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Memories of a Suicide

October 4, 2013

I remember the day I saw someone kill himself as if it was yesterday. Every so often something triggers the memory, and my internal YouTube launches the sequence.

A spring morning in 2002. I’m standing on a platform waiting for the London train. The usual assortment of people are there – commuters with blank expressions going through the daily ritual. School kids in blue uniforms chattering away, joshing, shoving and laughing.

The track vibrates with the sound of an approaching train. A recorded announcement tells us to step away from the edge of the platform because this train isn’t going to stop. It’s heading in the other direction.

Without warning, a guy in his thirties, bearded, light brown hair in usual commuter garb – gabardine raincoat, brown leather briefcase – steps through the throng and jumps down on to the track. I have enough time to think “idiot, that’s a bloody dangerous way to get to the other platform”. Except that’s not what he wants.

The train comes towards the station at speed. The guy runs towards it, drops his briefcase and stands to face the train with his arms stretched out as if in a welcoming embrace. Bang. At the moment of collision, unidentifiable bits of something fly into the air, and the train is past, brakes screeching as the driver brings it to a halt. By the time it stops it’s beyond the station.

On both platforms there is silence. People standing around too shocked to share their thoughts. If they’re like me, there’s a phrase repeating in their heads. “Oh my God”, “bloody hell”, “what the f**k?”. Something like that.

And a couple of minutes later my train arrives. As if on autopilot, I get in and sit down as if nothing has happened. So do all the others. The train pulls away, and we return to the ordered reality of the morning commute. Walton, Hersham, Esher, Surbiton and London Waterloo.

Except that my reality has changed forever. The video is embedded and can never be deleted. That day, I can do little but think about what I saw. What led the guy do what he did? Why did he bother to dress for work? Was it a spur of the moment decision, or had he planned it that way? What happens to a human being struck by a train travelling at fifty miles per hour? Who has to pick up the pieces? What effect will this have on the driver? Will he ever drive again? Does the train company offer trauma counselling for their staff? What about the school kids? It happened right in front of them – how will they cope with the experience?

I went to work in a dream-like state. Not in denial at what I’d seen, but in that alternative  reality that set in on the train – that was then, and this is now. Shortly afterwards – I’m not sure when – a local newspaper ran a story about the guy. He’d been depressed, apparently. Little more than that. These events are commonplace in commuterland. No big deal. Nothing on the internet. Every week or so, on the London Underground or the suburban train network, delays are explained away as being caused by an “incident” on the line. So the sandy-haired guy with the beard and glasses was an incident. Forgotten by all but those who witnessed his death, and an indeterminate number of family and friends.

For a while I felt angry at the person who killed himself. How selfish of you to do what you did in front of all those people. Did you realise the effect you would have on the ten, eleven and twelve-year old who witnessed you exploding in front of them? Couldn’t you have found a less public way to die? Pills, maybe? A cliff, like Beachy Head? Or just a warm bath and a razor blade?

Soon, though, I came to realise that the man must have been in such pain that the impression he left on others was the least of his concerns. His overriding aim must have been to get it over with quickly, and with no chance of survival. Nothing else must have mattered. I’ve heard it said that men tend to go for spectacular exits – hanging, jumping in front of trains, crashing cars – whereas women prefer to go away quietly – by overdose for example, or, as in the case of Virginia Wolff, jumping into river. Well, my man was true to the stereotype.

I have been touched by suicide before and after that day on the platform. Many years before, the two children of our family doctor killed themselves. The son was a struggling barrister who felt he was unsuited for his profession. The daughter died later for reasons I never discovered. I’ve also heard that one suicide often begets another. When one person dies, the chances of a close relative – a sibling or a child – following suit increases. Perhaps this partly explains the death of the daughter. In the sleepy Welsh town of Bridgend, twenty-five young people killed themselves between 2007 and 2009, mostly through hanging. Nobody has yet found a conclusive explanation.

In 2005, a businessman of my acquaintance hung himself in a farm outbuilding after being indicted for fraud by the US Securities and Exchange Commission. He was about to be extradited to the US, and chose death over a likely jail sentence.

Why am I recalling these sad events?

A few days ago I wrote a piece about death not being an event, more a journey that can last for a long time. A friend posted a heartfelt comment. His life, he said, had been touched by suicide, and he recently lost his mother in what he described as a digital event. One moment she was alive, and the next she was struck down by a stroke. At the age of 45 he felt very alone, and wondered at times why it was worthwhile carrying on. He couldn’t see why suicide had so much stigma attached to it. He suggested I write about the subject.

I’ve been thinking about the subject ever since. And I find it hard to offer any insights. Because I have never – whatever the ups and downs in my life – come close to reaching a state of mind where I have contemplated ending my life. So I can’t say “I know how you feel”. Yes, I can listen  – and have done so – to the despair in others. I can coach a person to look at the alternatives. I can tell them that they are worthwhile people with worthwhile lives yet to live. And I can listen – quietly, as the despair pours out, in the hope that the simple act of articulating feelings will make the contemplated solution less likely. But I can’t walk with them through the tunnel.

Should we make it easier for people to end their own lives by abandoning the assumption that “the balance of the mind is disturbed”?  Is there a difference between a sense that there is no point in prolonging one’s life, and being prepared to die in battle, or sacrificing one’s self so that others might live, like the victims of Al-Shabaab in Nairobi who helped others to escape at the cost of their own lives?

The obvious difference is that a deliberate suicide wants to die, whereas a soldier or bystander in a massacre does not. We’ve come to the point at which in a number of civil societies it is acceptable and legal to seek assistance in ending your life if you suffer from an incurable disease and your quality of life is no longer tolerable. Is it not therefore logical that those who suffer from mental disease should have a similar option? Or even those whom society judges as sane, but who for whatever reason don’t want to continue with their lives?

In the latter cases, those who are capable of killing themselves will often do so, whether society tolerates their act or not. Yet the taboo against suicide means that those who wish to die have to do so in sordid and often violent circumstances. Their deaths, which are often sudden and without warning, cause shock, pain and sometimes guilt among their loved ones. So is it impossible to devise a set of rules – a pathway if you like – that facilitate a peaceful and orderly death? A death with dignity for which loved ones are prepared, that takes place after exhaustive efforts to convince the person that life is worth persevering with have failed?

For some people, perhaps, the answer would always be no. Those who chose a spectacular end sometimes do so for a reason – to make a statement, to demonstrate their political or religious beliefs.

But I do believe that we should not assume that an able-bodied person who chooses to take their own life is by definition insane. And perhaps instead of asking why that person should be allowed to end their life, we should instead ask why they should not. We don’t stop people from going into battle, indulging in extreme sports or wading into a stricken nuclear reactor on a mission that is certain to end in death. All acts of temporary insanity, you might say. But that’s not how society sees it.

This is a debate for which I suspect most of the world is not ready. In many religions suicide is a sin. Civil society rightly has a horror of euthanasia programs under which people might be manipulated into the death chamber. Yet should we reach a point where we cannot sustain a human population beyond a certain point, or where disease, disaster or climate change creates violent competition for diminishing resources, then will we become less squeamish about letting people go, whatever their reasons for wishing to go?

I hope we never get to that point, because a few voluntary deaths are unlikely to mitigate the suffering of the vast majority who try to cling on to life at all costs. Euthanasia should never be seen as an easy alternative to investing in physical and mental healthcare. The need to mitigate such suffering could then lead to institutional euthanasia – the stuff of Nazi Germany and sci-fi movies like Logan’s Run.

I for one, if my life were to become so intolerable –for physical or psychological reasons – that it was no longer worth living, would certainly prefer an easy way out to a prolonged and painful descent. So I guess that’s a clue to where my vote would go should the issue of voluntary euthanasia as a human right in my country should ever be put to the test.

There are currently two countries where suicide by euthanasia is legal under some circumstances – Belgium and the Netherlands. The case of the transsexual in Belgium who was helped to die because he could not face the consequences of a three failed gender reassignment operation is a recent example.

If your view is that life is a gift from God not to be thrown away except at a time of His choosing, you are unlikely ever to find suicide morally or socially acceptable.

But are the rest of us – particularly in the West  – moving closer to the institutional view in the Low Countries, where the right to a dignified death overrides religious considerations? If it meant that thirty-odd impressionable school kids were spared the sight of a man being obliterated by a fast-moving train, would I support that view? I think so.

From → Religion, Social, UK

  1. AARON MAREE permalink

    Hi Steve.
    Thank you so much for your post.
    I agree with you in that spec tales are damaging to others and truly unfair. Perhaps this comes from some Hollywood envisioned ending which is untrue and unrealistic. What I do know is that sadness, loneliness, depression is sporadic and the intensity of the depression at times makes all else in the world superfluous when one contemplates such issues. Tunnel vision in an instant so to speak. Im sure many who have ‘gone’ in this manner would change their mind if they had but half an hour monger to contemplate their actions. Sadly the human brain does not work with time being on your side when you feel so alone and helpless.
    In the age of innocence, those years prior to my 13th birthday I knew of death but understood little. There was Michael, the next door neighbor 10 years older who was decapitated by riding his motorbike around a sharp bend directly into the back of a truck. I heard the words but it never meant a lot other than my football and cricket friend never played with me anymore. There was the time on vacation when our bus stopped at a bus stop and the bluish greyish man never got on the bus. An apparent heart attack while waiting for the bus never dawned on me at the time, but amazement at his color still lingers in my minds eye. A personal YOUTUBE event as you put it. Driving to an aunts house there were two bike riders speeding past our car. As one turned, his coat caught in the wheels and he was flung like a toy far into the air. I can still see his lifeless helpless body hitting the ground.
    There was also the death of my grand father. The first time I saw my mother cry. We stopped visiting the family farm after that but in the age of innocence much of these left little impact except for videos in the brain of events, ‘sans’ feelings.

    At age 21 My first book was published. My blood brother and dearest childhood friend sent me a Christmas card but in the exhaustion of publicity tours, self importance and new found wealth and arrogance I sat his card down, unopened on the 23rd December and piled work upon it . On December 26th a close friend called me to ask if I had heard from Richard lately. At an instant I remembered the unopened card and letter. I found it and as I looked at my name on the envelope her words, ”He committed suicide last night”, rang in my ear. Grief, shock and guilt have been my bedfellows for 23 years since.
    Richard died not publicly in a spectacle, but in a locked garage of his own home car running , sleeping pills ingested and quietly. There were many reasons for his decision, loneliness one of the worst, for it was I who neglected him for days when perhaps a call could have reversed the effects of his decisions had I called when I received the letter and card.
    I let him down. He did what he did, I was left behind to wonder if I was the cause, blame, reason, trigger. Those who suggest, It would have happened anyway, that I could have done nothing, can not prove such and thus my brain remains with its own complexity of thought for the issue.
    2 years later my father attempted suicide by emptying the medicine cabinet. He died three times on the way to hospital and was scarred ever after with mental issues. It changed the course of our family as did the note he left behind.
    He was disappointed with life, work, family. That hurt.

    In the years since I have lost many friends. Perhaps I’m just an unlucky soul who has been unable to hold onto those close to me, perhaps I just make friends with the wrong souls.

    Along the 45 years I have endured, my Mother was the one constant who would call or be called and always happy to hear my voice. IF she was down herself I could always make her laugh. She had a riotous loud laugh and it filled your soul with joy just to hear it. I helped her with her finances from afar as my fathers suicide attempt had robbed her of insurances and benefits and I became her shoulder on which to cry as much as she was mine. At 45 she had seen me come close to marriage many times but had always supported me in my final decisions. Nothing I did was wrong and to the end I was her baby boy.

    Today I am 45 and I just miss my Mum, my friend and wish for the cycle of loss to stop.
    For some people, life perhaps has been well balanced and fortunate financially. For many of us, financial freedom of the everyday has not come our way, or has been robbed of us for other reasons. Have I been smart, who knows, have I been fortunate and lucky, well hard work is luck for some. I left school at 13 to work as my parents had nothing left to put me through school. my education has been like many, in the playground of life.
    I don’t seek sympathy or care, I just think that to label all suiciders as ‘theatrical or spectacular’ is to miss the underlying problems in society of debt, joblessness, hardships and loss which cause some of us to think we have no choice.

    Today I am in no way wanting to do anything but continue on. There are days though when this feeling is the furthest from my mind. A sad movie, a tough day, another bill can all turn my world 360 degrees and make me want nothing more of it.

    Just like obesity, dementia and blond hair I am of the belief that suicide is in some way born within us, a product of our DNA.
    A famed model Daul Kim age 20, gorgeous, stunning with an amazing career, loved by anyone who met her, took her own life.
    In my eyes and most, she had everything to live for, everything the rest of us desire. Ernest Hemingway, writer, British Fashion designer Alexander MC Queen, Computer programmer Aaron Schwartz, Virginia Woolf all took their own lives unspectacularly as do hundreds of thousands of others every year. In fact suicide now takes more lives than war, murder and natural disasters combined.
    We have learned to protect our homes, but not those within them, it would seem.
    I do not dwell on the subject and my notes to you are from grief and personal history of loss. I am not so called “suicidal” but I do think about it perhaps more than is healthy. I fear not having the financial capabilities of looking after myself as I age and become unable to work. My parents had pensions, my generation does not. My parents had the baby boomer years and years post WW2 which served to set their finances up better than most other generations. Sadly my parents lost everything in several deals, their legacy nothing more than a continued work hard attitude until work takes your life. Some days this just gets a bit too much, pointless.

    I thank you for your article Steve and appreciate your patience and words. As a fellow writer I just believe that considering that Suicide has become somewhat of an epidemic in our society, we should stop hiding the fact and truths in regard it under the rug. We have accepted and speak openly of gay marriages and many other issues these days, but we seem to still be too shy to discuss the reasons why so many in our society elect not to continue on within it.
    Regards and thanks for your post, If we help one person to change their mind then words are worth it.

    • Aaron

      I’m sure your friend would have done what he did come what may. Perhaps you could have talked him out of it, but could you have taken responsibility for a personal “suicide watch”? I doubt it.

      I have a friend who recently contemplated ending his life. It was only after he decided not to that I found out. Like you, I probably would have been consumed with guilt, because in the case of this person, long periods of silence do not typically bode well – no news is rarely good news. Fortunately he worked through his despair and is in a much better frame of mind now.

      For most people, there is a limit to their ability to be compassionate, and I suspect many people die not because their friends and loved one are incapable of reading the warning signs, but because they filter them out. So the thinking goes “John? He’s always having his ups and downs – he’ll get through it.” And one day John doesn’t get through it.

      Most of us would find it acutely embarrassing to ask another person if they’re contemplating ending it all, so we avoid the subject even if we’re worried. Perhaps if we looked at those around us a little more objectively, and ignore their known “previous”, we’d be better at intervening when it counts.

      Keep the faith. I look forward to your new project coming into being. Le Chocolat and Cafe Lilou need some competition! S

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