By some combination of a ghostly white mask, irregularly cropped hair and a shirt from her mother’s wardrobe, she had finally managed to make herself look unattractive. I would have found it amusing — the usual mishaps of a middle-school girl trying on adulthood — if it hadn’t been for the anger in her hazel-grey eyes and the stolid resentment in her voice; both as new to her as the fashion she was in the process of adopting.
Rose was the first time I saw the effects of suicide on loved ones left behind.
That night I sat at my living room table alone past 1 a.m. and thought back over the 14 months since her older brother Nick’s death. Two weeks after, she had dried her eyes and was again a bright, pretty middle-schooler, giggling with her girlfriends and trying to charm me into believing that Fido ate her homework.
But gradually, Rose changed. She was late for class or didn’t come. Open-ended essay assignments started reaching my desk as miniature rants against everyone in her life. And her friend group shrunk till she sat alone.
I remembered what my father had said after Nick killed himself: the harm done to his younger siblings would run deep — even though they never mentioned it like their mom.
Directly after a suicide, the media focuses on painting those who kill themselves as beloved heroes. This is natural. When someone is dead, we want to honor their memory. When parents think they can blame some third party for their child’s demise, it also makes the news. But the bone-deep emotional pain which fuels such protests and litigation is a story rarely told.
It’s a story lived by many, shared anonymously by an increasing number of people on the internet. Some testimonies are stunning: “Since I lost my father [to suicide] two years ago,” writes one survivor, “I can’t eat or form normally functioning relationships. I do a lot of drugs, and am barely passing my college classes.”
And the eerie response from someone else: “... my sister went down the same road as you until she almost killed herself ...”
Most people cope better, but their stories are still laced with the same pain and — almost always — a subtle self-blame. One woman wrote to her brother two full years after he killed himself: “... I’d give [so much] to tell you all the things I never said. I never told you I loved you or that you always made me feel better ... You always used to tell me that when I hit the big one-eight you’d take me to the pub. I went to the pub on my 18th without you, and I think that hurt the most ...”
Assigning blame for suicide is a prickly task that is bound to offend someone. Facebook “friends”? CAPS? Administrators? Amazon.com? Parents? Any number of people might wittingly or unwittingly contribute to a wrong choice in the emotionally disturbed mind of someone struggling with depression.
But it is important to realize that the final decision rests with the individual. David Foster Wallace compared “psychotic depression” to the circumstances of someone trapped in a burning high-rise. When the “invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level,” jumping to your death becomes “the slightly less terrible of two terrors.”
Depression is the flames. Suicide is the jump. Of course, we should do what we can to help people fight that fire. Of course, it is damnable to deliberately heap fuel on someone else’s flames.
But the final choice rests with what one depression sufferer described as “burn-covered warriors” — those who balance daily the fear of jumping to their deaths with the fear of another day of hopeless pain. It’s a pain that often persists temporarily even when they get professional counseling and do everything “right.” And what is it that motivates successful warriors to keep fighting when the days stretch into weeks and weeks into months?
It’s the one thing that the media rarely seems to have time for — the story of that mother, that son, that little sister with glassy, hazel-grey eyes. This alone, at times, can motivate us to choose the slightly more terrible of the “two terrors” in order to keep from plunging others into the flames — and through that noble determination to sacrifice for the good of others, find a way out of the burning building.
JEREMIAH KEENAN is a College junior from China, studying mathematics. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Keen on the Truth” appears every other Wednesday.Comments powered by Disqus
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