Suicide vs. Love
Edited to add: You can now find this essay and others like it in my memoir “Surviving Death: What Loss Taught Me About Love, Joy, and Meaning” on Amazon. Please consider giving a copy to anyone you know facing significant loss and grief.
I’m supposed to be writing a book. I was supposed to write my regular column this week. There were a bunch of articles and blog posts I was scheduled to write, but all week I’ve been blocked. Truly. Couldn’t write a thing. And now I realize it’s because something I needed to write was blocking me. Isn’t it funny: when people talk about “writers’ block” the advice is rarely “well, write about what’s blocking you, then.” I tell you this to say: I had no intention of writing about this. Maybe ever. But I find that I have to in order to move on.
Robin Williams died, as everyone knows, this past Monday as I write this. That alone would have been a shock and cause for some sorrow. I was just enough of a fan of his comedy and some of his less-schmaltzy movies to feel some rare celebrity-death grief pangs. But because of the way he died, by suicide, and especially by asphyxiation, his death turned out to be a trigger for the grief of my own loss to suicide, my late husband Karsten.
If you aren’t intimately acquainted with the idea of “triggers,” let me explain. After a trauma — and certainly an unexpected death with a great deal of emotional complexity like suicide is a trauma — there are bound to be moments and events and emotional reactions and so on that somehow, suddenly, remind the traumatized brain of the initial trauma. It can feel like you’re re-experiencing the whole thing. Only without the benefit of shock to soften the edges and dull the pain.
And even more difficult is how weird it sounds to admit to someone that you’re in a bad state of mind because, y’know, Robin Williams died. It sounds like an overdramatic overreaction for someone who’s not in any way connected to him. It’s hard to explain that it’s the parallel with my own loss that troubles me. It’s hard to explain that it’s not a ploy for attention. That’s a kind of attention I have no desire for. It’s a cyclical part of the complex grieving process that accompanies suicide. And what’s more, to complete the cycle, Robin Williams’ family and friends will probably experience these kinds of triggers, too, when people die from suicide, even people they don’t know.
Part of what makes Robin Williams’ death particularly challenging for suicide’s survivors is how profuse the smell of ill-formed opinions became this week as everyone around the internet campfire weighed in with their take on it. I don’t presume to say that many of the commentators hadn’t experienced a close loss; it’s a common enough phenomenon, sadly, that many if not most people have. But the level of reflection was dauntingly low about the circumstances that led to the loss, and about the circumstances of the lost one’s life. The old cliches about suicide reared their heads. But he was so funny!
Karsten used to say that he could tell when things were bad for me because that’s when I was at my funniest. I don’t know if that’s true; I think he was projecting a little of himself there. Karsten was funny, and funny people see humor in everything, even the horrible stuff.
In a grief support community I’m part of, there’s an effort to reclaim the language around suicide to make it less stigmatizing. Rather than say “he committed suicide,” as is most common but which carries the connotation of a crime, people will soft-shoe the delivery with things like “he took his life,” or “he ended his life.” But some of the more activist-minded survivors advocate terminology like “he died by suicide” or the decidedly more weird-sounding noun-verb “he suicided.”
The way language relates to the way we think is actually a pet topic of mine. I have no issue with coining neologisms as a tool in reframing discussion. So I agree that using terms that suggest less stigma is potentially a very good thing to make way for better mental health resources and so on.
It’s just that none of these terms make me feel any more comfortable actually saying it.
Suicide is a tricky business. The organizations and charities related to it generally have one mission: to educate people, both those who might do the deed and those who might be in a position to help stop them, that suicide is preventable. I’m sure it is. I know there are many people, including dozens of friends of mine who’ve talked to me since Karsten’s death, who have been close to the edge and who have, with help, walked away from it and don’t envision ever returning to it. Most of us have probably found ourselves at one time or another close enough to the edge to crane our necks to see over from what, at least for me, was a safe enough distance not to trip and fall. But I know that I, for one, have never stood right at the edge, staring blankly into the abyss, reviewing all the reasons it was right for me, and delaying the jump only because of other people.
That’s the thing. People talk about suicide as a “selfish” act. Of course in some ways it is; by doing it, you’re robbing others of your presence and your future together, and people who are in that jagged mental state near the end never quite realize how much their presence is wanted and needed. And there are ripple effects and collateral damage from suicide that affect the survivors for the rest of their lives. But in another sense, we have to acknowledge that all the times people walk away from the edge to be with the ones they love and who love them are acts of unselfishness. I am convinced that the loving relationship that Karsten and I shared for nearly fifteen years was the thing that brought him back from the brink many, many times. Amidst the noisy chaos of anxiety and depression, with the amplification of insomnia, he still decided over and over again to walk back to life. His life with me. And I. AM. GRATEFUL. for that. That he ultimately couldn’t make it work even longer does cause me intense sorrow, but I genuinely, legitimately feel gratitude for every time he must have decided that he could keep trying. I felt gratitude about that from the day he died. I think many times he stayed alive solely for me. It just didn’t work that last time, and I feel deep, true anguish for him imagining how bleak his night must have been, making that final decision as I slept. My heart aches to imagine him making his plan, putting things in order, writing his note. And my imagination goes further, but I can’t write about that. It approaches a level of some combined sacred and profane, and I don’t have the writing skills or the emotional stamina to put words to it.
What I do know is this. I was never once angry with him, and I know I never will be. I don’t think that saying this is the equivalent of a “get out of jail free” card to people who are suicidal; I just think compassion must tell us that many people walk away from the brink many times. And yes, this means we’d better be reaching out to people when they’re on the brink. No doubt. Those suicide hotlines (1–800–273-TALK (8255) in the U.S.) and counselors are invaluable resources, and they certainly do a tough and necessary job. But the success rate there may well always be lower than 100%. Because there’s a bigger job. It’s not enough to love people when they’re on the brink; we have to do the work of giving our love and compassion to the people we care about all the time.
It’s not enough to love people when they’re on the brink; we have to do the work of giving our love and compassion to the people we care about all the time.
As Karsten would say, we are self-aware primates, conscious of our place in the cosmic wonder. We’re the only animal we know of that ponders the meaning of our existence. And as I say, all we have is the meaning we create for ourselves while we’re here. We live for such a blip of time anyway. But our ability to love transcends the boundaries of life. We can carry love with us long after someone we love is gone, and we can give them that infinite sense of our love while they’re here. Love doesn’t die with death. Love is like liquid; when it pours out, it seeps into others’ lives. Love changes form and shape. Love gets into everything. Death doesn’t conquer all; love does. Love wins every single time. Love wins by lasting through death. Love wins by loving more, loving again, loving without fear.
Love gets into everything. Death doesn’t conquer all; love does. Love wins every single time.
That’s the best I’ve got, after all of this. After life-changing love and loss, it comes down to this: love deeply. Love well. Love consistently. Love those closest to you, and love those you meet in passing. Show compassion. Feel empathy. Open your heart to the range of human emotion, and take your time with it. It’s the best tool we have.
The love we give consistently just may be what someone recalls as they peer over the edge, and it may be the comfort they manage to bring themselves back to. Maybe then we have a chance at postponing someone’s thoughts of suicide if we can’t prevent them altogether. That’s a start. And then maybe we have a chance of bringing that person some hope to balance their despair. Maybe we can help them not feel so alone on that precipice. Maybe we can meet them at the edge and walk them slowly back home, pausing every so often to hug and to notice the beautiful shape of the trees.
It’s worth trying.
Thank you for reading. Please clap or “recommend” if you found this piece interesting or meaningful. And please feel free to share widely.
You can find this essay and others like it in my memoir “Surviving Death: What Loss Taught Me About Love, Joy, and Meaning” on Amazon. Please consider giving a copy to anyone you know facing significant loss and grief.
You might also appreciate a few of my other Medium stories related to finding meaning in loss and recovery:
Kate O’Neill, founder of KO Insights, is an author, speaker, and “tech humanist” consultant solving strategic problems in how data and technology can shape more meaningful human experiences. Her latest book is Pixels and Place: Connecting Human Experience Across Digital and Physical Spaces.
Photo credit: Joe Hendricks