Searching for answers in suicide notes

We often yearn for one's last words to be meaningful. But in the case of suicide, last words may not have the answers we seek. Piya speaks with three people about how the words contained in suicide notes and intended final texts affected their lives, and in one case, helped save a life.

Piya speaks with three people about how the words contained in suicide notes affected their lives

A screen shot from a video encouraging men to talk about suicidal feelings. (Source: Movember Foundation)

It was Valentine's Day 1994, and Moira Farr felt compelled to check on her partner, Daniel Jones.

"I was just getting a bad feeling," she told Out in the Open's Piya Chattopadhyay.

Tacked to Jones' locked living room door, Farr found a hand-written note.

"It said 'Do not come in. Please call the police.'"

Daniel Jones, a writer, took his own life.

In those first awful hours, as police filled the apartment, Farr remembers sitting, stunned and grief-filled, in the kitchen. 

"I heard one of the police officers reading what was clearly his note — and in a kind of mocking way. I remember putting my hands over my ears. The police officer who was with me figured out what was going on and ran and told the guy to shut up."

I actually think of my thoughts and go 'Wow, you never thought you were going to get through this.'-Anonymous suicide attempt survivor 

Jones' letter was long and detailed, and Farr says, there was some degree of comfort in it. Jones had taken full responsibility; he hadn't blamed anyone, and he told Farr and others close to him how much he loved them.

But that doesn't mean it wasn't also excruciating and haunting.

"You just realize how much pain that person was in ... Something he said in the note was 'I believe this is the only right thing to do.' You know he's not thinking clearly in that moment."

Jones left instructions with what to do with his affairs, including his writings. This forward thinking was heartbreaking for Farr. It indicated Jones still had a desire to engage with this world.

"That's hard to think about — just that somebody still cared in those last moments to direct how things would be after he's gone … There you are in the last moments of your life — and you're thinking about the future."

The suicide notes that saved a life

When Stephen P. Lewis was in his early 20s, he hit bottom in an unrelenting depression.

He says the psychological pain that he'd been enduring for years had become unbearable. He was inflicting self-harm, and saw no way out.

"I sort of convinced myself that I was deserving of this pain, and that pain was never going to go away."

He found himself thinking about, and then planning to, kill himself.

One awful night, he began to write goodbye letters, notes for those closest to him to find after he'd gone. 

"When I was writing, I recall vividly having tears streaming down my face," he told Chattopadhyay. "That moment — it still remains etched in my mind in terms of being a turning point."

I realized I could express what was going on internally in a way that didn't have to be manifested as physical or emotional pain. I could just get it out on paper.- Stephen P. Lewis

But something unexpected happened as Lewis put pen to paper.

"I realized I could express what was going on internally in a way that didn't have to be manifested as physical or emotional pain. I could just get it out on paper.

"It told me I could find a way to express my pain without taking my own life.

"[And it] sort of led to a deeper recognition of just how dire the situation was.

Lewis never sent those letters.

He got help and worked hard at dealing with his depression, and now, as an academic at the University of Guelph in psychology, he works to break down the kind of stigma that had made it so hard for him to get help in the first place.

'I didn't put much thought into it'

It was several years ago when one woman took an overdose of pills with the intention of ending her life.

"I was so numb, I was done with everything," said the woman, whose identity CBC has agreed not to disclose. 

In her early 20s, she was dealing with serious mental illness that she didn't yet understand or know how to manage. At the time, she couldn't imagine that she'd be the happy, productive and healthy person she is today.

"My whole family thought I was this glowing person and then once my depression hit, I lost everything. I didn't think I could regain that reputation," she told Out In The Open

"I just lost all hope … I couldn't bear it anymore."

After taking the pills, she texted her family. She fully intended that text to be her last words.

It said, "I'm sorry for everything. I'm sure that you'll be happier without me."

Paramedics saved her life that day. Doctors told her she would have certainly died if they had found her any later. 

"I didn't get better right away. It took years and years."

But having found the right treatment, she now looks back at those words and the place she was in when she wrote them with a very different point of view. 

"I actually think of my thoughts and go 'Wow, you never thought you were going to get through this,' and not only that —  but get somewhere to help others. And that's why I'm here today.

"Now I feel like not only do I deserve to be alive — but I'm adding so much to this world."

If you're experiencing emotional distress and want to talk, The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention has a list of local crisis centres which can be viewed here.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 9-1-1 or the number for emergency services in your community."

This story originally aired on February 18, 2018. It appears in the Out in the Open episode "Last Words".

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