how suicide feels to the living

A morning-after addendum:

I want to make clear one point. I believe that that the act of suicide, carried out in a final, distended moment of incomprehensible darkness, is not a choice. In that final moment, people are altered by pain and incapable of rational decision-making. They are other than themselves. But this is exactly why an open conversation needs to happen now: Because we need to reach people before they’re other, before they’re altered, before they’re incapable of hearing a story or having an insight that might, someday, prevent them from hitting that final moment.
I often think about the things I might have said to stay my sister’s hand, as it clutched those pills that night, or to stop my husband from jumping on that sad, sunny morning. It’s too late now. Probably it would have been too late then. But perhaps I can say something today that might help someone else tomorrow — so they never reach the airless, senseless dark of their last act.

Original post:

You’ve probably read about the latest research showing a steady and alarming uptick in American suicides. I saw the headline this morning, took a deep breath and dove in, recalling a friend’s remark after my sister killed herself. “I know what it means to be shocked but not surprised,” she wrote in her condolence letter. And I thought: That’s exactly right. Only someone already familiar with suicide would describe it that way.

My sister had been far too sick for far too long, and suicide always loomed. My husband’s descent was faster, steeper and more abrupt, but suicide still loomed. In both cases, the difference between the looming and the loss was the difference between the fear of being punched and a right cross to the head; it’s a blow you want to duck, believe me. You don’t want to know how it feels to lose a loved one to suicide. And yet you should know. You need to know. If more of us knew how it felt, maybe fewer of us would wreak that terrible pain on others.sunset pic

Suicide is less rare than it was, but it’s still uncommon enough – and not discussed enough – to feel like an aberration from the norm and an outrage against life itself. So it is. But the outrage won’t abate, the epidemic won’t recede, unless and until we can discuss it in a public forum that includes not just grieving survivors, not just people struggling with suicidality themselves, but everyone. Everyone! This is a struggle that needs to be acknowledged, owned and addressed by all, even the people who are not directly affected and (God willing) never will be. Men wear pink ribbons for breast cancer research, don’t they?

So here’s what I’m going to do right now. I’m going to start by describing exactly how it feels to lose a loved one to suicide – the shock that’s not a surprise.


  1. It makes no sense.
  2. It makes you question the mercy of God and the laws of the universe, even if you believe in both.


  1. It makes no sense.
  2. It makes you question the mercy of God and the laws of the universe, even if you believe in both.
  3. It’s all you can think about, even when you’re thinking about something else.
  4. You feel guilty.
  5. You cry until your nasal cavity collapses and your eyeballs melt.
  6. You feel shredded to pieces of confetti thinness.
  7. You wonder if you’ll ever feel normal again.


  1. It still makes no sense.
  2. It still makes you question the mercy of God and the laws of the universe, even if you believe in both.
  3. It’s still all you can think about, even when you’re thinking about something else, and even when the outside world wishes, for your sake, that you could think about something else.
  4. You still feel guilty, even when you know you shouldn’t.
  5. You still cry until your nasal cavity collapses and your eyeballs melt, just a little less often.
  6. You still feel shredded to pieces of confetti thinness.
  7. You still wonder if you’ll ever feel normal again, even as you wear your Hello, I Am Officially Normal! face for the outside world.
  8. You wonder whether everyone else you love will leave you, too.
  9. You feel as though there must be something wrong with you.


  1. It still makes no sense. No way around it.
  2. By now, enough joy and beauty have dropped into your life that you’re able to see the mercy of God, if God is something you believe in. You still question the laws of the universe, though.
  3. You can now think about other things, but here’s the catch: The loss lingers as white noise, humming under everything. It’s always there. It defines you.
  4. No way around the guilt, either. It’s part of the white noise.
  5. The further removed you become from the loss, the less you cry. But the loss is as huge as it ever was. And when you do cry, your nasal cavity still collapses and your eyeballs still melt.
  6. Same goes for the confetti. You’ll never feel entirely whole and healed, even as you wear your Look At Me, Peeps, I’m Good As New! face for the outside world.
  7. And you’ll never feel entirely normal again, either. You begin to realize that only a thin line separates the abnormal from the normal, the insane from the sane, those who kill themselves from those who grieve in the aftermath.
  8. Sometimes the people you love do leave you, via death or other avenues. And each successive loss digs up the stinking muck of all the others, making you even more frightened of yet more loss. Forever after, you’ll question the permanence and solidity of everything and everyone around you.
  9. You’re now absolutely convinced that there’s something wrong with you, especially when someone in the outside world implies you ought to be over it by now. But you know you’ll never be over it. There is no getting over it. There’s only going through it, again and again and again, with faith in love and a stubborn hope that life, no matter how often it’s hurt you, will lead you to joy in the end.


25 thoughts on “how suicide feels to the living

  1. The reason it doesn’t make sense is because we the suicidal aren’t allowed to voice our thoughts. We’re thought criminals. We hide our thoughts like pedophiles hide their porno. Few communities exist on the web for us to talk about the feelings.

    No, suicide hotlines and ‘help sites’ don’ count.

    I never chose to be born. I was forced into this life. I want someone who will respect my rights, my bodily autonomy and let me die as I wish.

    I despise life and I will always. I don’t want to live because I just don’t want to. I know plenty of others who feel this way. Why is it always about everyone else? Why is our most fundamental choice ripped from us?

    Why do people want me to continue to live despite the fact I don’t want to?

    • TBITJ, thank you for writing. People want you to continue to live because they love you — or, if they don’t know you, they value life in principle and its imperative to press forward despite our pain.

      My feeling, and it’s based on absolutely nothing in psychology or theology or anything else, is that we are all born with the urge to live precisely *because* it’s so damned hard to continue on. We have within us an innate drive to live because without that drive, all of us would bail and go back to wherever we came from. Because life is bloody difficult. I don’t believe anyone gets through it without terrible pain of some kind. Deep down, if we’re being honest, we all understand the urge to die. That darkness lurks within everyone: It’s universal. But you’re right, no one talks about it.

      All I’m saying is, we need to talk about it. Those of us who have lost loved ones to suicide need to talk about it. Those of us who have made an attempt, or considered it at some point, need to talk about it. Those of us who have struggled with depression need to talk about it. Those of us who just have a hard time getting out of bed and facing the day need to talk about it.

      So let’s talk.

      And one more thing: You matter. You’re a stranger to me, but you matter to *me*. *I* want you to stay alive. *I* want you to know you have worth. You have things to do, people to help, by being here — even if you can’t see what and who they are. You’ve helped me already by giving me your perspective, for allowing me to hear your voice. Again: YOU MATTER TO PEOPLE.

    • Hi Dan I only wish my son spoke to us, no he did not, I do not think that you or anyone else are criminals, I agree with you the hotlines do not help at all.. I am a mother and these days I live one day at a time I do not make plans to me there is no tomorrow is only today…. I want you to live I truly do want you to live I do not have the answers for the pain you are in I did not have the answers for my son I would have told my son he is needed here we love him so much yet you know what that would not have been enough …I understand now the pain he was in the pain so deep and dark …. no one could have helped my son that day … I know this in my heart….. No you did not chose to be born, you where wanted (I speak as a mother to my son) you where loved so much before you where you born and the day you where you born a mother’s love is everlasting ….Dan I found my son that day I struggle with the memory of that day with the pain of loosing my son, there are no words in this world that can tell you how I feel… all I can tell you a mother’s love is never ending a mother’s love is Eternal…..

    • My daughter used to say that people that commit suicide are selfish, that they only think of themselves & not the people they leave behind. My grandson told her she was the selfish one, trying to make him live in this pain forever just so she wouldn’t be sad, what about him, hes sad all the time & the pain never leaves. He took his life 5 days before christmas in 2013 at the age of 21.

      • Maryann, I’m so sorry you lost your grandson, and I thank you for posting here. While I understand why others might characterize suicide as a selfish act, I think of it as a self-*less* act. I don’t mean “selfless” in the usual sense, but in the sense that the person you knew and loved was totally altered by pain. Their self is gone, absent. In the moment they die, they’re not really present. This is my only way of grasping the fact that the people in my life who killed themselves (not just my sister and husband, but others, too) counted among the most beautiful human beings I’ve ever known. I tried to articulate some of this in my response to Cherye, and I know it’s an insufficient answer. The fact is, suicide hurts the living terribly, which is the whole point of my blog post. But I don’t think the people who do it are actively choosing themselves over others. They’re not present enough to choose at all.

  2. I lost my son to suicide on March 10th of this year. He was not depressed, nor did he have a disease. He got in trouble with the law and (I’m guessing here) took his life because of fear. It was sudden and horrifying.
    I can not even begin to comprehend his death, as I am so overwhelmed with grief. I feel guilty and broken, trying to understand his fear in his last moments on earth. It haunts every second of my days now.
    The only thing I can do now is hope; hope that my 3 other sons will be OK, hope that my broken family will survive this grief, and hope that someday we can feel some joy again.

    • Julie, as I just said to Cherye, I know I can’t understand the depth of your grief. As a mother myself, I can’t begin to imagine how it feels. I do understand about the guilt and the straining to understand, as I’ve come to understand my loved ones’ suicides *only* as something that *can’t* be understood. They’re just incomprehensible to me, totally senseless. I think the challenge is to keep pressing forward in spite of this.

    • Julie: my son took his life in jail after being convicted of a crime he did not commit. It breaks my heart every day to think of the pain he was in. enough pain to take his life. Its been a year for me now… its not gotten much better, if any. I deal with the hurt everyday. my heart goes out to you.

  3. I lost my son three years ago to suicide how does it feel to lose a child there are no words that can tell you how a mother feels…. my son suffered with depression panic attacks … he hid this all so well… my daughter phoned me that fatal day to say “mum I can’t find my brother” I was her place in 10 minutes….I found my son that day …I cry each morning i cry my self to sleep, i show the world what they want to see a mother who has moved on NO I have not there are the days I just fold over wanting to scream and not stop … I get so cross when I read that people say those that suicide are selfish NO way are they selfish they are in so much pain that no one can help…. so now my daughter, grandsons and my self struggle each day… there is no cure for a family with this pain>>

    • Cherye, I am so very sorry for your loss. Of course I cannot imagine how it feels to lose a child, and there are no words you could use to convey the scope of the pain you’re feeling. I don’t believe those who die by suicide are driven by selfishness, which requires an overactive ego, but something like the opposite — a complete loss of self. My husband and sister were among the most generous-hearted and thoughtful people I’d ever known; they couldn’t have been “themselves” when they killed themselves. The mystery and the challenge is in helping people hang on to themselves when they suffer.

  4. Oh my gosh, my eyes can’t focus on what I type. Because I am one ! One, who struggles with suicde idiology thoughts. Someone in my family did. I attempted many years ago. Today, at times I walk in thru darkness at times I have to kick almost literally my butts out the door in the morning for work or to appointments. I know where my pain comes orginates from. I can’t get rid of it! It just doesn’t stay away. Some think I do things to draw attention, get refueled so to speak then the pain returns and cycle repeats. But this analysis isn’t true. I discuss openly what pain I am experiencing not in detail maybe I should? I am a man in unspeakable pain, emotionally. Dragging me behind a car is to good for me. Here, here’s where I defend myself from downing a months supply of med’s at one time. I’m holding on in faith, that my God is real and alive. Holding on to the fact in faith that he suffered what i deserve! And in my life from my pain, I am experiencing whT he did and knowing he took on my pain the beating I deserve. In my doing so I am like him and I want to be more like Him.
    My heart is broken for everyone who had someone take their life. You deserve to find contentment again and you can, I can when I see and self assess that I am Second.

    • Larry, thank you for still being here. For all the powerful effort you put into living, you’re stronger than so many others who carry so much less. Your choice to live is the right choice, and those who love you thank you for it (or would, if they knew how hard you work to remain here). *I* thank you for it. My father made a suicide attempt when I was a kid, and he resolved to keep living afterward. Here’s a post I wrote about it: Bless him for choosing to live after his attempt. Bless you for making that choice, too.

  5. Hi all, Hi Amy Biancolli. Someone sent me your post (because I write on the subjec) and I loved it and wanted to make contact. I wrote a book against suicide but I’m not advertising it here, there are lots of free videos of me talking about it and podcasts/NPR, and on my website you’ll find tons of free links to reviews/discussion of the book’s big ideas. The book is *Stay: The History of Suicide and the Arguments Against It. Maybe start with the On Being podcast Suicide and Hope For Our Future Selves.*
    or see

    I survey all of history in the western world finding what important thinkers said about why we should stay alive. I have been ideational myself ((still am)) for much of my life, and these ideas cured me of thinking that the thought might lead to action. It’s a tremendous relief. I get tons of email and other communications from people saying it worked for them, so I know it’s not just me. Have a look or a listen and let me know what you think.

    Let me mention that this is a purely nonreligious argument, though religious people are respected in the book and use the ideas as just as much. Also note that I have come to believe that you have one person on your medical team, or family, or friends, who agrees with you that you have had enough misery and it’s time to think about ending it (either disease, age, or mental illness) you are in a different category and those cases have to be adjudicated on their own terms. I’m talking about people who kill themselves knowing that everyone they know will think this a tragic mistake, including you in another mood. I know that some people get angry at my ideas, and I don’t need to be told that your level of pain squashes these ideas but many people find it changes how they think about the act and gives them courage. It helps a lot of people. I hope it helps you. Let me know what you think – my email is on my website.

    Love to everyone suffering (me too), and to other people who know that with these huge numbers of suicides per year in the US now (skyrocket in the last 16 years), it might be best to inoculate yourself against some future crisis of misery. Impulse suicide, after a work or love humiliation, explains a great deal of suicide (we are wrong to think it is mostly chronically depressed people) within 3 months of the blow be on guard, live through that and there is a good chance your perspective with turn back towards life. Shame is our greatest enemy here, learn the reasons to wait it out, and how.


    • Jennifer, thanks so much for reading and posting here — of course I’m familiar with your work.

      I’m not an atheist, but I was once, and I’ve long felt that the views of believers and non-believers alike are more aligned than not. We need to embrace life, both the light and the dark, the yin and the yang. We need to comprehend it — and choose to live it, every day — as something incomprehensible, especially when it’s painful. Which it is more often than not. One reason we need to talk about this out in the open, and without judgment, is that every single one of us has the capacity for the kind of suffering you and others (including those posting here) describe. We are all in this together, and we need to speak up and out. Thank you for joining in the conversation, and may everyone here find help in your work.

    • One more thought – my father, one of the most devoutly moral men I ever knew, was also a devout atheist. When I was 11 and he was 67, he made a suicide attempt and spent 9 days in a coma. But he re-upped his commitment to life with “Vita Nuova,” a stunning credo that he wrote in the psych hospital. Not long ago, I found it in his papers and wrote a blog post about it:

  6. My son said to me that even though he felt like killing himself when he was a teenager, he could never do it because he has seen and felt the aftermath of it in my family. And he was mad about that! Thank you for being so upfront about your losses. I have learned that there are some questions that will never have any answer.

    • There are indeed, Lauren. There’s so much we can’t know. But I’m so grateful your son resisted the urge and made it through, knowing the pain it would cause if he opted out. Bless you, thank you for reading, and thank you for posting.

  7. My beloved husband comitted suicide two weeks ago and I am searching. Just searching, not sure of what I need. The quiet of our house is deafening, the guilt is suffocating, the pain unbearable. John, like your husband, loved his fedoras, rode the bike he built all over the place and greeted everyone with gentle kindness. He too was larger than life and he could fill a room with his presence. Like your husband, he had been separated from service from his job and that proved to be too overwhelming for him. That action was the match that lit the incendiary device that finally decimated his soul. All the hurts of an abusive narcisistic mother and neglected childhood finally surfaced and those feelings of worthlessness broke through and would not go away. I am mad, but not at him because his pain was too much to bear, I am mad at myself for not hugging him that day before I left home, I am mad at a system that is so fragmented that it just sends seriously depressed patients and their families out into a sea of nothingness with no life rafts or at least none that are easily reached. When he left the hospital after his first attempt, they just met us in the hallway, had us sign a form that had some numbers on it and handed off a bag of his clothes and sent us on our way. No follow up calls, no outreach, no discussion on signs to watch for, just a bag, a sheet of paper and a pat on the back. Three weeks in the hospital and his doctor never met with me once. It is criminal the way we treat people with mental illness. The Whispers kill our loved ones. We need a dialogue, families need a guide, everyone needs some sort of playbook to follow. I can not stop feeling that there could have been something I could have done to stop this. I could have loved him more, I should have made him go to the hospital, I should have seen it in his eyes. My despair is palpable and my guilt is overwhelming. I have ordered your book on the recommendation of Jon Rice and I look forward to reading it and finding some solace. My friends and family have been an unbelievable support but at the end of the day I am left with my thoughts.

  8. I lost my dear Husband 5 months ago to this horrible disease we call depression. He took his life and left me Joyce alone, like you describe so perfectly in your book.
    We had no children and I have no family but I thank you for giving me a book that made me feel like I am not crazy feeling the way I do.
    As the time passes the people that were first there for you have to go on with their own lives, and you realize how alone you truly are.I sit here eyes overflowing with tears not being able to breath and can only imagine the small amount of pain my husband must have felt or can I?
    We were high school sweethearts, he was the love of my life and yes I feel the guilt that I failed him, like I believe we the ones that are left to figure this “s*** out ” do. I am a nurse, I help others but was not able to help the one closest to me.
    I had a person say to me “my husband tried so hard to live he had cancer.”This shows me how little sociaty knows about this “disease” we call depression. Like you I watched my husband fade from me the way you discribe your husband’s loss.
    So again I thank you for your words of wisdom and love. I pray that this pain becomes tolerable and that we find a way to help prevent other loved ones from suffering this pain and loss. I hope the unkind words to those who are suffering from depression like “put you big boy pants on and get yourself together” or “you need to ” or “you have to” all the things they want to but with their ” disease” can not.
    To all of those who are suffering with this loss I send my love.

    • I am so, so sorry for your loss — sorry we share this. Over time the pain does become tolerable — it did for me, and it will for you — but I won’t say it ever evaporates entirely. It’s always there. But all we can do is our best, right? Just as all we could do was our best in loving our departed dear ones. Bless you, keep plugging away at life, and know that you’re not alone.

    • Lesley, thank you for coming here and commenting. I am sorry for your struggle, and I understand your point of view when you characterize suicide as a choice. I’ve heard others express this over the years. But I have yet to hear it expressed by someone who has lost a beloved spouse or sibling (or parent, or child) and lowered them into the ground, facing loss and a lifetime of grief.

      When those cops came to my door that day, I had to break the news to my three children. I had to tell them that their father jumped from a roof –- that he loved them and didn’t *choose* to leave them, that he had been altered by insomnia, anxiety and depression, that he simply wasn’t himself in that dark moment. He couldn’t see a way out, and so he leapt.

      Was I to tell them instead that he had made the “best choice”? No. Would he want me to? No.

      I have never passed judgment on my loved ones who’ve died by suicide — not just my husband and sister, but others, too. I have never blamed them for the acts that tore them away from me, and I feel nothing but compassion and anguish for their pain. I would never attempt to diminish it.

      At the same time, I believe that their lives were worth saving. I believe in life over death. I believe in preventing others from dying and plunging their relatives into the horrors of grief. I believe that the darkness of those endless, bottomless, suicidal moments can pass, and often do.

      My father made an attempt when I was 11, and he came back with a great sense of relief and a renewed commitment to life. (I’ve written about it, and may re-post.) My sister felt that same relief and commitment after her first attempt (I’ve written about that, too, and may re-post). And while she ultimately killed herself, she wanted to live and tried harder to stay alive than anyone I’ve ever known.

      Lesley, I don’t know your story, and again, I am so sorry for all that you’ve been through. I’m grateful you’re sharing and bearing witness. But you can only bear witness while you live. You can only tell your story while you live. You can only love and help and carry others while you live. And I know that if you left, your loved ones would grieve hard and forever.

      We all feel pain in this life. All *I* can do is to bear witness to my own grief in the hopes that it might do some small good. Maybe I can help another grieving person feel less alone after they’ve lost someone to the ledge of darkness. Or maybe, who knows, what I have to say might help prevent someone else’s husband, father, sister from reaching the ledge at all. I don’t know. But we have to talk, I know that much.

      Bless you, and thank you again for commenting here.

  9. Hi Amy,

    It seems like when you write and talk about suicide and mental illness, you see it from the position that 1) they shouldn’t have done it, and 2) the grief and pain it causes those who loved them is wrong and should have been avoidable. I know that suicide is painful for everyone, but I also know firsthand that suicide is also the best choice – the only choice- for some of us. And given death is unavoidable for all of us, and it will no matter what be painful to those left behind, I am not sure I understand why it is more upsetting when the person who dies chooses his or her time of death. Why is death more palatable or acceptable if it happens “naturally”?

    As a society, we seem to finally understand that asking someone with Cancer eating her away inside and out to stay until the bitter end is not compassionate or empathetic. But we don’t seem to understand that this also applies to mental illness, which is in many, many cases far more painful. Why can we stand by and love and support someone dying in a hospital, but not for someone dying from mental illness?

    Perhaps because mental illness isn’t well understood, there is the mistaken belief that is curable. For some of us, medication will work enough to keep us alive, but for others, it will not. If any kind of trauma occurred compounding that illness, such as abuse, etc., then the life we have facing us very unlikely to ever be one without suffering and pain. The pain that, for example, Robin Williams dealt with every day was overwhelming. Bipolar I is not curable, medication does not work indefinitely and must always be adjusted, and it commonly leads to alcoholism and other forms of self-medication that cause even more suffering. He spoke about this struggle and the pain it caused many, many times in interviews throughout his life. When I heard that he finally committed suicide, I felt relief for him, and knew finally he was in peace. Likewise for my closest cousin and my best friend when they both committed suicide.

    For those of us who want an earlier exit because every day will be a battle from the moment we wake, for the rest of our lives, why can’t others have compassion for us – hold our hand, understand our choice, and let us go? In truth, asking someone who is suffering so much to stay alive despite the pain s/he feels every minute, every hour, every day, is really about us, and not about the person who is actually suffering. It is basically asking the person to live through excruciating pain so we don’t have to go through the painful process of grieving that we will have to go through *anyway,* at some point or another.

    What I would prefer the conversation to be about is not how terrible suicide is for those who die and for the those left behind, but about how to give death with dignity to all who choose it. Death is as sacred a part of life as birth, and in and of itself is not tragic. What is tragic about suicide is that we cannot talk to those we love about our decision and receive the respect and empathy we deserve, and instead must carry out the decision in secrecy; that we have to use violence against ourselves – shoot ourselves, hang ourselves, poison ourselves, alone, isolated from our families and those who love us; and that because our choice is not respected or understood, and our reasoning invalidated, our deaths are unnecessarily brutal, shocking, and devastating to all involved.

    With compassionate death policies in this country, any of us who chose to end our lives for whatever reason should get medication to do this painlessly and gently. But to achieve this, mental illness needs to be treated with the same understanding and respect as any other life-threatening disease, instead of as some sort of societal or personal ill that should have or could have been avoided. There is absolutely nothing wrong with choosing to die – what is wrong is how we are treated when we make this choice, and how we die as a result. How much more gentle, kinder, and loving our exit could be if we could be surrounded by our families – wouldn’t we wish this for everyone?

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