National Suicide Prevention Week: An Open Letter to a Survivor

Posted by on Sep 12, 2014

This week is the 2014 National Suicide Prevention Week. Suicide is a topic that has been hitting home lately, having experienced three brushes with suicide among friends and acquaintances this year, two of which were successful.

Suicide is a difficult topic to talk about, because it spotlights what most of us try to run from — our mortality. For me, trying to fathom the literally unimaginable moment I cease to exist brings up something akin to horror. To then grapple with the startling truth that we each have the capacity (and occasionally the impulse) to deliberately launch ourselves into non-existence deepens that horror. What could it possibly be like to inhabit a world so dark that suicide seems to be the only viable option?

On the day that Robin Williams died, science writer and blogger Carrie Arnold published a strikingly courageous post about her own suicide attempt and how she has been affected by it in the aftermath. Suicide, she writes, carries such a stigma that those who experience it are sometimes denied the chance to openly grieve and process their loss in the way that someone who suffers a “natural” loss would. Stigma intensifies the grief, because suicide is not only a loss, but a trauma. Because of the traumatic nature of the loss, it’s especially important that those who lose loved ones to suicide process the event — which is also crucial for those who survive their own suicide attempts. For survivors, healing will not only mean confronting the circumstances that led to their suicide attempt, but also dealing with the guilt, shame, regret, and fear that comes with the question of “What if I had been successful?”

National Suicide Prevention WeekAdmittedly, though, I can’t tackle this subject with the depth and nuance that other writers could offer. Unlike the experience of battling and recovering from an eating disorder, suicide is not something I’ve tried to pull apart and come to grips with. Even after a brilliant, genial, high-achieving friend who showed no apparent suicidality took his own life last month, I struggle to make sense of all of this. But the one thing I’ve taken away is that it can’t be “made sense of.” Suicide escapes logical understanding because it is a symptom of mental illness. It makes no more sense than fatal childhood cancers. This means that those laboring to understand what drove their loved one to the edge will, unfortunately, probably never fully do so.

And yet, I think that the absence of understanding is, in some strange way, a small comfort. It takes the edge off the If onlys that torment mourners and survivors. Even though we can try our best to notice our loved ones’ suffering and intervene, in the end, when it comes to another’s life and wellbeing, we’re forced to admit that in some cases we are utterly powerless.

Anyway, rather than continue philosophizing on a subject I lack an understanding of, I’ll conclude with one of my Letters I’ll Never Send. I wrote this particular letter after a friend I met in treatment attempted suicide and survived. I don’t think the letter offers any insight into this topic; again, I don’t think suicide is something that can be fully understood. It might that the best we can do is simply to talk about how it affects us.

An Open Letter to a Survivor of Suicide

Dear E,

You’re absent from treatment today, and the only reply I receive when I ask the staff where and how you are is a vacuous smile and an assurance that you’re “fine.” Still ignorant, I texted you to ask if you had decided to leave the program. You might have thought I was being insensitive, if you even received the text at all. I’m sorry I didn’t know. I’m sorry I failed to know you better.

I find myself magnetized to you, possibly because there is something about you that comes hauntingly close to me. You wear on the outside what I have always tried to conceal on the inside. Sometimes your candor has unnerved me because it brought me home to the parts of myself I’d tamed into quiescence. Sometimes I envied it.

As we spent more time together, I realize we shared a lot more than our illness. We have the same taste in music and books. We share an absurd love of vocabulary. You reintroduced me to poetry, offering me a Galway Kinnell poem when I was having a difficult day. We seemed to understand each other in a way that others who were wired a little too neatly couldn’t.

I worried about you this weekend, because you seemed off to me on Friday. I considered writing to you to ask for another poem. But I decided instead to ask you when I saw you Monday. If I’d reached out to you, would it have made a difference? Would I have known what I could do to help you? We may be similar, but I’m not in your head. I don’t know what your hell feels like. I can’t claim with complete confidence that living, for you, would be better than dying.

But then I wonder how often many of us have questioned whether living would be more bearable than dying. So what gives you the right to bail? Why do you get the freedom to choose death over life and leave us behind? Do the rest of us merely take comfort in vapid affirmations to keep us tethered to existence?

You think death is the more bearable fate because you think that neither you nor anyone else gives a shit. You think you lack that tether that holds you to life. But you’re wrong. I care a great deal about you. I think you have deeper insights into yourself, into other people, and into life than most people have. Even if it is still a mystery to you, I believe you have something invaluable to give. It would be a terrible waste to bury it underground with you.

And you’re wrong that you don’t care. You do. I think that even in the midst of your cavernous despair you did feel that tether, some slight compulsion to remain in life. I think you know deep in the loneliest, most remote corners of your heart that you are a profoundly valuable human being. That you are, in fact, loved. That by leaving you would be depriving the world of a powerful force. And that one person — or maybe two, or five, or dozens — would miss out on whatever happiness, inspiration, and compassion your presence would offer to their lives.

But in the end, you do have the freedom to choose death over life. When all is said and done, the best I can do is give you a protected place in my heart so that I keep what’s yours as yours and what’s mine as mine. For me, even if that dark impulse arises, I won’t embrace it. I won’t abuse my potential more than I already have, nor will I bury it with me. There are days that the tethers to life feel like chains. But there are also days that those tethers — people, places, dreams, memories — grip my heart so tightly that they become the very veins and arteries that keep life coursing through me.

I hope the same is true for you someday.

Your friend,
Joanna


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2 Comments

  1. Wow, this is powerful.

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