As I was driving into work this morning (I began writing this post on June 8), I received an alert from my phone from CNN. Just a day prior, I had received a similar alert regarding the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) recent study release, which found that suicide rates have increased by 25% over the past two decades in the United States. It hit home in ways I never predicted it would.
On that next morning, I looked down at my phone, and I really couldn’t believe what I saw. Television star Anthony Bourdain was dead at the age of 61 from an apparent suicide. Just earlier in the week, fashion designer Kate Spade also died from an apparent suicide.
Before I write any further, I want to first say a few things about my context in regards to these two situations. During his life, I don’t want to claim I was a fan of Bourdain’s work. I never watched his shows (not out of hostility, more just a lack of interest). In the same vein, I don’t want to portend that I was a huge fan of Kate Spade either. I’ve never carried a Kate Spade bag…or any bag for that matter. I don’t want to posthumously conflate any feelings I had towards these two individuals while they were alive. I also don’t claim to know much about their lives (other than the few things I’ve seen in the news), and I don’t claim to know all of the things they were dealing with in their lives. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about either of their lives, other than the sad, untimely ways in which they ended.
Nonetheless, it doesn’t lessen the sadness I feel when I read about these two talented individuals who are gone too soon and unnecessarily. Just because Bourdain and Spade were celebrities doesn’t make their death any more tragic than anyone else who dies from suicide. It also doesn’t make it less tragic. Behind the celebrity façade are family members, friends, colleagues, and neighbors that are left behind with questions—questions they will have for their entire lives.
What I’m writing about, however, is not Bourdain’s death, but a reaction to it. An unfortunate reaction that I think pervades most of our society when issues related to suicide arise. A reaction that is all too common. And a reaction that we must discourage in order to remove the stigma behind mental illness and suicide. Let me tell you the story.
A local radio personality in Cincinnati who I follow on Facebook (and won’t name here) reacted to the news. This individual posted the news of Bourdain’s death along with a short comment:
“So sad. Such a talent. We all have our demons. #anthonybourdain”
Shortly thereafter, a woman I’ll call Jean responded:
“I agree, but I am also ragingly ANGRY. He leaves a daughter. HOW SELFISH can someone be?!? I hope she [his daughter] is shielded from the publicity…”
And, the radio personality wrote back:
“I can’t disagree.”
He can, and he should. He should disagree. Dear friends, we need to talk about this type of reaction because it’s ill-informed, harmful, and ignorant.
First, let me say this. Although social media has many wonderful benefits, I largely despise it for what it has created in our lives. It creates an unbelievable sense of competition because it falsely projects the image that “everyone but me is living the perfect life.” In fact, I have no doubt that the increase in suicide rates in our country is largely influenced by the prevalence of social media in our lives. In many cases, I think social media disconnects people more than it actually connects them.
Along those same lines, I don’t often see the value of litigating every single comment made on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or any other network. I sure hope that every single comment I ever made on Facebook isn’t brought back to vilify me years after I wrote it. I’m not writing this post to vilify the radio host or Jean (neither of whom I’ve ever met) or anyone else. I’m writing this post as a contemplation on the larger societal attitudes towards suicide as a “selfish” act.
However, I do think it’s important to recognize that this type of attitude and speech surrounding suicide is common. I hear it often—mostly from people who don’t yet know that my own life has been darkly wounded by suicide.
Search the web for “suicide is selfish” and you’ll find any host of authors or commentators who agree with this sentiment. You’ll find articles written by people like Lesly Salazar that read “I still think suicide is selfish and no, I’m not ignorant for believing so.”
Again, my goal is not to vilify these individuals. I vehemently disagree with them. I disagree with everything they believe about suicide and mental illness. I think their positions and their statements are ill-founded, ill-conceived, hurtful, damaging, and dangerous. I think that, had their lives been touched by suicide like mine was (and I’m glad theirs hasn’t been), they might think differently and more compassionately. I write this not to tear them down as human beings. I write this to hopefully educate them. I write this post to hopefully share with them a different understanding of suicide—from an individual who lives with the pain it creates each and every day.
Suicide is not selfish, because mental illness is not selfish. It’s as simple as that.
Those of us who have lived with and loved individuals who suffer from mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or any other host of illnesses know that those individuals do not consciously choose their illness. People do not choose to be depressed. People do not choose to be anxious. People do not choose to hear voices in their head that tell them they aren’t enough and never will be. People do not choose to be mentally ill.
We know that we don’t choose to be mentally ill because we can’t explain why we feel the way we do in regards to mental illnesses. And although we don’t have an extremely thorough understanding of the physical factors and mechanisms behind mental illness, we do know that there are often biological mechanisms at play. We know that there are regulating chemicals within our brain that can change over time, and the incorrect balance of those neurochemicals and transmitters can create or prolong a mental illness. And if we know that mental illnesses can have a biological root, why in God’s name would we ever, ever accuse someone of being selfish if they die as a result of their illness?
If you’ve ever had a family member die from cancer, would you ever call that person’s death “selfish”? If you’ve ever had a friend die from heart failure, would you ever call them “selfish” for their weak heart? If you have ever had anyone in your life die from an inexplicable physical illness, would you ever dare insult that person’s memory by calling their death “selfish”?
No, you wouldn’t.
And no, we shouldn’t.
I can already anticipate the retort from individuals who disagree with me: “But if we don’t say that suicide is a selfish act, it will encourage other people to do it. There will be no penalty against it. The belief that suicide is selfish actually keeps people from attempting suicide.”
Tell that to the CDC. If that’s the case, why hasn’t the stigma worked up to this point? If most of society thinks this way (and I believe they do), why have suicide rates risen by 25% in just two decades? The belief that suicide is selfish doesn’t discourage people from attempting suicide; it actually exacerbates their feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and unworthiness.
My Dad’s story is the perfect example. My father was the most selfless man who ever walked the planet. He did nothing for personal gain, notoriety, or ambition. My Dad was a giver. My Dad was the man who would take an entire Saturday to help someone build a porch on their back deck. When my Grandfather had a stroke that left him largely immobile, my Dad was the man who spent weeks completely redesigning his home bathroom so my Grandpa could easily navigate his wheelchair into the shower. My Dad drove a truck, and I can’t even begin to count the multitude of times that people would need my Dad’s truck to haul something. And every single time, they got the truck—and they got my Dad to help. He gave money to those in his life who needed it, even when prudence likely told him he would never see a dime of that money again. But more than anything, my Dad gave of his most precious resource—time. There was no such thing as a conversation going too long. My Dad could (and did) talk with anyone he came in contact with. His conversations were never about him, but making others around him feel loved.
And my Dad was a completely selfless Father. As a child, he spent every minute he had making sure I was entertained and happy in life, even on days when he was likely tired and exhausted from work. When I was in high school, my Mom and Dad took an entire weekend to redo my bedroom to make it more appropriate for a young man in adolescence (the motif went from childhood baseball to vintage baseball—and I loved it!). If my truck broke down in high school (which was a semi-regular occurrence), my Dad was the first person there to help me. And although I’m sure there were many other exciting places he would have rather been, he was always in the stands anytime I announced a basketball or baseball game.
He was selfless. Not selfish. And the mechanism of his death doesn’t change this.
It wouldn’t make sense for someone who has lived their entire life with a code of honor that embodies selflessness to all of a sudden abandon that. My Dad’s death was out of character because, on that morning, he was not himself. His depression had so deeply overtaken his mind that his proper thought processes were disabled. I was there that morning. I saw my Dad before he died. And I can tell you, he wasn’t acting selfish. He was acting hurt, and scared, and completely debilitated.
And here’s the key. As crazy as this may sound, the truth is that it was actually my Dad’s misguided selflessness, not selfishness, that ended his life.
Let me be clear: None of this makes my Dad’s death right, acceptable, or just. None of it. It also doesn’t make it selfish.
My Dad was such a giver that he couldn’t imagine letting those around him down. He couldn’t imagine admitting failure to those he loved and took care of. He couldn’t imagine not being able to help himself after his entire life had been dedicated to helping others. Again, none of this is an excuse. None of this justifies his death. None of this makes his death right because his death isn’t right. It was unnecessary, and premature, and unwanted.
But it wasn’t selfish.
I don’t place the blame at my Dad’s feet—nor should anyone else. Are there things I would do differently? Yes. Are there things I wish my Dad had done differently? Absolutely. Do I wish my Dad’s story wouldn’t have ended on that fateful July morning? I pray this every single night.
But his death wasn’t selfish. And no one has the right to condemn his character (or anyone else’s) with such unjustifiable certainty. They do damage to that person’s legacy; but they also do significant damage to all of those left behind.
It’s not just the person who dies from suicide that is disgraced and discouraged by a “suicide is selfish” attitude—it’s the survivors left behind to grapple with their grief that are just as negatively impacted by this type of attitude.
I want you to imagine this scenario as you read and feel the intensity of the moment I’m describing. Your Father, the man you loved with every fiber of your being, has just died. From suicide. A vibrant, enthusiastic life has just been ripped away without warning. One minute, you’re hugging the broad shoulders that have carried the burdens of your entire family for a generation, and the next you’re standing next to his casket. You look down at that casket and the hundreds of people who have gathered to say goodbye, and you wish more than anything that your Dad would just get up—but he won’t. He’ll never come home again. You’ve cried more tears in a few days than you ever have in your entire life combined, and your pain and grief are inexplicable and inescapable. You’ve had many sleepless nights, and you’ll continue to have them for as long as you live. Just when you think life is establishing a new normal, you’ll wake up in the middle of the night screaming in terror as the horror of those moments replays over and over and over again. All of this is ahead of you as you stand at that funeral, and the weight is crushing.
And then, someone comes up to the casket. They shake your hand, express their condolences, and then say this:
“What a selfish act.”
How do you feel? Did it help?
No, it doesn’t—and it never will.
I’m thankful that this type of reaction never happened to me directly, but reading comments filled with a self-righteous fervor that accuse a suicide victim of being selfish from people I don’t even know is just as hurtful. I’ll return to Jean’s comment and ask you this: If she was so concerned with the well-being of Anthony Bourdain’s daughter, why would she immediately castigate his memory by completely minimizing his suffering? If Jean was so concerned about Anthony Bourdain’s daughter, why would she make a comment that will do absolutely nothing to help this young woman grieve? I have no doubt that Anthony Bourdain’s daughter, like me, loved her Father. By calling his unfortunate death “selfish,” Jean’s comment doesn’t help the grieving—it hurts and wounds them.
I go to bed every single night wishing that my Dad was still around. If people, like Jean, think that somehow letting me know that my Dad’s death was selfish will heal me from my grief, I’m here to tell them it won’t.
Suicide is not selfish, but that doesn’t automatically make it selfless either. An act can be neither selfless or selfish, and we shouldn’t be tricked into the fallacy of outright-certainty in an area as delicate as this.
But suicide is devastating. And it’s life-altering. Suicide is debilitating. It’s irreversible. It’s awful. And terrible. And it’s never, ever okay.
But it’s not selfish. And it’s not selfless. It’s just awful.
I don’t believe individuals who die from suicide are selfish at their core. They are suffering. Suffering from a disease that is awful and confusing. A disease we don’t understand.
So, when we don’t understand the complexities of this life, we shouldn’t self-righteously claim that we do.
I don’t know Jean’s story, but based on her attitude, I highly doubt that her life has ever been touched by suicide. And guess what? I’m really, really thankful for that. I don’t want anyone to ever have to live through the pain my family has endured after losing my Dad. But because we’ve lived through it, and because we knew the man my Dad was, we don’t talk about suicide like she does. We don’t say my Dad’s death was selfish because it wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong—we pray and wish every single day that it hadn’t happened. But it wasn’t selfish.
I’ve written this before, but I’ll say it again: Your words matter. The words you choose each and every day have tremendous power—power to heal pain, but also to inflict it. But words are more than just words. They reveal an attitude. They reveal beliefs. They reveal core values. When self-righteous individuals scream with certainty that suicide is selfish, it causes the survivors of suicide to question everything about our loved ones. Did they really love us? Did they really mean it when they said they cared? Were they selfish?
Survivors of suicide have enough to deal with when it comes to grief. We don’t need the haughty judgement of individuals who claim to have all the answers to explain why our loved ones are no longer here. We feel that pain every single day, and it’s actually selfish for others to minimize our loved ones’ suffering.
My faith in Jesus Christ teaches me that I’m not meant to have all the answers in this life. I shouldn’t claim to be all-knowing, because when I do, I’m claiming to be God. I don’t know why suicide happens. I don’t know why God allows mental illness to persist. So, I don’t claim to have all the answers. Corrie ten Boom said it best: “A religion that is small enough for our understanding would not be big enough for our needs.”
So, unlike all the people shouting about the selfishness of suicide, I won’t stand on the mountaintop and claim to completely understand the suffering in the world around me. Instead, I’ll attempt to be compassionate. Instead, I’ll try and realize that individuals—selfless individuals—are hurting without being able to explain why.
And as hard as it might be, I won’t give up on people like Jean. Or anyone who currently believes that suicide is selfish. Even though their words cut through my heart like a knife, I’ll still believe that they can learn and grow. Because as hard as it is for me to admit, there was probably a time in my life before my Dad died from suicide where I thought just like they did. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve changed and I’ve grown—and they can, too. I’ll still believe that Jesus is not quite done with them yet, just as he’s not yet done with me. I’ll still believe that they will someday realize that suicide isn’t a willing act, but one that occurs when the body and mind are in a frenetic, uncontrollable, irrational state. Because I’m still a work in progress, I’ll believe they are too.
But more than anything, I’ll just keep loving my Dad because he selflessly loved me.
Dad, It hurts my heart tremendously when I think that there are people out there who think your death is selfish. It pains me when I hear individuals say that death from suicide is selfish because they didn’t understand your pain. They didn’t see the despair in your eyes on that last day. They didn’t see the years that you suffered. They didn’t see how badly you wanted to be healthy. They didn’t live with the unnecessary shame that you lived with for so long. Dad, none of this makes your death and absence any easier. None of this makes the pain of losing you any less real. And yes, I wish things had gone differently on the morning of July 24, 2013—for you, for me, and for all of us. But you suffered from a disease that you didn’t understand. A disease that not even medical professionals completely understand. You died because this disease took over your brain, and I hope you know that I understand this. It doesn’t make your death right, and more than anything I wish you were still here, living the life you always lived to the fullest. But I’ve never been angry with you for your death. I’ve never loved you any less—and I never will. Dad, you are not defined by your death, but by the tremendously selfless life you led. I’m so sorry if you ever felt like you weren’t enough for us, Dad. You were always enough. You lived a completely selfless life, and I wish I was able to remind you of that. Until that day, I’ll keep fighting for your legacy. I’ll keep fighting, alongside God, to redeem the pain of losing you in an effort to try and prevent this pain in the lives of others. And until that day when I can tell you just how selfless you were, seeya Bub.
“Those who think they know something still have a lot to learn.” 1 Corinthians 8:2 (GW)