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Archive for the ‘suicide notes’ Category

I’m grateful that my daughter Mary left a note saying good-bye and describing her motives before she died by overdose in 1995. Police confiscated the note, so I didn’t get to see it for several weeks. When I finally read the five-page farewell she had written in her physics notebook, it was like watching her smile and wave as she drove off a cliff.

But after eighteen years, her decision to leave a note seems more a courtesy than anything else, a grace note, a final kindness. It left no doubt about her intention to die, and while that certitude did not answer the deeper questions surrounding her death, it did spare us the exhaustion of trying to figure out whether her death had been accidental.

Mary’s note was a gift, and a rather unusual one. Three out of four people who die by suicide leave no note according to studies cited by psychologist and clinical research Thomas Joiner. “Knowledge of this simple fact could save a lot of heartache and confusion . . . It is not rare for relatives of suicide decedents–and from time to time even experienced investigators–to question whether a death was a suicide or not because no note was left. Closure for relatives . . . can be facilitated by knowledge that suicide notes are rare.”

Why this rarity? It’s not that suicides are impulsive, Joiner argues, because “the extremely fearsome and often painful prospect of bringing about one’s own death requires previous experiences and psychological processes that take months–at least–to accumulate. Those who end up dead by suicide have thought the act through many times, often in detail—” (Reading Mary’s journal after her death, for example, I saw the word “suicide” crop up two years before she died.)

The answer, rather, seems to lie in the mental state of people in the moments before they take their lives. It’s so unlike ours that it’s almost impossible to fathom. “To say that people who die by suicide are lonely at the time of their deaths is . . . like saying that the ocean is wet. Loneliness, alienation, isolation, rejection, and ostracism are a better approximation, but still do not capture it fully. . . . I believe it is impossible to capture the phenomenon fully in words, because it is so beyond ordinary experience . . .” (Myths About Suicide, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010, 119, 84, 123.)

That my daughter left a note, that anyone would leave a note, speaks powerfully of the human need to belong and connect, tragically foreclosed.

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I have held in my hands two suicide notes. My daughter Mary left hers in her bedroom after overdosing on anti-depressant medication in 1995. An elderly medical patient of my husband’s sent his in the mail just before shooting himself in 2009–the subject of my last three posts.

My daughter wrote that she hoped every night she wouldn’t wake up the next morning, that she couldn’t take the “hassle” of life anymore, that she was weak and hated herself.

My husband’s elderly patient said he could hear the “rapids” in the distance leading him–all alone in his canoe–to the waterfall of death. Before reaching the waterfall, however, he planned to go ashore by means of a revolver.

There is a certain composure in both notes; neither comes off as the product of extreme mental agitation. Studying them, however, I have to remind myself not to underestimate the pain underneath the words. “In almost every case,” writes Edwin Shneidman, “suicide is caused by pain, a certain kind of pain–psychological pain, which I shall call psychache” (Edwin Shneidman. The Suicidal Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 4).

As professor at the UCLA School of Medicine and founder of the American Association of Suicidology, Shneidman maintains that the keys to understanding suicide are “made of plain language . . . . [They are] the words that suicidal people say–about their psychological pain and their frustrated psychological needs–that make up the essential vocabulary of suicide.”(The Suicidal Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, viii) These “keys” to understanding someone’s suicide usually appear in their suicide notes.

If anything might have given my daughter and the elderly gentleman hope before their deaths it was having someone ask them, “Where do you hurt?” and “How can I help you?” (p.6)

If only anyone had known to ask those questions.

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Just days before he commits suicide, the 88-year-old man of the two previous posts is writing about his “biological life” as a stream on which he rides in a canoe. He goes on to say that downstream are rapids–“biological problems of severe injury, disease, disability, Alzheimer’s”–rushing to a waterfall which marks the end. “When a person’s canoe gets there, everything vanishes–stream, shores, canoe, and passenger. That life is over.”

Two years prior, in 2007, he himself had begun to hear the rapids in the distance, calculating that by mid-2009, he might be near enough to the rapids to consider “quitting while he was ahead.”

“My timing was sound; now I have entered the rapids. ‘Paddles up!’ When the prow of my canoe touches shore, the result will be the same as reaching the waterfall. But, I will have avoided most, and certainly the worst, of the rapids. I provided myself with the real-life equivalent of that virtual paddle in the summer of 1995—a .32 caliber revolver. No one knows of its existence nor will until I paddle ashore.”

On the back of the note, he added a picture of himself waving to the camera and a final remark about his sense of duty: “For those who will receive this but do not know me really well, I should add that I am a widower with no dependents and no debts. Otherwise, I wouldn’t think of doing this now.”

And finally: “No nursing home for me! Adios!”

Shortly after writing those words, he joined the more than 5000 elderly people who die by suicide each year in the United States, the majority of them men. (Jordan and McIntosh, Grief After Suicide, p.66)

According to the American Association of Suicidology, the elderly die for more than one reason, usually. Risk factors include the recent death of a loved one, physical illness, uncontrollable pain or the fear of a prolonged illness, perceived poor health, social isolation and loneliness, and major changes in social roles such as retirement (www.suicidology.org).

What hope might have been offered the gentleman of these posts?

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The previous post concerns an elderly gentleman who sent my husband a suicide note in 2009. The man wrote that while he had no fear of death, he was “particular” about how he might die and that he was planning to quit while he was “ahead.”

Far from being “defeated,” “disabled,” or “discouraged,” (among several negative adjectives he provided), he said that positive words best represented his mental state.

He then employed a metaphor to show how biological life–“the route from birth to death”–can be distinguished from the “real” life of  “experiences, hardships, education, hope, love, joy, sorrow, etc.”  To him, biological life is a “stream on which I ride in a canoe. There is a paddle, but I don’t use it. I am carried down the stream of life with no effort on my part. This is a very personal stream: each person has his own and is alone on it. I have drifted along on mine for going on 88 years. Keep that in mind: it affects one’s perspective.”

The metaphor is perplexing:  1) In what sense could it possibly be true that our biological life–our “route from birth to death”–is distinguishable from “real” life?  2) How can biological life symbolized as a “stream on which I ride in a canoe”  capture the fullness–variety, color, mystery, transcendence–of his or anyone’s life?  3) If he means “I am carried down the stream of life with no effort on my part” to argue that, like everyone, he’s growing older, the idea makes sense. But to say he is alone on his stream (and apparently thinks he always has been) makes no sense to me. Reading it, I imagine his grown children found the comment jarring and wrongheaded.

There’s still more to say about this good man.

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With the Christmas cards in 2009 came a newsletter from one of my husband’s elderly medical patients. Printed five times along the top of the newsletter were the words FINAL ISSUE. “The moment of culmination of years of planning has arrived,” it begins. “When you read this, I will have left for my next post.”

He goes on to explain that from time to time he had “inflicted upon some of you these egocentric declarations: 1) I have absolutely no fear of death but am damn particular about how I get there!  2)  I plan to quit while I’m ahead. 3) I intend to choose the time, the place, and the manner of my departure. (And how many people get to do that? Or want to?)”

It was not that he was in a “really lousy mental state,” as he thought some might conclude. Only months before, in fact, he had sat down with a dictionary and gone through words beginning with “de” and “dis” to find those that did not describe him. That is, he was not to be considered  “debased, decadent, decayed, deceived, decrepit, defeated . . . disabled, disappointed, or discouraged.” 

“There are a lot more words than this on the positive side,” he added, “but they aren’t conveniently grouped for easy listing!”

The tone throughout the writing is most reasonable and considerate.  At the end of the suicide note are the names of immediate family members, three of them married children who likely received the FINAL ISSUE around the same time as–maybe even a little later than–my husband.

I’ve wondered for years how reasonable and considerate they felt their father’s suicide to be. Feelings of rejection–not to mention shame and stigmatization–are prominent among adult children bereaved by the suicide of an elderly parent (John Jordan  and John McIntosh. Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors. New York: Taylor &  Francis  Group, 2011, p. 67).

More to follow.

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