Suicide is not painless

Richard Handler on the pain and pity that suicide can bring.

When it comes unannounced, the news of a death can take many forms.

It can come as a whisper, as when we hear of someone dying after a long illness. Or as a shriek — when we hear of an accident or some random violation that breaks the placid surface of everyday existence.

Still, I can think of no communication as emotionally layered as that of a suicide.

Suicide is not only a violation of the normal rules of existence, of self-preservation. It tears the fabric of our personal universe. It provokes anger, guilt, horror and, for many, utter disbelief.

I had no idea, you might say to yourself in these circumstances. Why, he seemed so, normal. I just saw him yesterday. We waited for the elevator together and chatted. We talked about what we were going to do on the weekend. He even cracked a few jokes.

Yes, this happened to me, with a colleague who killed himself shortly thereafter.

More common than you think

Around the world, suicide occurs almost a million times a year. That's roughly the population of Calgary or Edmonton, banished from existence. One self-inflicted death every 40 seconds.

A memorial to Eric Mohat, one of at least three teenagers from the same Ohio high school who committed suicide within a two and a half year period as a result of bullying, friends and family say. (Amy Sancetta/Associated Press)

In Canada, suicide takes 3,500 lives a year. There are many rationales, many myths that we all carry with us to tame the confusion about these events.

These ideas vary but, according to Thomas Joiner, they are often mistaken.

Joiner is an American psychologist and the author of Myths About Suicide.

He was also featured on a recent CBC Radio Ideas series called "To be or not to be." 

Joiner's father killed himself by plunging a knife into his heart one summer morning in 1990, in the back of his van, parked in an office lot not far from his home.

Joiner was in graduate school at the time. He has since devoted his life's work to studying suicide.

Freud's take

There is a Freudian, and now conventional, argument that suicide is anger directed inward. Suicides kill themselves because they cannot lash out at others.

In this way, it might be said, suicide is a surrogate murder.

Joiner disputes this. In his book, he writes that his father's death was agonizing to him and his family but that it did not strike anybody as "vengeful."

Joiner concedes that there is much anger around suicide. But often that anger comes from those left behind, which can distort the act itself: "Angry survivors sometimes attribute anger to the lost one's act," he writes.

Almost all suicides, in the Western world at least, suffer from mood disorders like depression. Though only a tiny minority of those with depression, perhaps five per cent, kill themselves, Joiner says.

For him, the key element here is the massive social isolation of the suffering individual.

What's more, this is no ordinary loneliness. This is a "savage estrangement," as A. Alvarez called it in his well-known book on the subject, The Savage God: A study of suicide.

This is isolation so extreme that it places the sufferer in a domain of almost absolute loneliness, a terrible, hellish forlornness that burdens and crushes the self.

The worming voices

Not every suicide suffers from this savage estrangement, of course. In fact, Joiner tells us that suicide bombers blow themselves up in order to "belong" to a movement, a future or some imagined afterlife.

Thomas Joiner, professor of psychology at Florida State University. (Photo from FSU website)

But the far more common, solitary suicide, the one who becomes a statistic, the one you might meet and chat with by an elevator, feels stripped and defiled, a burden to himself (or herself) and to others.

In the words of the poet Sylvia Plath, herself a famous suicide:

"I'm finally through. / The black telephone's off the root, / The voices just can't worm through."

In this way, suicide is not necessarily a "selfish" act. That's another myth, says Joiner. It's the final act in which someone rids the world of the yoke, the shackle, of the imprisoning self.

Nor is suicide "painless," as the theme song from the TV series M*A*S*H would have us believe.

Those who want to commit suicide fear being hurt, rather than dying, says Joiner. They don't want to survive with painful injuries. But they also do something the rest of us can't and won't: They become fearless of death itself.

An unburdening

Suicides defy the yearning for life, the hunger to remain alive that even most people who are seriously ill, in hospitals or nursing homes and wracked with pain, cannot dispel.

Life is something the suicide tosses overboard, which in an evolutionary sense is unnatural. That's why it takes our breath away.

There is much to say about suicide that a short column cannot touch. The sense of grievous loss, the guilt one feels that you haven't done enough, the lingering, nagging what if.

There is also the anger, the inexplicable, yes, annoyance that leads one to ask: Why would a person with so much possibility choose to terminate his existence? Could he not be … like everyone else … a person capable of fixing his life and his circumstance?

The American writer David Foster Wallace, who went off his meds when he was feeling well and then couldn't climb back — no drugs, no therapy worked — to the safety of a stable mind.

Wallace's pain, we are told, was truly horrible and physically crippling. He was seeking to unburden himself, as well as his wife and his caring family.

If we think about it, we probably all know people whose isolation is so extreme that suicide is a distinct possibility.

When, or if, that happens, it's perhaps best not to think that this is someone who tragically threw his life away. Instead, with unending pity and understanding, as Thomas Joiner might say, this is a person who had to take leave of himself, to find a peace he could not find in this life.