You May Not Like The Answer To This…
Short answer: you’re asking the wrong question.
For the long answer, keep reading.
Suicide is the ultimate question with no answer.
Problem is, if there’s anything we humans hate, it’s questions we don’t have answers to. (If you doubt it, consider that the entire episodic nature of TV and Netflix series is based on this single trait!) This inability to stand unanswered questions is both our most important strength and weakness. It’s what pushes us to the knowledge and insights that form the basis of philosophy and science and history, and basically every field of knowledge that we have. But sometimes, we’re so eager for answers that we’d rather a rubbish answer than none at all (ergo, conspiracy theories aplenty).
But among unanswered questions, why is suicide a special case? To explain that, allow me to use an illustration from PTSD research.
PTSD is post-traumatic stress disorder, the severe anxiety condition that is seen in some people after a major (often life-threatening) event, like war, rape or other forms of violence to a person or their loved ones. PTSD also happens in people who have experienced natural disasters, but findings are that it’s likelier after events involving a human perpetrator.
Why is this?
Well, because as terrible as say, an earthquake or a flood can be, there’s sort of a randomness to it. You feel terrible that it happened, but it’s an “it.” Even when the “it” is an animal, there’s still some randomness to that. When it’s a human being, there’s the terror, not just of what happened, but of knowing… This. Wasn’t. Random.
Someone looked at you, and decided to harm you. It’s not random. It’s in a way, actually personal. Just that alone makes it like a hundred times worse.
Now take that and apply it to suicide, and one can see why we react to people who take their lives as if they’ve given the rest of us one giant eternal finger: it’s terrible to us when someone kills someone else, but it just feels that much worse when someone takes their own life. I think we feel like they committed murder and got away with it in one fell swoop.
(That, by the way, is exactly how suicide used to be seen, and it’s why old law codes used to make attempted suicide a crime: in attempted suicide, the would-be “murderer” didn’t get away. And, would you believe it, it’s still like that in Nigerian law!)
Look, can we just agree on one thing, right now?
Suicide is not about you.
It’s not about your feelings. For crying out loud, suicide is a human being who just decided to exit the world. And let’s face it, many of us have had thoughts of exiting the world. (If you’re one of the few who haven’t, congrats. Also, you might want to keep it to yourself when you’re talking to those who have—announcing it to them would be rather like that celebrating your lack of a drinking problem at an Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting.)
As I was saying, getting out of life is something many of us have thought about at some time or another. We may not have thought about doing it ourselves, but we have at least on some occasion or other, found appealing the idea of it somehow just happening. (As painlessly as possible, thank you very much. Life is hard enough without going out of it in more pain than absolutely necessary.) And I’m saying this, not to make light of suicide, but to express my own empathy with it.
What I’m trying to say is, I get suicide.
And if you’re being honest, you probably get it too. (Come on, be honest.)
So why on earth do we keep reacting to news of suicides like someone took our lives when they take theirs?
I’m tempted to say maybe we’re jealous of them and ashamed that we’re jealous, so we’re overcompensating by getting upset about it. But that sounds too cheesily Freudian. (And yet…)
Sometimes I feel like we’re going, “How dare you hit cancel? How DARE—hello? Hello…?”
Here’s what I really think
The question that drives everyone crazy after a suicide is, “Why?”
It’s not a question for just suicide, however. It’s a question that arises every time pain arises. Every time there’s suffering, there’s the question, “Why?” (I’ve written elsewhere about why another unhelpful question when things go wrong, as well as about what’s wrong with how we think about pain.) The “Why?” question is way more frustrating with suicide, though: I think we feel like the one person who could answer our question is the same one who raised the question precisely by making themselves permanently unable to answer it!
(By the way, I’m convinced that if it suddenly became possible to email dead people, people who died by suicide would get the most correspondence. Them and maybe Hitler, except Hitler’s would be mostly hate mail and second death threats.)
But it’s not about us. Next time you hear that someone died by (or attempted) suicide, try to think of them the way you do when you hear someone has cancer. You don’t get upset. You don’t ask if they’re being brave or cowardly. You simply think (or at least I hope you think):
“Oh no! How terrible! What must they be/have been going through right now/then? How on earth will their family cope with this? What can I possibly do to help?”
(You probably also think, “Oh! What if I—gulp—get cancer too?” but hopefully you don’t make that your main focus, right?)
And it won’t kill you to also add to yourself, under your breath:
“I don’t know why they did it, and you know what? That’s okay.”