Suicide has been all too real for me for most of my life. The guilt and shame from knowing someone who has committed suicide is hard to handle. When they are someone you are close to, these feelings reach down into your gut and don’t relent. The first thing I saw this morning was a text from my sister about someone’s suicide who I’d spent quite a bit of time with when I was a teenager. With each suicide I hear about, the trauma of all the suicides over the years comes back. Suicide makes an impact on those left behind unlike any other death. The pain, shame and guilt are palpable. When someone dies of cancer, we do not think how we should have been able to cure it. But when someone dies at their own hand, it’s nearly impossible to not reflect on the ways in which we may have let that person down.
When I was 13 or 14 I was at a party at my friend Chris’s house. For some reason I ended up with a pack of cigarettes that was too light tasting and I kept wanting to cut the filters off them to make them stronger. All night long I sought out my friend Ted to use his little pocket knife to slice them off. He seemed sad, but I was drunk and didn’t want to get into whatever was wrong. So I cracked a few jokes and moved on to happier friends. At some point I could no longer find Ted. A few hours later, we were outside in the front yard when we heard the crash. A handful of us ran up to the highway just past the house and found Ted fatally injured lying on the pavement in a pool of blood. The young man driving the car was sheet white. I fell to my knees and screamed. Someone took me away before the police arrived. We found out later that Ted, dressed in dark clothes, had been walking down the center of the highway awaiting a car to end his life. At the funeral, his pastor railed against his friends for leading him down the path of destruction, failing to acknowledge the pain inflicted on him by his family and his church for not being a good Pentecostal boy. But their critique didn’t sit easy with me, either. I had failed him. I hadn’t supported him during his worst hours. I’d used him for what he could give to me and moved on not recognizing the pain he was in.
Not long after, one of my best friends killed himself in his cute little Volkswagen Beetle. Ben was a very troubled young man who had been abused, neglected and unloved by his family. By 16 he was a serious alcoholic, drinking before school and all night after. He and I spent a lot of time together and nearly every night he’d leave my house by stating, “Ok, I’m going to go home and kill myself.” This was a lot of responsibility for me to bear. I didn’t know how to handle it and just started tuning it out. We had a falling out, eventually, and didn’t see each other for over a year. I don’t remember how I heard the news that he had parked down by the Lock and Dam, connected a tube to his exhaust and inhaled until he was gone. He was 18. He had just borne too much pain in his short life and couldn’t face any more. Again, the guilt crushed me. How many times had he told me that he’d kill himself? 50? 100? I had not known how to respond and how to help and now he was gone.
A few months later, my favorite uncle joined Ben in his method of death. Dave had been so loving and sweet. For a kid who did not get a lot of love and attention, he was the bomb. He was always so cheerful and playful. As I grew up, I didn’t spend much time with him, but always loved him and was happy to see him. Not long before he died I went over to his house and collected all his beer cans to return for their deposit (Iowa recycling law, you know). I made $100 and used that money to go to see the Grateful Dead in Canada. I got no money from my parents, so this made the difference between going or not. He was gentle and kind when we came. We didn’t stay long to visit even though he seemed so lonely. A few weeks later he parked his car in the garage, turned on the ignition and died. He was such a good person that he didn’t want his family to find his body or feel guilt. He sent a long suicide letter to my aunt and taped signs in the house that we shouldn’t go to the garage, that we should call the police. He was my dad’s best friend and I will never forget the look on his face when he came home from his business trip and we told him about Dave. My dad was crushed beyond measure. And once again, the shame in me asked why I hadn’t seen his pain or spent more time with him.
Over the years there have been many more. The boy from Bettendorf who hung himself. The sweet, curly blonde-haired boy from high school. The artist who went to my church. A friend’s son. My former intern’s unsuccessful attempt. And my mother’s slow descent into starvation that ultimately lead to her death. And so, so many more.
Today, it’s Danny. Danny and I spent a lot of time together for several years. My ex-husband and I partied a lot with him. I don’t feel like I ever knew him well-enough to peer into his psyche. But we had fun times and he was there during a few pivotal moments that changed the direction of my life. He was at the small party where I had a bad trip and decided to quit doing LSD, which had become my all-too-frequently consumed drug of choice. He was at the Grateful Dead concert outside Chicago where I met the hippy Berkeley professor who convinced me to go to college. These were two points of my life when I made choices that would shape who I was to become. Danny wasn’t integral to those decisions, but his presence is indelibly locked into those memories. When I learned of his suicide, I did not not feel the guilt I felt with other suicides, because I had not seen him in over 20 years. But his death has shaken me nevertheless and reminded me of all that’s so wrong in this world.
Depression is like a cloak that veils us to the pain that our deaths will cause. It lies to us and tells us that we don’t matter and that our deaths will relieve the world of our presence. Our own pain consumes us to the point of oblivion. But suicide doesn’t end suffering, it simply pushes it out into the rest of the world. Those who are left behind then must shoulder the weight of their pain and the guilt that inevitably flows from it.
Suicide represents a collective failure to care for our own. We as individuals are frequently left with shame, but we cannot prevent a suicide of someone who is committed to that path. That doesn’t mean, though, that we don’t often feel the depths of despair that lead us to question what more we could have done. We cannot be held responsible for individual suicides, no matter how close the relationship.What leads to suicide is intensely complex and driven by forces far bigger than us. But we can be a small part of the solution to making this world a less hospitable place for the ultimate horrific choice.
We live in a world where we are so often miserably disconnected from each other. We do not have the social systems in place to collectively deal with the pain that life inevitably brings. We tend to live in our own bubbles and fail to deeply connect with those around us. This does not mean that it’s the suicide victim’s fault that they did not build the support networks that they needed. This also does not mean that those around them are at fault. But what I do mean is that as a society we need to start clawing our way back to the type of communities where all are valued, all our loved and all are seen, where our pain matters and where we feel the presence of others in our lives enough to want to spare them of the pain of our deaths.
There is no easy prescription for this, because if there were we would no doubt be doing it already. Ultimately it requires a societal realignment that brings us together in a way that is meaningful. We cannot combat all the forces that come together that lead to tragedy. So we must start with what we can control and that is with how we interact with each other. We can do the little things that begin to rebuild community. We can offer to help, check in to see how someone is doing, have someone’s back when the chips are down. Life is hectic and hard for everyone, some more than others. But if we all push ourselves to try just a little more to be the community we’d like to live in, we might be able to raise ourselves up just enough to prevent some of the deepest despair. We cannot hold ourselves responsible for another’s suicide. That isn’t fair. But we can hold ourselves a little more responsible for making a better world. No matter what you have going on in your life, there is something you can do to make someone else’s life better – a smile, a held door, a hand picking up fallen items. And if you have more bandwidth, there’s so much more. Taking on a supportive role doesn’t mean you shut down your whole life to service, but it does mean you take on a bit more here and there to directly impact the world around you. When I went through a severe crisis a few years ago, the meal that was delivered to us by a caring friend was what helped me get through it. I knew that there was loving support and care that could help lead me through the darkness.
Though I have tried to do this for others as an adult, sometimes the winds blowing against me were too strong to make the difference I wanted to make. I could not prevent my mom’s long and slow defacto suicide from her failure to eat, no matter how hard I tried. So the failures are obvious and profound. The positive results are subtle and quiet and easy to not see. But know that nothing positive you do for the world is lost. It adds up to better things and it, too, ripples out into the world. All we can do is our best.
Rest In Peace – Ted, Ben, Dave, Roberta and Danny. You were all loved and valued more than you ever knew.