That’s the first question everyone asks after, “Do you have any siblings?” “I had a brother, but he died fifteen years ago.” “Oh, I’m sorry. How did he die?”
Morbid curiosity quite often overrides common courtesy so the question itself isn’t particularly off-putting. What I find appalling is that the question is asked, primarily, as a means of categorizing the degree of horror or banality surrounding another person’s loss. Some deaths are, apparently, more tragic than others.
I have a dark sense of humor and can see the absurdity of, and derive amusement from, things that are definitely not funny. If someone dies in Darwinian fashion (stung to death by bees while beating the hive with a golf club, etc.) I can shake my head and chuckle – as long as I don’t wonder about the poor chump’s family and friends. I also understand that a 95-year-old grandmother who dies in her sleep isn’t as inherently ‘unfair’ as a 5-year-old dying of cancer or an unarmed young man gunned down in the street.
That being said, I also know that some deaths are injected with a comfort-blocking stigma. Had my brother died trying to save the life of another person, or even a dog (saving a cat could be seen – by some – as Darwinian), he would have been a hero. Sacrificing his life, even unintentionally, would have compensated for his heavy drinking, his gambling problem (like our father’s), and the fact that he left behind his pregnant wife.
But that’s not what happened. The depression and despair he had kept at bay most of his life finally overcame him. He went up into the high desert hills of San Diego, sat down under a tree with a friend’s handgun and shot himself.
Even if my brother had been sober and focused, if he’d had a good education and made solid career choices, if he and his wife hadn’t been separated at the time, suicide would have canceled out all of it. People were quick to judge and denigrate my brother – seeing him, not as a person, but as a disturbing ‘action’. A heart attack, a brain aneurism, a car accident – so many ways to die that would have been seen as unfortunate, but not unacceptable.
To me, it’s the loss that hurts, not its cause. Loss deserves, if not understanding or sympathy, at the very least acknowledgement without judgement.
I typically avoid reading stories about suicide, especially when the victims are kids, because my anxiety levels start to peak, but the recent, untimely death of Robin Williams has #suicide unavoidably ‘trending’. With our insatiable social media and voyeuristic news industry we now have instant access to everything from personal hardships and societal implosion to global atrocities, accompanied by the proffered musings and ‘insights’ of anyone and everyone compelled to join the cacophony. While I’ve done my best not to indulged my morbid curiosity by scanning the plethora of remembrances of and speculations about Robin Williams and his family, the little bit that has managed to unavoidably filter through, are remarks that Mr Williams and his ilk are selfish cowards. That’s bullshit.
I’d heard about Shepard Smith’s stupid, unfiltered remarks and wasn’t surprised or very concerned. The poor man waxes poetic over White House lunch menus, so his thoughts on suicide are on par with Dora the Explorer’s feelings about immigration reform. However there have been others whose comments have been more pointedly insulting. Take the title of a recent article by blogger Matt Walsh: “Robin Williams didn’t die from a disease, he died from his choice.” My initial reaction was knee-jerk indignation, triggered by his seemingly callous lack of empathy. After reading his thoughts on the subject however, it turns out that I agree with Mr Walsh – on one pedantic point: Suicide is a choice, but it’s a choice made out of a very dark, twisted reality. That’s it. In every other way his view of suicide and the people who make that choice vary widely from mine.
Matt has “seen” depression and suicide but “can’t comprehend it”, believing suicide is “a terrible, monstrous atrocity” although he admits “[w]hen we are depressed, we have trouble seeing joy, or feeling it, or feeling worthy of it. I know that in my worst times, at my lowest points, it’s not that I don’t see the joy in creation, it’s just that I think myself too awful and sinful a man to share in it”. (On a completely different topic, that sort of Christian unworthiness is one of the main reasons I became an atheist. I can feel shitty all by myself, I don’t need a god to tell me if it weren’t for him I’d really be fucked.)
For something he’s seen but can’t comprehend, he has some very stringent ideas about choosing death over life. Suicide is “[t]he complete, total, absolute rejection of life. The final refusal to see the worth in anything, or the beauty, or the reason, or the point, or the hope. The willingness to saddle your family with the pain and misery and anger that will now plague them for the rest of their lives.”
It must be wonderful to have never known depression, to have absolutely no concept of what it’s like to feel that there’s no point to anything in this existence. How easy for that person to pass judgement. Much like the man who will never know what it is to be a single mother to say to a woman, “You got knocked up, deal with it”. For people suffering under the weight and distorted reality of depression, suicide is a choice but it’s a choice made from exhaustion and despair, shrouded by the false belief that your loved ones will be better off without you, that you would be doing them a favor by exiting their lives. Feeling powerless while drowning in a dark abyss of ones own mind is a struggle some people don’t survive. To make simplistic, blanket statements that all suicide is a choice made from weakness or cowardice and “always a bad decision” is an affront. For those suffering from a painful, terminal illness choosing is a different, rational hopelessness, not an selfish indulgence. Suicide is always sad, often tragic, but does not fit into one easily identified, avoidable box.
Those who think that someone like Robin Williams, a man who left his adult children financially secure, was selfish by choosing to die, then someone like my brother would surely offend their sensibilites. In 1999, at the age of 33, my younger brother ended his life. He left behind his estranged wife and unborn son. He left behind his devastated father and nearly-suicidal mother. He left behind his only sibling to deal with them all while her own marriage was in crisis. Self-righteous, heartless people abound so I had to endure cruel comments regarding my brother’s perceived weakness of character and lack of courage. None of those people actually knew him, yet they had very definite opinions about him. I hated them all.
Matt Walsh adds:
I couldn’t talk to my husband about my pain, much less my parents, so I went to counseling briefly. She asked me if I was angry at my brother. I said no. (I did have one brief moment of irritation with him when it occurred to me that I was stuck to deal with our aging parents on my own, but I got over it.) My counselor was surprised. “Really? When my friend took his life, I went to the cemetery and screamed at his grave, ‘How could you do this?!’ I was furious.” But how could I be angry at my brother for being in such pain? I told her that I would rather deal with my own pain than have him suffer through a life he couldn’t bear.
That is not to say that I comforted myself with the idea that he was no longer suffering the way I did when my sister-in-law died from cancer. I was very, very sorry that life was so painful for him and I wished with all my heart that I could have made it less so.
Matt goes on to explain more of what he doesn’t understand about suicide.
I don’t have the time nor the energy to pick apart his article bit by bit. Besides, he sums it up nicely: “So this, for me, is always the most essential moral at the end of these kinds of sad, terrible stories: we are all meant for joy. We are all meant for love. We are all meant for life. And as long as we can still draw breath, there is joy and love to be found here. I believe that. If I didn’t, I would have left a long time ago.”
If you are feeling hopeless or that you have nowhere to turn, call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255), 24/7. You can also log onto the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Or go to your local hospital emergency room.