Archive for November, 2013

At the wake following my daughter Mary’s suicide in 1995, a high school teacher said with apparent bewilderment, “But she handed in a paper just last Thursday!”

“It makes no sense,” I said. “Why would she be doing homework if she was planning to do . . . this?”

Another teacher explained that perhaps Mary had been ambivalent to the end, that possibly her resolve to die had wavered along the way. Overwhelmed by the brute fact of her suicide, however, I silently brushed off that theory. My daughter must have carefully planned and then moved directly to her own self-destruction without hesitating. The way I saw it on the night of her wake, the handing in of a school paper was her attempt not to arouse suspicion; that’s all.

But psychologist and clinical researcher Thomas Joiner argues that those contemplating suicide usually are torn between their desire to die and their innate will to live. “The suicidal mind is characterized by ambivalence,” he writes, “with competing forces tugging at the suicidal individual from the sides of both life and death.”

To illustrate, Joiner writes of several people who have gone over Niagra Falls or jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge and survived to tell about it: “One survivor stated, ‘I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable–except for having just jumped.’ Another said, ‘My first thought was What the hell did I just do? I don’t want to die.’ ”

According to Joiner, “Those who die by suicide have two simultaneous mental processes unfolding. One is mundane (and yet in a way incredible) and is happening in virtually everyone (including those whose deaths by suicide are impending): ‘Should I change jobs? What will I do this weekend? Should I get a new car?’ . . . The other is far from mundane, and is difficult for most people to even conceive of: ‘Why don’t I just die? It would be a relief. . . . Why don’t I just get it over with?’ ” (Myths About Suicide, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010, 64, 63, 69).

So now I understand a little better how it was possible to be in the same room with Mary hours before her death and not recognize in her behavior the devastation that lay in her thinking. After all, she filled water glasses before dinner, made a witty remark during dinner, and cleaned up the kitchen with her father after dinner. Maybe she was not merely trying to hide her thoughts; maybe she really was wavering between life and death.

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