On Suicide and Empathy

This is a bit of a departure from my usual blogging (cw should be obvious from the title), but I’ve been thinking a lot about how people talk about those who die by suicide in the wake of Heather Armstrong’s very sad death. One thing I note about everyone expressing condolences is the way in which they are phrased: everyone is saying things like, “Heather, you fought so hard to stay here every single day, and I hope you have peace now.” This is a lovely way to talk about someone who has passed, in my opinion! It truly honors how hard people with medication-resistant clinical depression fight to stay here for their loved ones, how they live for years and decades in unbearable psychic pain and mostly hide it to spare their loved ones.

I am very fortunate to have depression that responds beautifully to medication and isn’t particularly severe at the worst of times, but in the periods when I have gone off medication, I have gotten just the tiniest taste of what people like Heather must experience on a continual basis, and I cannot fathom living like that year after year, working and parenting and persisting and advocating for yourself in a largely uncaring medical industry that makes it extremely difficult even for the most privileged to get personalized care.

People see how hard Heather fought, and I see her frequently described as a warrior. She was! But so is everyone else who fights this battle, and usually people do not talk about people who die by suicide that way. What I typically see are well-intended but accidentally insulting (or just vacuous) sentiments like: “I wish I had known how much he was hurting, I wish he had reached out to me” and “for anyone out there, if you are hurting like this, there is help available! And for any of my friends, call me and I will be there with no judgment.” I also see things like, “Oh my friend, if only you had hung on.”

Why are these things insulting? Because the person did hang on, they did ask for help, they did try absolutely everything. We just didn’t see it. With Heather, everyone saw it. Heather talked about her depression openly and widely, she talked about everything she tried and how hard she fought and how deep the pain was, she talked about her previous attempts, and so people knew when she died that it was not for lack of fighting and it was not a whim. Other people with this level of depression don’t talk about these things, but they are working just as hard. They don’t simply feel a little blue one night and decide to end themselves out of caprice, when simply chatting with a friend would have gotten them over the hump.

And what does “if only you had called me” actually mean? What do we think we could have done for this person when we say that? Do we think we’ll have some eloquent words that nobody else was able to find that will enable them to endure the pain they were under for one more year? Do we think we could somehow come up with some treatment that they weren’t aware of and hadn’t tried? Are we offering to move in with them for the rest of their lives and do a better job at holding space for them than their partner or spouse was doing? What a silly thing to say.

I’m not saying that people who are struggling shouldn’t reach out and shouldn’t hold on and that it’s never the case that asking for help can save someone’s life. Of course they should and of course it is. But what I am saying is that profound, treatment-resistant depression is a disease, the same way that cancer is a disease. People who live with it know more about their own depression than anybody else, and we should do them the courtesy of assuming they tried everything and fought hard. By all means, we should suggest suicide prevention hotlines, but we should also know that they are a bandaid on a gunshot wound. Imagine how other people who are battling this disease as hard as they can day after day must feel when they see the entire world saying that somebody who finally couldn’t bear it another day “gave up” and “abandoned us” and “just should have reached out.”

Of course, family members and close friends can feel any way they want to about a loved one’s death by suicide. Their children especially might be angry at them, they might well feel they gave up and left them, and that’s valid. But for anyone not intimately close to someone who takes their own life (certainly if we’re mourning a celebrity or someone we didn’t even know), I think the kindest and most respectful way to express regret and remembrance of that person is to simply say, “Thank you for fighting so hard to stay with us for as long as you did. Thank you for enduring this pain for so long and giving us so much despite how much it cost. Thank you for fighting every day to be here for us. We love you, we see you, we’re grateful, and you have earned your rest.”

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