Aging is an Attitude: The Legacy of Suicide

Recently I was consoling a close friend of mine (who also happens to be my re-married ex-husband), about the aging process. He’d gotten some disappointing news during his annual medical check-up: his prostate gland was doing what it often does as men age. As I tried to patiently listen to this information (and multi-tasked, I’ll admit), my “ex” (who claims he can’t talk about these things with his new wife) then went into a litany of additional physical complaints, his body now “falling apart”. His list ended with the question, “What’s the point?” That took my attention away from folding laundry, and we spoke a little bit about his feelings of depression. It’s funny that now, as an ex-wife, I actually have more and better conversations with him than ever before and seem to hold a more tender place in his heart. Another topic, for another Post. At least he was able to share his feelings, difficult for many men.

A little over one week later, my ex-husband called me again: his nephew (his sister’s only child), a man in his 40’s, had just shot and killed himself. My ex-husband phoned me because a) I’d known the man who died somewhat peripherally — he was always a quiet loner, and b) I myself am a childhood Survivor of Suicide. My mother took her own life in her 40’s, when I was around 10 years old. It’s still a pretty vivid memory for me, and something that I deal with off and on, as I reflect on how this event impacted my progress into adulthood.

In the headlines this past year were at least two notable “Deaths by Suicide”. (One of my professional colleagues justifiably corrected me when I commented on the famed chef who ‘killed himself’). Of course, suicides are sadly uncommon in our country, especially among vulnerable populations. The majority of these don’t earn Media recognition. In my field of study and careers, I’ve had a lot of classes and trainings, and even provided interventions to people at this level of despair. Still, when it happens, and you’re called upon to provide personal or professional support, the unanswerable question from Survivors is “Why ??”

Someone once described Suicide / Death by Suicide as “…a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” My mother’s issues were poor health and emotional despair stemming from a host of disappointments. My ex-husband’s nephew, so I was told, was suffering from a work injury and had been unable to find suitable work for many months. No one can truly feel whatever the source of pain is, nor judge whether or not suffering is ‘temporary’. To the depressed mind, even a day of profound hopelessness can be an eternity.

But, as much as I — especially as a Survivor of Suicide — want to understand and embrace the very real feelings and circumstances that drive someone to end their own life (I’m excluding the terminally-ill, as I think and write), I am more concerned about Survivors left behind. Taking one’s own life has also been described pejoratively as “…an act of selfishness”, which — in addition to religious views on the subject — has done much to stigmatize suicide. The lens of becoming older, however, has changed my perspective on the topic I have so much personal knowledge of: I relate less to the person in pain, and much more to the wives, husbands, children, friends, intimate partners and even pets that are left behind. The suffering ends for the person whose life is now over; but it usually never ends for the living who must somehow carry on. I’m not sure if this statistic has increased, decreased, or stayed the same, but when I first began studying the effects of mothers /fathers who had ‘suicided’, impacting the lives of their children, researchers claimed that suicidal ideation increased 40% for childhood survivors of adult deaths. Even without full-on ideation, suicide creates barriers and emotional struggles for children, with Trust Issues, Fear of Abandonment, Over-attachment, Lack of attachment, Guilt, and a host of other negatives hindering the ability to thrive.

But those who’ve chosen Death by Suicide are well-past the point of feeling concern about how the living might, or might not, adjust to losing someone this way. My message, now, is really for (and was delivered tactfully, I hope, to my ex-husband) those who feel the deep sadness that allows the mind to consider this option. Many people find sharing long-term depression and the darkest of thoughts with others impossible. But, consider the alternative: surrendering to the Pit of Despair ( I had to insert some “Princess Bride” humor, to avoid ending on a totally maudlin note), ensuring that those who love you may never be able to fully avoid the Pit themselves, as a result of your actions. How much better to…see a doctor, find a good therapist; confide in a trusted friend and let them be by your side in your recovery. Look up, look around, see the lives that would be diminished by your absence.

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