the ‘selfishness’ of suicide

In the whirlwind of comments on social media following the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, certain sowers of discord keep popping up:

  1. People who viciously attack those who die by their own hands as selfish;
  2. People who viciously attack those who die by their own hands as sinners bound for hell;
  3. People who do both.

I am not going to post screenshots of the tweets in question, because they piss me off and I don’t want to give them any more airtime. But take my word for it: They are glimpses into a foul, judgmental and unhinged cruelty of the worst sort. I’ve been tempted to chime in with a barrage of 280-character rejoinders taking each and every one to task, but the most I’ve done so far is to issue a few generic tweets on the nature of suicide and the need to respond with love.

As one who’s lost too many people to suicide, my husband and sister included, this whole conversation breaks my heart. It breaks my heart because my heart is already broken, because grief after a suicide never really fades, because the loss scatters and lingers like white noise in the background of all that I do and am. You needn’t tell me or any survivor how much devastation a suicide wreaks on the living. We know. We’re in it.

But to call my beloved husband or sister “selfish” for dying? No. Not selfish. Suicide is the result not of selfishness — not the aggrandizement or promotion of self — but its opposite. Their selves were crushed. They had lost their selves. That’s why they died: They felt not large but small, not powerful but diminished, reduced to a point so infinitesimal against the enveloping darkness that they couldn’t see any of the light around them, not even the people they loved. Perhaps, in their incomprehensible, illogical, blacker-than-black final moments, they felt they were relieving us of a burden.

I don’t and can’t and won’t ever believe they wanted to cause any of us pain; how could they? They were among the most loving and mindful people I’ve ever been graced to know. Not selfish. Not in life, not in death. Not in the afterlife, which I happen to believe in, and where I’m certain they’re not boiling for eternity in some nasty giant stockpot inside Dante’s inner rings. (Seriously, give me a break. My sister and husband both had extremely Catholic funeral masses, and I am pleased to report that the hand of God did not reach down through the church roof and smite us all. Though I admit that would have livened things up a bit.)

FACT: Those who die by suicide cause undeniable, immeasurable anguish among those left behind.

FACT: No one should do it. No one should kill themselves. If you’re thinking about it, don’t. You’re loved. You matter.

FACT: Those who do wind up killing themselves should not be disparaged as self-centered, contemptible, cowardly or evil.

FACT: They turn toward suicide because they hurt. In the process, they wind up hurting others. But all of that hurt is part of the same tragedy: their anguish, our anguish, the collective anguish of everyone who has ever walked through the mists of this life and stumbled.

As suicide rates climb, as more Americans struggle with depression and more of their loved ones struggle with grief, we must come to grips with the plague. It isn’t something that happens to other people; it’s something happens to us. Our spouses, our children, our siblings, our lovers, our best friends. Us.

It’s good we’re discussing it more openly now, because taboos get us absolutely nowhere. But as we talk, let’s not mock or vilify those who’ve died. We’re all in this together. We’re all part of the same crazy, beautiful, kaleidoscopic, often joyous, often agonizing, massively confusing existential soup. Pain is no stranger to any of us. Who hasn’t touched a finger to the darkness? Who isn’t prone to questioning this life?

And shouldn’t that inspire us to love?