Why not die?

Three days ago, I got an email from a follower (I’ll call her Jackie) who asked if I could think of a reason she shouldn’t kill herself. I wasn’t surprised that Jackie was considering suicide, but I was surprised that she would solicit my opinion about such an important matter. You see, no one other than Peggy ever solicits my opinion about anything. My opinion is so NOT solicited (or accepted when offered) that I think of myself as like a reverse salesman—if you want to talk someone out of something, just send me to talk them into it. I can’t really say why this is so because my opinions are often excellent. After all, I’m smart, diversely educated, slow to act, a deep thinker, an extensive fact gatherer, and old enough to have experienced a lot of life and seen the results of a lot of decisions.

I was about to rake the leaves when Jackie’s mail arrived, and I wasn’t in the mood for such discourse, but I knew that I couldn’t delay my response lest the day end with my yard clean but my friend dead. Such an outcome might have soured me on yard work permanently. Besides, I was honored that she wrote to ME because—as I said—no one ever solicits my opinion.

I had little thought for what I might say when I sat down to write, but little trepidation either because I am more effective on paper than in person, plus I have given suicide A LOT of thought over many years as a solution to my own problems. Yet, I recognized that I probably had little if anything to say to Jackie that she didn’t already know. One of the downsides of aging is the realization that, aside from information pertaining to specific disciplines, you’re not likely to learn much from other people. This is probably why suicidal psychiatrists don’t tend to seek help. I mean, what could anyone possibly say to a suicidal psychiatrist?

The last time someone told me that she (it was a she that time too) had been thinking about suicide, she put it this way. “I was sitting in the kitchen with the rifle barrel against my chest, wondering if I would really pull the trigger, and then Dale walked in. When I saw the look in his eyes, it scared me, and I realized that I really needed to turn my life around.”

I thought this meant that she HAD turned her life around (after all, she seemed happy). A few days later, she was dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest (that’s me, then Dale, and then her at the top of the page). If you really want people to think about you A LOT after you are dead, just tell them you’re thinking about killing yourself, and then kill yourself. If you want them to remember you their whole lives long as if you had JUST died, that will do it. Believe me, they will NEVER get over your death. My friend, Kathleen, has been dead thirty years, and I still haven’t run out of tears.

Anyway, I sat down to have a go at a response to Jackie based upon my knowledge that people who suffer from cancer, alcoholism, chronic pain, or almost anything else tend to get along better with the support of their peers than with the support of trained counselors. This is because they feel better understood and know that what they are hearing is real rather than theoretical. So, I told myself, I will be real. It’s really all that I had to offer. As I reread what I wrote, it seems woefully inadequate. Maybe you can think of something more.

Dear Jackie,

I’m glad to see from your letter that I’m not the final strand in your last string, but I’m still worried that you’ve sat by your computer all day becoming increasingly despondent as you reflected that maybe I haven’t written because I don’t care about you or because I resent your coming to me. Neither is the case. I simply haven’t been indoors.

As for reasons to not commit suicide, it is a subject that I think about a lot since I am often tempted. In my case, it would be an extraordinary situation in which I would do such a thing to Peggy without her consent, and she wouldn't give her consent unless I was in extreme and hopeless pain or suffering from a terminal illness. You too have relatives who need you to stay alive, so you too must behave responsibly. You must make suicide—when and if you do it—an honorable retirement from life, devoid of shame or failure. It can be, after all, an exemplary act; not an ignominious retreat but a sensible and well-timed withdrawal.

Suicide to me is like a get-out-of-jail-free-card that I take comfort in holding in case all else fails. Even without Peggy to consider, I doubt that I would do it anytime soon because I still have reason to hope that my health will improve, and at least a few things left to enjoy; but even if I were to lose both Peggy and these, there might still be some good that I could accomplish. If nothing else, I could comfort dogs at the pound. Yet, the temptation to kill myself is often with me when I’m in pain, or fretting over the fact that I have lived long but accomplished little, or feeling overwhelmed by the possibility that my health will get worse. I’m not a prisoner without means but a free man with guns and drugs, and I am grateful for them. I’ve rehearsed every detail of how I would make my exit, so it is simply a case of going to the station, so to speak, from which I would book my passage into the Dark Land to which all go but none return.

Anyway, these thoughts are what come without much reflection, but with the conviction that days of reflection would not yield anything more profound. I hope that you can find meaning (or at least pleasure) in your life apart from your family, but if not, you do have people whose own lot would be made miserable without you, and that alone makes your escape untenable.

“When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes into you.” Nietzsche

Just remember that suicidal thoughts can take on a life of their own. The more you dwell on it, the less frightening it appears, and the more likely you are to deceive yourself into thinking that the very loved ones who are holding you to life would be better off without you. I would therefore ask that you limit your excursions to only the outskirts of that cold land. Think of suicide as simply one of many options, albeit the last.

Finally, there is the wee small chance that there might actually be another life awaiting you beyond the grave, a life that will be made better or worse according to how you live this life. Imagine thinking that you are permanently escaping your pain only to awaken someplace where you are in worse pain and without even the appearance of escape. Such a prospect need not preclude suicide, but it should make us more careful to use it as a dignified retreat rather than a humiliating rout.

With love and respect,