (Hermann Hesse), they simply CAN’T envision how to move through the darkness or imagine that things can and will get better.
Conversely, others, upon awakening the next morning, are able to leave those dark feelings behind, forge forward in life and attempt to make beneficial changes. Although it may sound a bit cavalier, Friedrich Nietzsche, in Beyond Good and Evil, wrote that “the thought of suicide is a great consolation if by means of it one gets successfully through many a bad night.”
In other words, simply because a person may have occasional dark and/or fleeting thoughts about suicide due to a set of circumstances, that is a far cry from actually committing the act. While I am NOT advocating this method, you may want to consider that this could possibly be one way for some to channel dark thoughts up and out of their body. Once these thoughts are formed and subsequently released, they can dissipate and not cause further harm.
However, if you are having continual suicidal thoughts due to your grief or any other reason, please consult the proper medical professionals. Additionally, for those in North America, you can reach out to speak to someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.TALK.
You may also want to consider the idea that there are many ways to disavow a connection to living and, in essence, die by suicide slowly each and every day. Disregarding one’s physical health is a prime example.
Additionally, Cesare Pavese says that “nowadays, suicide is just a way of disappearing. It is carried out timidly, quietly, and falls flat. It is no longer an action, only a submission.” Feeling invisible, not being heard, not feeling as if you have a purpose, feeling detached from others and the world-at-large – these can cause anger to build, as they are all ways that people can disappear and still be walking the earth. Those who are suicidal may feel that ending their physical life is just the next step in the progression of this scenario.
Due to anger and fear, a suicidal person may also feel punishing the ones who have rejected him or her will be satisfying. This is using faulty logic, for, of course, they will not be around to see the so-called punishment of their tormentors. This idea of punishment, along with a lack of impulse control, may very well be behind the rise of teen suicides. On that subject, David J. Lieberman says that “… the people you want to strike back at are the very same folks who won't even remember you a week after you're gone, while the people you want to spare most – the people who love you – are the ones who will have to live with the pain of your suicide for the rest of their lives.”
Many of these authors I’ve quoted in the preceding essay offer rational thoughts, which can be understood and filtered appropriately by those who are not suffering from illness or in extreme mental pain. The problem is that a person contemplating suicide is NOT thinking rationally. As Susan Rose Blauner said, “The reality of suicide is far different from the fantasy. Most suicidal thinkers romanticize their death by suicide, failing to realize that any suicide gesture or attempt can result in permanent brain, kidney, or liver damage, loss of limbs, blindness, or even death.” Consequently, some may attempt to take their lives without fully thinking it through and fully comprehending that it is a final solution without a do-over clause. In their moments of pain, they "forget" (or it just doesn’t compute) that as long as they are alive, life can change for the better.
Society often looks at those who take their own lives as being cowards, and cowardice is certainly a trait frowned upon by the populace. However, you might want to consider that cowardice is a double-edged sword; it can also prevent suicide because some are afraid to take their own life.
This might hold a touch of irony, though, because these same people who are afraid to die may also be afraid to live. Consequently, they may be caught in a no-man’s land between living and dying. They are afraid to do either, so they remain stuck in perceived unhappiness and experience difficulty in leading productive lives. It’s a Catch-22 because this situation can escalate their anger, which is most-often directed at themselves, but also can be focused on others, which can cause havoc in society.
Richard Bach offers the following advice for anyone desperate enough to turn his/her thoughts toward suicide. He feels that they should funnel this desperation in positive ways, for example, they “should be desperate enough to go to creative extremes to solve problems: elope at midnight; stow away on the boat to New Zealand and start over; do what they wanted to do but were afraid to try.” This turn of thought by Bach about the word desperation reflects the natural duality of the world and illustrates that everything and anything can hold a positive and/or negative force in one’s life. It truly is a matter of perspective that can allow you to look at the world in new and different ways.
Although the preceding is a lovely thought for those who are well enough to do so, many who find themselves in a suicidal frame of mind lack this ability. However, take to heart that man is actually very resilient and has a great capacity to “overcome, endure transform, love and to be greater than his suffering.” (Ben Okri)
Reaching out to the disenfranchised and/or those who may be situationally depressed/caught up in a bad place and providing connections and education on ways to utilize anger and negative thoughts as fuel for bringing about positive change can be a way to help to reduce the number of deaths by suicide. Additionally, removing the stigma from talking about suicide and trying to look beneath the words and exterior of a suicidal person to unearth the real root of his/her hopelessness are ways every one of us can help to lessen the incidences of this terrible tragedy.
Furthermore, if you are a survivor of suicide and still carrying a burden of guilt, it may be time to search for and find ways to release those feelings so that you may take positive steps forward in your life. One way is to reach out your hand to others who may be beginning their walk of grief over the death of a loved one from suicide and help them to lessen their burden. This helps them, society-at-large, and can help you feel as if you're turning your pain around by using it in a beneficial manner. Imagine if all loss survivors would put their hands out to others and form a giant circle of comfort and understanding. This essay is figuratively offering my hand to you. Please take hold and share it with others who are in need.
Ellen Gerst is a grief and relationship coach and a survivor of suicide. In her work, she attempts to help clients and readers look at their circumstances from different perspectives to help them to gain clarity. This often sparks new thoughts and innovative ways of approaching situations. She is the author of "Figuring Out Life and Death: Musings, Thoughts and Stories About S...," available via Amazon. For more information on coping with grief, visit Ellen's website; view her collection of over 30 books on Amazon and connect with her on Facebook for coping with grief tips.