September 9, 2015

Is Suicide Selfish? {Suicide Prevention Week}


Just about 10 years ago, my stepson Bobby took his life.

I only qualify him as my stepson out of respect for his biological mother. He was my son, just as the rest of my kids are my kids. The pain his death caused me and my family was almost unbearable.

At the time of his death I was woefully uninformed about the causes of suicide, though I myself made a serious attempt in my mid twenties. My thinking at the time, and a common perception about suicide which persists today, is that—at its heart—it is a selfish act.

How can a person take their own life when they know the pain it will cause the people they will leave behind? Even the terminology “commit suicide” sounds as if the victim has committed a crime, and as most of us know, in traditional Christian faiths, the soul of a “suicide” is said to be forever locked in purgatory unable to attain peace or an entrance to heaven.

Historically, anyone who took their lives was even forbidden to have a Christian burial, and their families would be permanently shackled with shame. Even today, insurance companies often won’t honor their policies if the purchaser ends their own life, leaving families to suffer not only emotionally, but financially as well.

It is understandable. From the outside suicide can appear to be an “easy way out,” the last resort of the weak, the path of someone who just gives up instead of continuing to fight. But the suicidal mind is quite different than we might imagine it to be.

When a person gets to the point where suicide seems like the only option, they are at the tail end of a long and bloody war. They have been afflicted for years, maybe decades, with an inability to find joy or connection; they are paralyzed with exhaustion and hopelessness. To a suicidal person, their very existence seems to be a cruel joke—meaningless, burdensome to others, nothing more than an exercise in unrelenting pain.

If a healthy person was forced to spend 10 minutes inside the mind of a suicidally depressed person, they would be forever changed. They would quickly understand that to reside in such a mind takes almost superhuman strength, and that even simple day-to-day tasks like brushing one’s teeth can become unsustainable.

Strictly speaking, suicide is selfish—but only in the way that 9/11 victims who jumped out of the Twin Towers were selfish. In the moment of suicide, the suicidal mind is exactly like a burning building, and the one way to find relief is to escape—even if that means plummeting to one’s death.

When my son Bobby took his life, he wasn’t thinking about the rest of us: his family, his friends or anyone else—he wasn’t able to. He was utterly consumed with pain.

Knowing that, I also know that his death wasn’t a rejection of the people he loved, or a statement he made to punish us. It wasn’t vindictive, or cruel or malicious. It was an unfortunate culmination of circumstances, both biological and environmental—much like being stricken with cancer—and therefore, though I can allow myself to feel sad, I can never allow myself to feel blame.

Regarding someone who takes their own life with compassion rather than with condemnation can go a long way towards healing our own broken hearts. We can never know the extent to which another person might be suffering, and if that suffering brings them to the point of no return, they are no less deserving of our love.



The Art of Doing Nothing (From a Perpetually Busy Person).


Author: Erica Leibrandt

Editor: Travis May

Image: Flickr/Steven Depolo

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Carmela Sep 14, 2015 5:15pm

I tried to take my own life two weeks before my sixteenth birthday. The note that I never wrote would have been, "I don't want to be a burden anymore." I thought I had lost my years-long battle with depression and that I was only bringing down everyone else around me. I reasoned that though they'd be devastated initially, life would go on and they'd all be better off, eventually, without me. Since that day nearly sixteen years ago I have experienced suicide from the other side– friends, family, friends of friends– countless times. I could not have known then what I know now about how suicide affects us all, but I can say with certainty that my decision was not selfish.
Thank you for sharing this part, and so many parts of you, so openly.
Much love,

Diane Adele Rheos Sep 9, 2015 5:17pm

Thanks for this post. As one who has loved a person who committed suicide I have never seen it as selfish and haven't known how to respond to those who say this–and they do! This helps me to explain why I don't think he was being selfish.

andy Sep 9, 2015 3:35pm

I enjoyed reading this article as it made me think. We can never quite feel on an emotional level what someone is going through, when they take the extreme moment of ending their life. In a sense it is not selfish but more of a feeling of not being able to cope or wanting to escape the emotional mind that is causing them to have those unwanted depressive thoughts. From a spiritual point of view, suicide is cutting short your souls journey on this earth plane to learn and move forward and from my understanding and belief, the same journey will once again be presented in your next life in order to work out your karma and evolve spiritually.

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Erica Leibrandt

Erica Leibrandt is a licensed psychotherapist, registered yoga teacher, published author, and imperfect mom. Visit her at PsycheFinder, her new website—the only site that finds your mental health professional for you. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.