I was in the parking lot of a youth center where I’d just finished an evaluation meeting when my cell phone rang. My former boss, who probably hadn’t called me on the phone in ten years, tracked me down to tell me that my old boyfriend had died. He had committed suicide. He had shot himself in the head while sitting on the curb in front of his apartment. Twenty-five years had passed between the suicide attempt he made while we were dating and the shot that ended his life.
I went to the funeral with my old boss. We drove there together in my convertible. It seemed life-affirming and upbeat to speed along the freeway, sunglasses and visor on. My boss worried that he hadn’t worn a hat, the wisps of his hair blowing in the wind as he recounted his last episode of skin cancer. It had always been part of our relationship that whatever I thought was a gung-ho thing to do had implications I hadn’t carefully predicted.
At the funeral home, there were a couple dozen people, several who had worked with us long ago and some from my old boyfriend’s music life. One old friend of his brought an ancient copy of Life magazine to show off a photo my boyfriend had taken of Vietnam War protests in the sixties. It was the only artifact of his life in the entire room. There were no pictures or mementoes. No story boards or running videos. There was nothing except his name on the sign at the door.
When I talked to his sisters, they told me that they had nearly decided not to have any visitation or funeral. They were furious with their brother for what they felt was a lifetime of his suicide attempts, for shunting his family aside, for hurting the feelings of the nice lady he was dating, and for storing thousands of restaurant napkins in his cupboards. Nothing about him was endearing to them. They were so angry.
His friends stood around waiting for a ceremony or a speech, for a family member to go stand near the urn that held his ashes and say a few words. It never happened. I nudged my old boss. “Maybe we should say something.” He looked at me like he had in the car, marveling again that I just didn’t get it. “That would be a mistake,” he said. So I didn’t.
The ride home was quiet. I couldn’t believe a family’s anger that was so deep it wouldn’t allow a single picture or word, not a fortune cookie phrase of understanding, no gesture of forgiveness. Just blame and anger.
But I guess when we use a term like he committed suicide, we are blaming. We are implying that he had a choice, that he considered the pros and cons and decided that his desire to kill himself was more important than other people’s feelings. And for that, it seemed, we should be angry, offended by his disregard for everyone else’s feelings. That’s the feeling I got, “why did he do this to us?”
Several weeks ago, I had occasion to talk about suicide with a survivor and leader of a mental health organization. She put it square to me. “It’s death by suicide, that’s what happened. By the time the suicide occurs, the mental illness, the disease has simply overpowered that person.” She told me that it was like cancer – that by the time a person took action to end his life, he had lost the ability to weigh pros and cons or consider the impact of his actions on others. “The disease killed him, Jan.” That’s what she said. “But he fought it as long as he was able.”
I thought about this today, on a sunny day walking down the street. People who die by suicide fight it as long as they are able.