“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
– David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
Blame it on one too many viewings of Pollyanna as children, but on the whole, we think humans are wired to not be assholes. After all, we’re social animals, who’ve evolved to care for one another. Our brains have a built-in “social caregiving system,” which leads to what’s known as a tend-and-befriend response to stress and suffering. Translation: We’re biologically inclined to want to be helpful.
We see grief and loss inspire remarkable acts of empathy and generosity each and every day. We’ve found that most people want to say and do the right thing by one another.
But every good rule has its exception: When it comes to suicide, most people are assholes.
As with most examples of blatant assholeishness, the problem is mostly one of ignorance. Suicide has long been a subject of taboo. Efforts to break the silence around suicide are new, and we’re only just learning to talk about it. Even today, families will sometimes go to great lengths to hide the cause of death.
For the two of us, and for hundreds of others across our respective communities, this is personal. So for your sake and ours, here are a few suggestions on how to be less of an asshole:
1. Stop saying “committed suicide.”
Simply put, it’s out of date. People commit crimes: Using that word subtly implies fault and perpetuates the stigma around suicide. Eighty-five percent of those who die by suicide have struggled with mental illness or addiction. For most people, suicide is the final act after a long illness.
Try instead: Use language like “died by suicide” or “took their own life”. Changing a few simple words displays empathy towards the person who died and acknowledges their often long and terrible fight against diseases like mental illness and addiction.
2. Enough with the questions.
Before you start peppering a friend (let alone a stranger or co-worker or ____) with questions about the circumstances of the death, consider why you’re asking the question. If the answer is merely to satiate your own curiosity, don’t ask it.
The decision to talk openly about loss is one we applaud, but it is a choice. It doesn’t mean that anyone ever has the right to know about it, or the circumstances that surrounded it.
Questions like how a person did it, or why they did it, or whether they had attempted before are invasive, and serve nothing. When someone dies of cancer, does it matter which internal organ shut down first? When someone dies of lung cancer, does it matter if they smoked? (No and no.) We’ll never know the answer to the ultimate “why”, whether or not that person had a history of mental illness or addiction. That unanswered question, and the infinite supply of “what ifs” that accompany it, is one we’ll have to live with for the rest of our lives. In the end, knowing the answer wouldn’t make the loss any easier to bear.
3. Was it expected?
This is a simple one. Nope.
It doesn’t matter how many times they’ve attempted, or how sick they’ve been. Unless the suicide is medically assisted, it is unexpected. So skip the question. Ask if you can bring over a bottle of wine once the funeral crowds have disappeared. Ask if you can walk the dog or do the laundry. Ask a thoughtful question about who that person was.
A good rule of thumb: Resist questions about the death itself, and focus more on the lives in question. Focus on how your friend is doing, and what they need. Focus less on how the person died or when and more on the life they led.
4. “I’d kill myself, shoot myself, slit my wrists, yada yada yada.”
We hear these phrases all the time, and once upon a time, we said them, too. Most of the time, it doesn’t bother us anymore. But remember: A throwaway line like, “I’d kill myself if I were caught singing in the shower,” is a pretty great way to taint a perfectly enjoyable conversation. Our brains can’t help but go there. Be aware that you might be in the presence of someone whose loved one really did kill themselves or whose loved one is contemplating suicide. Joking about suicide could make it harder for them to reach out to you in a moment of crisis.
5. Suicide is selfish.
This one’s tricky. On the days when we’re desperate for a conversation we cannot have, we can’t help but feel it was selfish.
But then we remind ourselves that the people we’ve lost to suicide, and many of those who struggled with depression or suicidal thoughts, are among the most sensitive and compassionate people we’ve known. It’s often easier to offer help than it is to ask for it, and those contemplating suicide are often wracked by guilt, or feel the world would be better off without them. Suicide is a response to pain, not indifference.
Most of the terrible things we say are the result of ignorance, not intent. So the next time you encounter someone who’s struggling with suicidal thoughts, or talk with someone who’s navigating a suicide loss, try asking that person what would be helpful for them. Don’t assume you know.
You’re not an asshole. Try not to act like one.
Post Edit: Thanks to everyone who's written in, and shared their experiences. We wrote this as two women who've encountered mental illness, addiction and suicide loss within our immediate families and friend circles. We do not approach this subject lightly, and by no means do we intend to sugarcoat it. That suicide wreaks havoc on families is something we are profoundly aware of. Our goal is simply to add to what many have been working to do for years: To make the conversation more approachable and more empathetic, and to help people avoid foot-in-mouth syndrome.
About the authors:
Jennifer White is a social entrepreneur, artist and advocate for hope. She founded Hope After Project after her losing her mother to suicide in 2011. She writes about her experience with loss and her dedication to finding hope in the darkest places for herself and others. Jennifer is a member of the Creative Activist community at Creative Visions Foundation.
Lennon Flowers is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Dinner Party, a community of mostly 20- and 30-somethings working to pioneer tools and community through which young people who’ve experienced significant loss can use their shared experience as a springboard toward living better, bolder, and more connected lives.