Is Suicide for Cowards?

Death becomes no-one, whether you choose it or it chooses you.

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“I’m not scared of dying, but I’ve built such a beautiful life, and I’m not ready to leave it.” — Dr. Sherwin Nuland, author, How We Die

Someone I love very much recently told me about the time he went out to the ledge and almost jumped from it. Extreme depression and disillusionment had brought him there. The show was over, and he was ready to say goodbye … or so he thought.

Before he took off and left a mess for others to clean up — literally and figuratively — something he still can’t identify pulled him back.

Was it courage? Living, after all, is not for the faint of heart.

Or was it cowardice? Taking the so-called “easy way out” can be gruesome, bloody, and painful — especially if one fails and lives to die another day.

Taking the so-called “easy way out” can be gruesome, bloody, and painful — especially if one fails and lives to die another day.

What if he had jumped? Would it have been an act of bravery — as someone who has always been terrified of heights, I think it takes major cojones to even make it to the ledge — or the ultimate act of cowardice and selfishness?

It’s a lot easier to answer that question in the case of someone like Jeffrey Epstein, the convicted sex offender who is believed to have committed suicide in a New York City jail on August 10. But even if we decline to choose between the two adjectives to describe Epstein’s grand exit — cowardly or courageous?— there are already enough colorful and unflattering ones that we can assign to him.

Epstein left the world under a cloud of shame and was likely to do so regardless of how he departed. He probably had already forfeited any claim to an honorable discharge from life due to his admitted and alleged sex crimes. Sticking around and facing the charges stacked against him certainly wouldn’t have qualified him as “brave.”

“Cowardly” is the word I most often have seen used to describe Epstein’s apparent suicide, and even if he had been an upstanding citizen in life, it might have been characterized in much the same way. When far less infamous people commit suicide, we often hear the same accusations: What cowardice! What selfishness! Suicide becomes almost as much about the people who are left behind as it is about the person who left.

Another departure, interrupted

About 10 years ago, another friend jumped from the third-level balcony of a mutual friend’s apartment in Buenos Aires and landed on the ground-floor patio below. At the time, I criticized her action as being unbelievably selfish, but not for the effect it had on her family back in London.

I hated what she did because of what it did to our mutual friend, who had come out of the bathroom, gone onto her balcony through the open door, and seen our friend’s body lying on the concrete below. I hated it because people who lived in the building, myself included, had to watch her being carried out on a stretcher.

How dare she do that to us? If you’re going to attempt suicide at least have the courtesy to do it in the privacy of your own home and not leave a mess for someone else to clean up. Based on her personality and her actions in the weeks leading up to the suicide attempt (which included faking the death of her father and holding a “memorial service” for him in order to get her inner circle to rally around her), I’d say my former friend was desperately seeking attention in a most dramatic fashion. Only she, however, knows for sure what was going on in the dark depths of her soul.

I called her a lot of things in the weeks after her suicide attempt, but “cowardly” was never one of them. I can’t even stand on the edge of a balcony and look directly down without my heart dropping to my feet.

I think it’s time for us to rethink those old almost-default reactions to suicide. I’ve never had someone close to me succeed at it, so I couldn’t say for sure how it would affect me or whether it would affect me differently than the death of someone I care about by natural causes or the hand of someone other than his or her own. But I can try to put myself in the shoes of the dearly departed and try to make some sense of the utter desolation anyone who would resort to suicide as a means of escaping this bitter earth must feel.

I can try to put myself in the shoes of the dearly departed and try to make some sense of the utter desolation anyone who would resort to suicide as a means of escaping this bitter earth must feel.

Our lives are interconnected, and yes, we depend on one another, but there is one inescapable truth about life and death: We enter this world alone, and we must leave it the same way. The degree to which the space in-between is a communal adventure hinges on our dependence on or tolerance for others. Regardless of how many people we use to fill out our existence, the mental, emotional, and even physical components of living are largely solitary experiences.

Alone in the world

“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.” — from the traditional spiritual

I’m a lifelong migraine sufferer, and when I go to sleep with a pounding headache and wake up with it, too, no-one else can carry the burden of that pain for me. It’s all mine. I can tell everyone I encounter about it and spend the entire day garnering sympathy. None of it, however, does anything to alleviate my physical pain. I’m still hurting.

That’s how it is with any illness, or any terminal disease, or drastic life-altering events like losing the ability to move one’s body from the neck down or losing one’s sight. No matter how many people you have in your corner, at the end of the day, you’re on your own. That’s why I support euthanasia if it’s the euthanized person’s decision.

I’m not saying I would condone assisted suicide for someone suffering from clinical depression, which is a serious medical illness, or that I ever would consider exercising the option to end it all.

I’ve struggled with intermittent depression and chronic melancholia my entire life, so to a point, I can relate to those whose despair lead them to attempt suicide. I’ve had mornings when I’ve woken up and cursed the new day. Sometimes, not being alive, it seems, would be the easiest option. But the idea of taking my own life seems unfathomable (barring some physical circumstance that drastically reduces the quality of it), and there are three reasons, none of which involve bravery or selflessness:

  1. I wouldn’t want to risk damning my soul, which is one of many remnants of my religious upbringing.
  2. I wouldn’t want to put such a heavy burden of grief on the people I’d be leaving behind who actually care what happens to me.
  3. I always believe that tomorrow is a new, and possibly better, day, for I’ve got to have faith … and hope.

Clinically depressed people, sadly, don’t have the luxury of faith and hope, and someone who is on the brink of not choosing life, probably doesn’t have the presence of mind to carefully weigh the ramifications on those they leave behind. Somebody else’s suicide is not about you or me, so to categorize it based on its effect on other people is misguided.

“Dying is easy. It’s living that scares me to death.” — Annie Lennox, “Cold”

I also don’t believe that choosing the so-called easy way out necessarily screams cowardice so much as it does a lack of endurance. Most people, whether they want to admit it or not, are terrified of death. Going willingly and not-so-gently into that good night via suicide, while hardly an act of bravery, isn’t one of cowardice either. It takes guts to go out on a ledge and take that final, fatal plunge.

It takes even more, though, to step away from it and let life go on.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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