Suicide isn't painless

How do you get over the suicide of a dear friend and the feeling that you could have prevented it?

Cary Tennis
June 2, 2004 11:43PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I've read your column for quite awhile now, for the most part agreeing with your advice on life and love. Now I need some advice on death and the life afterward.

A week ago I found out that a friend committed suicide. He wasn't a particularly close friend to me personally, but he was with several of our mutual friends and it's hit them very hard. I'll recount what I know -- some of it is firsthand, some second -- so that you have some background.


Bill was a great and likable guy. His death took everyone by surprise because things seemed to be looking up for him. Apparently (and this I've only heard recently) he struggled for his entire life with a type of eating disorder that he kept hidden from almost everyone. I certainly had no idea, but like I said we were friendly but not close. About a year ago, he began to get help for his problems and even went away for some time to a facility out West to get a start. At around the same time, he and Nicole, his girlfriend of several years, had broken up. They'd been having problems (again we are dipping into hearsay) regarding his eating habits and other relationship issues.

Bill had continued to work on his food problems and seemed to be making a lot of progress. I know I saw him eating out with our group much more often, something that, in hindsight, I realized I'd not seen much before. I say "in hindsight" because until it was pointed out to me, I never really noticed.

Fast-forward to this year. Bill had gotten a promotion at work, he'd made some great improvements on his house, and we'd talked at length one evening when everyone was together about dogs because he was thinking about getting another dog to keep his aging Aussie company. About three weeks ago he left for a trip to Britain. He'd always been a big fan of the U.K. and had gone there for New Year's a few years back with a few mutual friends.


About a day after he was supposed to return, the packages started arriving. Each one was a brief note and a CD with just a single song on it. I'm not sure if it was a twisted sense of humor or an earnest plea, but the song was "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone." Tom, the closest to him of our mutual friends, told me that after he'd gotten to London, he rented a small apartment, toured the city, apparently sent out the packages, and then used some chemicals he bought from a photographic supply store to create a toxic gas. I did a little reading online, and apparently it only takes a few lungfuls. He'd gone so far as to post letters the same day to the local police asking them to come and collect him and warning them about the gas. He'd even placed a notice on the door to the small bathroom, written out in several languages, warning people away without protection.

And now his friends and family, myself included, can't stop asking how we missed it. How couldn't we see it? He'd obviously been planning this for a long time. He put all his affairs in order before he left, leaving copies of his living will, will, bank statements in a folder on his desk. I don't understand how someone could make all that effort to help themselves at the same time they are planning to kill themselves.

I know, both from other articles of yours and from others, that talking is probably all I can do to help myself and our friends who were closer. But I can't help thinking there's something we could have done.


Do you have any advice for me or my friends?

In Pain

Dear In Pain,

Suicide bequeaths the living an excruciating choice. Our grief for the victim mocks our anger at the perpetrator. Torn between anger and grief we go about in a daze, unable to scream or cry. Perhaps we curse the gods, but they had nothing to do with it. Perhaps we curse the pressures of modern life, or the failures of psychiatry.


But the truth is, our dead friend is a murderer.

How to choke that down?

So he murdered himself and not someone else. Is that less a crime? It only mires us in contradiction.

You can't feel all of what you feel at once. So you have to feel things one at a time. It's a lot of feeling to do. It can wear you out.


So what to do? Split the object of our emotions into two, the victim, whom we loved, and the perpetrator, whom we despise? Is there indeed one person who kills and one who is killed? Perhaps in all suicides there is an innocent, who would never have chosen to die, and that is the one we mourn. Perhaps also there is the calculating and murderous tyrant who kills, the one who, bereft of imagination, crippled by pain and hopelessness, ends up, as Thomas Hardy said, in "That shabby corner of God's allotment where he lets the nettles grow, and where all unbaptized infants, notorious drunkards, suicides, and others of the conjecturally damned are laid."

Suicide rains feelings down on us. Among our profound and decent reactions of pious grief come the trivial, the perverse, the cruel and contemptible -- how come he gets to check out and the rest of us have to deal with this? Who said he could leave early? Have we been had?

Plus there is no closure. It's too sudden an exit. Lacking goodbye, you may feel unsettled. It may help in those moments of unsettledness to recognize how raw, unformed, mysterious, epic and ancient is this feeling of losing a friend to suicide; out of that might come a reminder of the true scale, the breadth, the range of our reality, and perhaps, having sensed the range, you may find your present problems diminish in their power.


But if this style of coping verges on the sentimental, beware: There is no lesson in suicide; those who kill themselves are not teaching us anything; instead, they're robbing us. Sentimentalizing suicide only encourages others who, weak-minded, pained, lacking the ability to see how foolish and wrong it is, might succeed all too well in their feeble attempts. So do not say that out of this comes a lesson. There is no lesson in suicide, only loss.

I get suicide and overdoses mixed up. I knew a guy once. I was trying to help him out. He was a drinker. He also was a junkie. He bought some street junk one afternoon and shot too much of it. He died in his little hotel room on Clay Street off of Kearny. If he hadn't died it would have been easier to be mad at him. But I don't let that stop me. I'm still mad at him. He ruined my average, for one thing. Having a guy die on you sets you back. He's never going to get sober now. He's never going to shit his pants again either, but that doesn't make up for it. Of course I loved him too, but what does that get me?

One cannot libel the dead, because they cannot feel the sting. So why can't we be angry with them? Why do we stifle it in ourselves? When they go by suicide, they leave us in an insult of dust. Why shouldn't we be mad? Why shouldn't we cry out against them? Why shouldn't we denounce them in our anger and grief? After all, he killed your friend in a diabolical, clever, painstaking way.

I for one, in righteous perversity, think we may grieve too much and curse too little; pay him the tribute of your anger. Do not be ashamed. He killed your friend.


What else can I say, I whose job it is to speak the unsayable? It keeps coming back, I can say that. It. There will be times when too much is happening inside you and you have to sit down on a bench without speaking, or sit on a bench and talk while someone else sits without speaking. Your friends will need this as well. You will have to sit and listen to each other without answers.

Your far-flung feelings will orbit you like implacable planets, employing you only as the dark, heavy object whose gravity contains them. There you will be in the night sky, a Jupiter keeping your emotions in orbit across your own immensity. That's all you can do sometimes: just to be the dark, heavy planet whose only job is gravity.

Get together with your friends and say what you feel, each of you without interruption or judgment, like we do in recovery, where everybody speaks his humble truth, however mundane or horrific, however sordid or sublime. It just helps to get it off your chest, and keep getting it off your chest, because the longer it lies there, the heavier it gets, and sometimes it makes it hard to breathe.

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Cary Tennis

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