This past week there has been an outpouring of grief and remembrances for the most recent icon taken from the public by sudden death. Robin Williams is the latest in a number of public figures to have died suddenly. Others include Peaches Geldof, L’Wren Scott, Cory Monteith, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson. Some of these have involved addictive substances. Whatever the reason, the shock is still there. In the case of those taking their own lives, those left behind struggle with questions why suicide and whether it could have been prevented.
For those who have not experienced either severe depression or the loss of a loved one by suicide, it is hard to conceive what would lead someone to take their own life. Some may ask, “What was he thinking?” or “She made a very poor choice.” This assumes that the person who died felt that he or she had a choice up until the last moment.
Those who say that we always have a choice about our actions may bristle over hearing that those who take their own lives felt that they had none. However, the reality is that suicide is an act of desperation, feeling that choices do not exist, that life is bleaker than death.
The help group Samaritans describes this period as a tunnel in which a person enters when depressed or suffering from other mental illness. A person in that situation feels trapped and isolated, and cannot find a way out. Because of the lack of sense of choice, as well as to prevent stigma, Samaritans uses the term “die by suicide” rather than “commit suicide.”
The mission of Samaritans is to reduce the incidence of suicide. They do this through a 24-hour hotline, by addressing the sense of isolation, despair, distress and suicidal feelings that exist within. In addition, they educate the public how to prevent suicide as well as how to reduce the stigma. The premise of the organization is compassionate, non-judgmental and confidential listening.
The author of this article throughout her life pondered life and death. Having a father who survived the Nazi Holocaust caused her to think about the preciousness and tenuousness of life. She often thought that if her father had not survived, she would not have been born.
Therefore, when her brother took his own life five years ago, it took the family by shock. Those left behind struggled significantly to understand questions about why her brother died by suicide. Her father responded that he did not know anyone who had taken their own lives in concentration camp during the Holocaust.
However, there is a key difference between the dire circumstances of survival during war and the daily struggles that lead to severe depression. In a war, there are forces that are trying to eradicate segments of a population. People under attack are fighting to combat those forces physically and emotionally. Battle against external forces does not allow time and space for one to succumb to inner struggles.
In daily life, however, depression and other mental illness is not a conscious choice, and, according to Samaritans, neither is suicide. It is a tragic loss for the survivors, but the people who die by suicide see no option for themselves. They cannot reach out once they are in the “tunnel” of despair. Typically, they do not let others know how desperate they have become.
Seen this way, suicide is not a selfish act. It is an act absent of self. The survivors are the ones left trying to sort through the loss and pain, which never fully goes away, no matter how much time passes. But those who die by suicide are not conscious of that loss – only of their own pain.
Connection is a crucial link for those contemplating suicide. Closeness with family and friends may have been what prevented them from carrying out an act of suicide in the past. However, in the final moment, they may feel like a burden and even think that their loved ones and the world would be better off without them.
Judging people who have taken their lives will not help their families or others who are considering suicide. What is needed is compassion. Knowing the warning signs of suicide can be helpful. Only 25 to 50 percent of those who attempt suicide tell someone beforehand.
Of the 750,000 people who attempt suicide each year, four percent of them succeed. Reaching out in a human context and providing a listening ear can make a difference. Knowing this can help in understanding the answers to the question of why suicide and the potential for healing.
Opinion by Fern Remedi-Brown
Previous articles by the author on inspiration following suffering:
Boston Strong Against the Odds
Holocaust Survivor Beats Odds
Holocaust Lessons About Human Morality
Quitting Is Not an Option…Resilience Steps Beyond Surviving