According to University College London, the family of people who have committed suicide are 65 percent likely to attempt suicide themselves. While I am in no way suicidal myself, I can confirm that the suicide of a close family member made me work through my own understanding of the choice, and has left me with more sympathetic views towards those who make it.
My grandmother committed suicide. She was a wonderful woman who had struggled with depression her whole life. She also suffered from severe osteoporosis and, as she aged, had found herself in increasing pain and with her movements increasingly limited as a result.
She had also cared for her ageing mother, who had grown increasingly infirm as she approached 90, and lived in horror of being likewise incapacitated and relying on the care of others.
My grandfather, in his old age, was receiving increased international recognition for his architectural work, and was busy with lecture circuits and media interviews. My mother, aunt, uncles and cousins lived in different parts of the world – not in the same city or even country as my grandparents, which was, I think, one of my grandmother’s greatest sorrows.
We think – the suicide note wasn’t clear – that she had grown increasingly desperate about her condition, and couldn’t bear to drag my grandfather away from their life in Europe to return to South Africa to live with one of their daughters. Although this would have made things easier for her, it would also have been an acceptance of one of her greatest fears – dependence.
So, she made the decision to end her own life.
As a family, we were devastated. As we boarded a plane to be with my grandfather who found her, some of us expressed that we thought her actions were selfish. As the days after her death unfolded, we slowly came to terms with her decision.
There was a kind of logic to the process. If she had reached out to any of us, we would have stopped her from doing what she wanted, and this, unfortunately, was what she really wanted. So, she did it. Was she lonely, or was she at peace? Was she frightened, or was she relieved? We’ll never know.
What started to happen in my mind was that I came to respect her decision. Although it hurt all of us, she made the choice that she felt was the right one. Who were we to say she was wrong? I even came to see a kind of beauty and strength in taking that level of control over your final destiny.
As someone who supports the act of voluntary euthanasia, I moved the margins of “when it’s okay” a little further back, to encompass my grandmother’s decision. “If life feels unbearable,” I reasoned, “with no hope of resolving the issues confronting of you, then isn’t it your right to make that decision?”
While not a depressive person myself, I can easily see how the University College of London’s statistic could be true and relevant for family members of a person who committed suicide. The grieving process and the empathy you feel for your loved one work together to validate their choice.
But then, in the last week, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain took their own lives (following a number of other, high-profile cases earlier in the year). While I don’t believe that fame is the pinnacle of human achievement, to the outsider, these people had a lot going for them. They were healthy (other than struggling with depression), wealthy, recognised, affirmed and loved. And money certainly solves a lot of life’s woes. And yet, their depression still outweighed everything positive in their lives.
The news around these two deaths has brought me back to my original thoughts around suicide. The depression made them do it. The depression made my grandmother do it. They – Bourdain, Spade and my grandmother – still had so much to live for, and this terrible mental illness robbed them of their ability to carry on.
It’s a hard adjustment to make in my thinking. It disrupts the peace I had made with my grandmother’s choice. It raises a whole new crop of “if onlys”. For a long time I felt that the greatest gift I could have given my grandmother was my complete acceptance. But now I feel that the greatest gift I could have given her is a legacy not of understanding, but of urging others to reach out when in pain.
She loved us all so much. She wouldn’t have wanted us to make our peace with her decision – at least not in a way that made it seem like a good decision for anyone else.
If nothing else emerges from the senseless loss of all these beautiful lives, it should be that a death is always a loss – to the suicide victim and to their families. If you are ever contemplating that choice, and you feel like your life isn’t worth living or that the world would be a better place without you, know that it isn’t, that people love you, and that life will get better. And don’t let the actions of others make the same steps easier to take for you. Fight it every step of the way.
I promise, your life is worth it.