Death by Suicide


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.

19 Comments on “Death by Suicide

  1. Wow, this is seriously eye-opening. I was always taught that suicide was ” a selfish act,” but lately I’ve realised it is not quite that simple…and this goes a long way towards that realisation. Thanks for sharing.

  2. When Jon died, everyone from my therapist to my parents to my professors expected me to be mad at him. I never was and I think it’s because I know what it feels like to be there, to be in that moment. You’re right, you don’t have a choice. It’s an overwhelming feeling of failure. It’s inescapable. I’m mad, at life, I’m mad at mental illness, but I’m not mad at him. I know he didn’t have any choice.

  3. My father died from depression in December. While I can see that many see suicide as a “choice,” and while I also fully admit that I’m floating in and out of all the stages of grief right now and am new to talking about suicide, I can also tell you that this was no choice on my father’s part. He was sick, and the sickness overwhelmed him. What I try to keep doing, however, is talking. I can’t pretend like this didn’t happen, nor do I want to. Thank you for writing this post. “Death by suicide” — such a simple change in wording, but it makes such a difference!

    • It was a revelation when the person in my piece told me that the more accurate term was ‘death by suicide.’ It changed the whole paradigm for me so that I could really see what led up to the suicide as an illness as lethal as cancer rather than some kind of rational choice. Very grateful that I had that opportunity to be enlightened. I know there are resources for survivors that might help. Our Mental Health America chapter has a packet of information that I know others have found to be helpful. The link is in Kristina Finnel’s comment below. If you have a MHA chapter in your area, they are likely to have similar resources. I am so sorry about your father, I really am, and wish the best for you as you go through this time.

  4. Well said Jan…for those that are interested, here is a link of resources for survivors of suicide:
    As an attempted survivor of suicide, I can tell you that being lost in the darkness is a horrible place to be. In WI, we have 2 people die by suicide every day. Stigma is the number 1 reason people don’t get help. Let’s all do our part to eliminate the stigma and start talking about it…it’s an illness like diabetes, cancer, etc. When someone is diagnosed with cancer, we send cards, drop off food for the family, pray, etc…it should be no different with mental illness. With treatment,we can all become healthier…but be sure to talk about it so people are more likely to get treatment.

    • Thanks for sending this link. It is so hard for people to ‘get’ how someone in that darkness feels – hence, the blaming and anger. How do we educate people/ourselves about that is the question to me as well as how do we deal with stigma.

    • Agree. The anger and frustration had overwhelmed all the good feelings that had once been there. Very sad.

  5. We learned after my mother-in-law died at the age of 90, that her mother had committed suicide. She kept this secret because she somehow felt it was shameful and reflected negatively upon her. It affected her relationship with her children and grandchildren, who never understood until after she was gone, why she was who she was. So much energy is wasted in feeling shame about suicide and by definition mental illness, rather than empathy.

  6. really well written and powerful to help us all understand, Jan…

  7. What an important re-framing. “Suicide” has always been a dirty word in my family. My grandfather (a man whose hagiographic reputation among his children involves stories about his belly laugh, his tendency to invite homeless men to the family table for dinner, and his daily attendance at Mass) shot himself in the head with a shotgun after years of manic depression. As one of his grandchildren who never knew him, I have never been able to square that reputation with the stark fact of his manner of death (and the apparent violence and selfishness it connotes). This takes me to a deeper layer of understanding. Thank you for that.

    • Your description of your grandfather sounds a lot like the man I wrote about. Gregarious, very involved in the community, lots of friends, but with long stretches of isolation and deep depression. It’s so hard to understand from the outside looking in.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: