The sadness of suicide


Now that Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain’s suicides are all over the media this week, the hardy annuals rear their ugly heads again:

  • what a cowardly thing to do
  • it’s the easy way out
  • what a selfish thing to do
  • what did he/she have to be depressed about?
  • but he was so funny
  • he didn’t seem the suicidal type
  • but the were rich and famous and had everything!

Pnes that didn’t come up but which often do are

  • but he never gave any sign that he was depressed
  • he was just looking for attention
  • he did it to spite me

and I despair. Is it because depression is so stigmatized that people know and understand so little about it?

The instinct to survive is the most basic one we have. That instinct is very old and very deep. It is in our lizard brain. To be in such emotional pain as to be able to override that instinct in order to take one’s own life shows what kind of agony and desperation drives the act of committing suicide. No one who has never been there knows how hard it is to take your own life, or even attempt to do so. It is by no means the action of a coward. Imagine the kind of agony that can block out the instinct that drives us even when we are unconscious and make it the only way out. And in that case family does not matter, life does not matter. All that matters is ending the unbearable agony which every moment of life is, and finding peace.

For me, anyone who calls a suicide selfish is the selfish one.  We do not know their journey. If someone is physically ill for a long period of time, we are beyond sympathetic to their pain, we even in many cases fight for the right to die. Mental illness is destructive and unbearable to live with. Just because you cannot see the pain doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and it does deserve the same sympathy and empathy we give to anyone suffering from a physical illness. In addition, many suicidal people feel they are a burden and they want to relieve us of that burden. How is that selfish? Who are we to judge someone in agony for trying to find peace the only way they know how? Who are we to demand of them that they stay in a life which is hurting them in ways we are unable to comprehend and then call them selfish and cowards because they are unable to give us that? We have no idea what they are going through. And ultimately, the person who committed suicide made  a choice. Whatever you think of suicide from a moral or religious point of view, or whether you think the person was in the right frame of mind to make the choice, it was a choice nonetheless.

Depression is an illness. But because it is so stigmatized, people are often ignorant about it. They don’t want to know about it. They don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to talk to depressed people about it. Only reactive depression is about circumstances. Clinical depression is indiscriminate. It has nothing to do with your life at all. You can have the most outwardly perfect life but still be dying inside. You can be surrounded by people and still be utterly alone. You can be beautiful and feel like an empty shell. You wouldn’t tell someone with serious diabetes ‘buck up there is nothing wrong with you’. Clinical depression is also caused by faulty levels of a substance in the body over which the sufferer has no control. So telling them to buck up is really not going to help. In fact it is going to make them feel worse.

There are several kinds of depressives. The one most people know about are the ‘extrovert depressives’. They find some form of relief in talking about their depression. They show that they are depressed and often talk about committing suicide. They often talk to anyone who will listen. The ‘introvert depressives’ are the ones who withdraw, don’t talk, carry on as normal.

And this is why many people say of suicides ‘but he didn’t say anything’ or ‘he seemed fine’ Yes he did say something, just not in words. Sleeping or eating less or more, working harder, talking less, taking less care of their appearance – these are all signs that something is not right. But most of us are not used to listening to non-verbal signals. Or we avoid and ignore anything to do with depression. We need to listen to what people are saying even if they don’t talk. Many people are not talkers. Others are so debilitated and exhausted by depression that they just cannot form the words – not even for a suicide note.

And most important of all – we need to learn not to shy away from depression and people who are depressed. We need to stop ignoring it.  We need to start talking about it, and we really really need to start LISTENING to depressed people . We need to understand it, even if it frightens us. And then maybe we will be able to help in some cases or make the person feel understood and accepted.

In many cases, depressed people are not the gloomy ones mooning around. They can also be funny and larger than life – the life and soul of the party.

The main thing people need is education in depression and the knowledge that it is an illness, not just selfish self-pity or attention seeking. And maybe if more people had knowledge and understanding of this terrible illness they could be more understanding and respond more appropriately to depression when it happens to someone in their circle.

I have been surrounded by suicide in various forms all my life, starting with my father’s suicide attempt when he was younger, which was swept under the rug (though as a child you KNOW something is wrong) until my godmother told me about it many years later. Moving to the suicide of a cousin to whom I was very close when we were 20 and then even closer to home via several friends and family members. What I am sadder about than anything is that we have not come further in the treatment and knowledge of depression. And how ignorant and judgmental people are of a serious illness about which they know, or want to know, very little.

In a better world loved ones, instead of saying ‘We don’t understand why he did it because we loved him’ would say ‘We understand why he did it because we loved him.’

An interesting semantic note is that, as more countries decriminalise suicide, the terms below tend to be used more often

  • to attempt suicide
  • to complete suicide
  • an attempted suicide
  • a completed suicide

Previously the only term I had ever seen to describe it was ‘commit suicide’, just as you would commit murder/fraud/arson.

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

18 thoughts

  1. Suicide is about getting rid of pain that is unbearable. Nothing more – and nothing less. The great tragedy is that it is possible to treat, but in the moment of despair, the sufferer doesn’t see that. I will be eternally grateful to those who developed Prozac and its progeny. They saved my daughter’s life. She survived, and after many stops and starts, took charge of her mental health with an excellent, caring therapist. She finished school and is now a therapist herself for families and children. She has three children of her own. To lose her would have been beyond words – like that pebble thrown into the middle of the pond, her life – and every human life – is beyond measure and value. Each suicide is a loss beyond measure.

  2. I lost my brother Martin last year and I think of his brave choice every day.
    Stephen Fry once said that “There is no ‘why’, it’s not the right question. There’s no reason. If there were a reason for it, you could reason someone out of it, and you could tell them why they shouldn’t take their own life.”
    Let’s remember the good they brought to our lives…
    One act. One choice, does not define a life.
    One act. One choice, is not a legacy.

  3. Thank you. I can’t really say more than that in a public forum (which kind of says it all, doesn’t it?). Anyway, lovely post as usual.

  4. Well said, Janet! And thank-you so much for speaking out. Many people who suffer depression may not speak because part of the thinking pattern may be that no one listens, understands or cares anyway, so why bother? Depression symptoms can be as varied as the people who suffer from it. I consider myself blessed to have depression broken in my life; however, I am on guard for any sign of “down” that crops up for more than a day or two. Again, thank-you Janet, and God bless.

  5. Janet, I am very proud to call you my friend!! This is so eloquently written. It has said everything that I am feeling and more. I hope you don’t mind if I share it on my FB page. As though he didn’t have enough to deal with, and then, he finds that he had Parkinson’s disease. I’m sure life just became too overwhelming for him. I hope that he has now found the peace that he deserves!! xoxo

  6. Thank you for your accurately analysed and intelligently written piece. I have very recemtly been right up close and intimately personal with the awful aftermath of suicide. The decision to end a life is not easily arrived at. The pain of carrying on living has to become totally unbearable for this to be the only escape. I fervently hope that one day we will understand this mechanism sufficiently well to be able to offer an alternative to those whose depression and mental illness have become such deadly burdens.

  7. Janet, this is profound. I’ve heard family members say of loved ones who have carried it out that is was the height of selfishness. Not able to empathize or even pretend to understand their grief I had no answer. Your words convey perfectly what my heart feels. The depth of pain and desperation that could push someone past the most basic human instinct of survival is beyond comprehension. You are so right, we must move past the stigma already and give suffering individuals freedom to reach out with no fear of judgement!

  8. Well said Janet. We lost a member of staff at work due to suicide last year and it affected us all very deeply. Robin Williams’ death just shows how difficult it is to know when someone is suffering so much. It’s so very sad.

  9. A fantastic, well written post. More education needs to happen around depression and the sigma that’s linked to it needs to be removed – only then will be people feel confident in getting the help they need.

  10. Thank-you for writing this beautiful, moving post. That photo is heartbreaking.
    There are a lot of people ready to judge such an act, but just as many who get what he did, because they have been to that dark, deep place, or very close to it.

  11. God bless you Janet, it couldn’t have been said better. He was a wonderful entertainer and will be missed. To me, Jack Lemmon will always be Ensign Pulver, Tony Randall will always be Felix Unger, and Robin Williams will always be Adrian Kronauer – and Mrs. Doubtfire.

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