My father would have turned 60 today had he not died nearly 25 years ago. Because both Father’s Day and my father’s birthday are rough for us, my mother and I went to the Walters Art Museum (in Baltimore) together. We ended up parking near their old apartment in Mount Vernon, and we were even allowed to walk through the Merritt Downtown Athletic Club to see the racquetball courts where my parents met. It was a lovely day, except for the fact that the person we were supposed to be celebrating wasn’t there.
I got the news that Kate Spade, and then Anthony Bourdain, had died via notifications on my phone. I was at work; each buzz reminded me first of the upcoming anniversary of my father’s suicide (July 1993) and then of Robin Williams’ suicide in 2014. Two co-workers mentioned the news in conversation—in the kind, sympathetic manner of people who have never had to deal with this sort of thing—and I discovered that I must have thrown out the earplugs I thought were in my desk drawer.
A flurry of media articles followed, progressing from bare facts about what happened to information about the individuals’ lives to analysis of suicide rates, methods of prevention, attempts to make sense of why people, generally, kill themselves. I was reading one such article—a very kind piece from The Washington Post that nevertheless was written by someone who has never been suicidal—and I wanted to throw my phone across the room.
The most salient point of the article was that people who commit suicide often believe they are performing a selfless act. They believe that killing themselves rids their families and friends of dead weight without which everyone is better off. Like my mother, the writer of the article had lost her husband to suicide. She was trying to promote compassion by looking at things from her husband’s point of view, and she was right: this is how many suicidal people think. My father talked about feeling like he was a burden that my mom and I would be better off without in his suicide note.
The article may have prompted compassion within outsiders with no personal experience with suicide. I hope it did. However, to someone who has lost a parent to suicide and experienced suicidal thoughts, the article was kind but frustrating. It treated suicidal people as victims—which they are; depression is horribly painful—but it did so in such a way that it took away their sense of agency, as most sympathetic articles tend to do.
There is a danger in downplaying the selfish nature of suicide. Suicide hurts people: it hurts the dead person, and it hurts their loved ones. I was suicidal for more than a decade and probably would be dead now had I not seen firsthand how much my father’s suicide hurt my mother. The depression was telling me that I was worthless; the only thing strong enough to counteract that was my mother telling me how much she missed our father, how much his death hurt us, and how she wouldn’t be able to take it if anything happened to me. I love and respect her enough to believe her when she articulated her needs, and so I took her words at face value despite the depression telling me I knew my own worthlessness better than she did, and I didn’t do anything to myself that I couldn’t undo.
If you’re reading this and suicidal, seek help. At the very least, reach out to a friend or family member and talk, even if you’re not ready to talk about the pain you’re in. Your brain is lying to you; your life really can get better, and there is no litmus test to prove you “deserve” to be here. (Picture your least favorite politician or another person you hate. If that piece of trash “deserves” to exist, then you do, too.) And don’t ever think your death will be “selfless”—there are people somewhere who will miss you, and you do a disservice to them (and most importantly, even if you can’t see it right now, yourself) if you choose to leave this world too early. I’m not big on the argument that people in pain should be forced to stay alive solely for the benefit of others, but I can say from experience that it can get better, and that living for others can, with work and help, make way for living for yourself as well.
If you’re not suicidal and have no idea what it feels like, the best way you can help someone who is suffering is to make clear early on to everyone you encounter that you can listen to another person’s point of view without passing judgment. The people I’ve opened up to without prompting had explicitly made clear during earlier interactions that, even if they disagreed with me during a discussion, they were willing to look at things from my point of view and respected my ability that make my own decisions.
Conversely, I would never open up to someone who talked, even offhand, about how they just didn’t get why people would do that to themselves, or about how suicide was a sin. If you have a friend suffering quietly, you have now told them that you are unwilling or unable to try empathize with them and/or that you have decided that vocalizing your own beliefs about morality matters more than considering their pain.
Also, in my experience, if someone appeared to be paying special attention to me specifically because I seemed depressed, I would push them away out of paranoia. My depression would tell me the other person didn’t really care or couldn’t understand or was being patronizing.
Now, again, it is true that people who commit suicide often believe suicide is a selfless act, and it’s good for others to know this. The article that I mentioned earlier rubbed me the wrong way not because it was trying to empathize with people who are suicidal but because I’m tired of the conversation consisting of only of people who have never been suicidal telling other people who have never been suicidal what to do. It gets trickier because no member of a minority group can perfectly speak for all the group members (i.e., take what I say with a grain of salt).
After celebrity suicides, everyone asks how best to offer support. My answer is to just listen and offer support—to everyone you can, because you never know who’s hurting and exceptionally good at pretending they’re not. And if you have lost someone to suicide, know that it’s not your fault. Whoever you lost made that decision, and the fact that depression was probably a major factor doesn’t make your loss any less significant. Don’t try to force yourself to view your loved one’s suicide through rose-tinted glasses; treat it like the messy thing it is, sadness and anger included. Doing so might save someone else’s life.