Archive for the ‘searching for an answer to “Why?”’ Category

Last week, a column appeared in The Washington Post entitled “Losing two Langley High School students to suicide: Unthinkable until it happened.”

“These two 17-year-olds were athletes and students at one of the finest, most affluent high schools in our region,” writes Petula Dvorak. “They had families, friends, a future. Losing them to suicide . . . seemed unthinkable.” While one boy died on Monday and the other on Tuesday, officials considered the two deaths unrelated.

I followed this story online as readers began posting comments about it. I expected a barrage, because reader comments on the Post website can number in the thousands for provocative news stories. But after an entire day, only 17 people had commented on Dvorak’s column. The silence seemed respectful more than anything else.

Not only that, the seventeen people who did respond refrained from blaming anyone, remarked on the profound sadness, and noted the intimate connection between mental disorders and suicide. (In Myths about Suicide, clinical researcher Thomas Joiner writes, “My view is that virtually everyone, approaching if not 100 percent, who dies by suicide had a mental disorder or a subclinical variant thereof at the time of death,” 188.)

The most incisive comment following the Post column took issue with the notion of suicide as unthinkable. “That headline is out of touch with reality,” one reader remarked. “You can’t call teen suicide ‘unthinkable.’ . . . Acting like teenage suicide, or any suicide, is unthinkable isn’t going to help us. It is thinkable. And we can do a much better job of helping people open their minds to other options” (The Washington Post, online Feb. 6-7, 2014).

When my teenage daughter Mary died by suicide in 1995, her death was unthinkable to me and everyone who knew her. But it was thinkable to her; she’d been thinking about it for two years as her journals later revealed. I used to agonize over Mary’s ability to conceal dangerous thoughts and my inability to read them, just as I imagine the families of those two high school students are agonizing now.

Yet, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison offers this insight from her experience as a suicidal teen: “Because the privacy of my [suicide] nightmare had been of my own designing, no one close to me had any real idea of the psychological company I’d been keeping. The gap between private experience and its public expression was absolute; my persuasiveness to others was unimaginably frightening” (Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999, 6).

Yes, we must do a much better job of helping people open their minds to options other than suicide. Before we can do that, however, we have to know that suicide is an option under consideration, and that’s sometimes far from clear.


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On the topic of psychological pain that underlies most suicides, the late Edwin Shneidman wrote: “In almost every case, suicide is caused by pain, a certain kind of pain–psychological pain, which I call psychache.”

In Shneidman’s view, the root of psychache is thwarted psychological needs, some of which are the need for achievement, affiliation, autonomy, deference, nurturance, order, play, shame-avoidance, succorance, and understanding (The Suicidal Mind, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, 4, 20).

Within the last decade, another researcher, Thomas Joiner, has begun to refine Shneidman’s concept of psychache. “I believe that Shneidman’s answer [regarding the cause of psychache] is too general, because most of us identify with one or more of these thwarted needs from time to time. What in particular . . . are people feeling psychache about?”

For background: Shneidman was a psychologist and pioneer in the study of suicide. He was a professor at the UCLA School of Medicine and founded the American Association of Suicidology in 1968. Joiner, whose father died by suicide in 1990, is a psychology professor and clinical researcher at Florida State University.

To the question of what exactly causes psychache, Joiner answers, “Perceived burdensomeness and failed belongingness.”

“People who are contemplating suicide perceive themselves as a burden, and perceive that this state is permanent and stable, with death as a solution to the problem.” Helping them requires pointing out how mistaken their perceptions are.

As for failed belongingness, Joiner notes that the human need to belong is fundamental. “The fact that those who die by suicide experience isolation and withdrawal before their deaths is among the clearest in all the literature on suicide.”

To illustrate, Joiner cites the example of a man in his thirties whose suicide note was found in his apartment: ” ‘I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump’ ” (Why People Die By Suicide, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2005, 37-8, 38, 98, 122, 120).

In 1995, my teenage daughter Mary left a suicide note which spoke of her sense of failed belongingness: “I say hello to kids in the hall at school, but that’s about where it ends. I don’t know why they’re laughing or why anyone would want to laugh. I am so alone.” I did not grasp the depth of my daughter’s sense of isolation, and even if I had grasped it, I doubt I would have recognized its danger.

I have also wondered over the years whether Mary perceived herself to be a burden to her family. There was no indication of it in her suicide note, and I’m glad for that, because she was the last person ever to be a burden. Still, Joiner’s reevaluation of psychache provides at least a partial answer to the enduring question of why.

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To those bereaved by suicide, grief educator Harold Ivan Smith sometimes says, “‘I know what you’re looking for–some definite there answer that ends the questioning–but what answer will you settle for?'”

As veteran suicide survivors know, there is no answer to “Why?” that puts an end to questioning. That isn’t to say survivors must therefore give over their lives to constant interrogation.

“I believe there are three levels of why’s,” writes Smith, “Initial, transitional, and transformative. If a survivor will not settle for the first explanation that ‘comes down the pike,’ there is hope, in time, of a fuller explanation.”

For example, initial why’s begin right after the suicide and are usually met with responses, not answers, from kind people who don’t know what to say. “She’s in a better place” and “Maybe she’s found what she was looking for” are responses I received after Mary’s suicide that, well-intended, fell short of answering the question that, in truth, no one could adequately address.

The answers to transitional why’s are, according to Smith, like rough drafts under constant revision that take time and openness to reality. For me, those were the “Aha” moments years in the making which helped me say, “Okay, I understand a little better now.” One “Aha” moment arrived on a country road late one night just after I ran over a cat. Even though seven years had passed since Mary’s suicide, that destructive roadway event made me soften my “why” answer. There were many “Aha” moments like that throughout my years of asking and trying to answer why, most of them coming as a gift in the form of a surprise.

Transformative why’s are those which, because lived each day, have the power to effect profound change. “Some suicide survivors refuse to accept ‘getting over it’ as a spiritual goal,” writes Smith. “They do not resonate with ‘getting beyond this’ or ‘moving on with life.’ Rather . . . the goal becomes to move into the maelstrom, the chaos, like a plane flying into the eye of a hurricane. They ask the Genesis question, ‘Can order come from this chaos?'” and finally, for asking with their lives, do themselves bring about order (A Long-Shadowed Grief: Suicide and Its Aftermath. Cambridge, Mass: Cowley Publications, 2006, pp. 30, 33, 36).

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About one father whose daughter ended her life by overdose on a second attempt, clinical scholars John Jordan and John McIntosh write, “[He condemned] himself for his failure to believe that his daughter could really have wanted to die–her death was simply a brutal violation of everything he thought he knew about [her]” (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors. New York: Routledge, 2011, p. 181).

It’s the “brutal violation” element of suicide bereavement that makes it surreal and disorienting. A constant personal theme after my daughter Mary’s suicide was that, despite the fact we were living under the same roof, I had not known her. I had not imagined my daughter capable of taking life-enhancing medication and turning it into poison. Her doing so was incomprehensible then and even now jolts me at odd moments.

One thing everyone seems finally to know about suicide is that there are no real answers for “Why?” No words anyone can offer–including the deceased in their suicide notes–get to the deepest truth of why certain instances of human suffering end in suicide. “A survivor may be able to say, ‘My sister was depressed,’ but he also continues to utter the words, ‘Why did she do it?’ A survivor can say, ‘Dad was angry at the world,’ but she also has to say, ‘I don’t understand.’ A family can say, ‘We were hostile toward each other,’ but it still wants to know ‘Why? What is the whole truth?'” (Christopher Lukas and Henry Seiden, Silent Grief: Living in the Wake of Suicide.Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1997, p. 92)

Searching for the answer, no matter how elusive, is usually healing. According to Jordan and McIntosh, those bereaved by suicide tend to construct a “coherent narrative that helps [them] make at least partial sense of the suicide [which] is a central healing task for most survivors” (p. 182).

Making sense of the senseless–for me laborious and unnerving–was the only way out of the darkness of grief into what seems a kind of new life.

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