Thursday, November 4, 2010


I'm not really sure how to write about suicide. I've written a poem about it. And I've thought about suicide. Not seriously, but enough to add my fear of my own self and of finality to the hundred reasons why I will never keep a gun in the house. It's a pretty legitimate fear, I think: the fear of my own potential to harm myself or others. I believe I understand myself well, but when someone I know kills himself unexpectedly, I wonder. I wonder about the dark corners and alleyways the brain can wander into, all by itself. With no one but itself to talk to.

Right before heading in to teach a guest lesson to some 11th grade English classes today, I got the call from my husband that a former student had taken his life.

He was just home from serving in Iraq. We were excited he was safe, successful, that he had come so far, through hardships he faced earlier in his life. By all accounts he was happy, optimistic.

But what do we know?

My lesson was on Sylvia Plath, on her poetry, in particular "Lady Lazarus," in which Plath chronicles her three attempts at suicide. "Dying is an art," she writes, "I do it exceptionally well." Yet Plath, of course, lived to write this poem, barely: on her fourth attempt to take her own life, she succeeded. I dissected the piece with our students, admonishing them to characterize Plath as "mentally ill" versus "crazy." Depression, I reminded them, isn't crazy. Attempting to kill oneself three times may be. I honestly don't know.

Depression isn't glamorous; nor is suicide. And my audience was teenagers. I felt conscious of my language, of judgments I might imply. Sylvia Plath didn't enjoy the life she artfully documented. She was unequipped to fully cherish her children, acknowledge her own creative genius, keep on keeping on. Persevere, I wanted to implore these kids. Reach out.

It gets better, those who understand have been pleading.

Suicide, people say, is selfish, and horrible, and an untenable reality to leave loved ones. Several years ago a single mother killed herself in the midst of her daughter's senior year in my class, leaving a beautiful and creative young woman behind. What was she to do, we wondered? How could she balance her mother's supposed love for her with her mother's need to leave her behind?

I've concluded I cannot judge a parent whose pain is so deep she's willing to hurt her children. I can't fathom that pain, can't excuse it nor condemn it.

A high school classmate, a college classmate, my brother's best friend, my cousin: all ended their own lives.

Today, as when my cousin died, the details left me wondering. Maybe, I think, he didn't mean it. Maybe it was an accident--a gesture or a stunt, gone awry.

Now: the despair and confusion. Next, the sewing together of signs, the guilt, the should-haves and might-have-beens, the frustration and anger over losing a young, promising life.

How do we support the living under such circumstances? Already, on Facebook, I see his classmates and friends remembering, reaching out, resolving to stay connected with one another.

We resolve to talk about sadness and despondence. To listen. To trust our instincts, to risk being a nag when we're being shut out. To recognize signs in ourselves, to replace the burned-out bulbs or check the wiring.

We resolve to not allow the manner of death to overshadow the manner of his living. We resurrect the beauty.

1 comment:

Mama Deb said...

Beautiful and honest. Thank you for sharing. Sorry to hear about your former student.