I‘ve written twice before about suicide, and a new ‘advice column‘ in has provoked me to write about it again. The gist of my earlier articles:

  1.  Depression is a ‘natural’ consequence of stress, and, as the illustration above shows, it is somewhat self-reinforcing: our DNA programs us, in situations of intense or chronic stress, to flight or flee, and if neither of those works, to shut down, withdraw, give up — and suicide is one manifestation of shutting down and giving up;
  2. If you haven’t lived with the Noonday Demon, you can’t possibly know what it’s like, and you can’t possibly know how it can lead someone to take their own life; and
  3. Moral judgement of those who commit suicide is repugnant — no one has the right to tell another human being that their personal decision to terminate their own life is ‘cowardly’, ‘irresponsible’, ‘lazy’, “petulant’, ‘immature’, ‘self-pitying’ ‘self-indulgent’, ‘murderous’, or ‘cynical and cruel’. To call someone who commits suicide a ‘self-murderer’ is indistinguishable from and as morally reprehensible and outrageous as calling a woman who terminates an unwanted pregnancy a ‘baby murderer’.

So you will probably not be surprised to learn that I was horrified to hear Salon ‘advice columnist’ Cary Tennis encourage a survivor of a friend’s suicide to hate and blame the one who took his own anguished life. Hate-mongering offends me at the best of times, and to see it espoused against those suffering a dreadful and incapacitating illness is disturbing. Here are two especially offensive excerpts:

Sentimentalizing suicide only encourages others who, weak-minded, pained, lacking the ability to see how foolish and wrong it is, might succeed all too well in their feeble attempts.

When they go by suicide, they leave us in an insult of dust.

What fucking gall, Mr. Tennis — and such cruel and inflammatory language. Those who commit suicide are not weak-minded, and if this ‘advice columnist’ had the faintest inkling what it is like to live with suicidal depression he would know better. And who the hell does he think he is to judge the actions of someone he has never met as ‘foolish and wrong’?

Mr. Tennis should also know that suicide is almost never an ‘insult’ to anyone. It is an act of desperation, usually after years of unimaginable suffering, to escape a living hell that the victim — yes, victim — can no longer bear. It usually has nothing to do with anyone else, so the last thing it is is an insult to others.

To counsel people, especially people in pain after an unexpected and shocking loss, to hate and blame the deceased is an affront to human dignity, an abuse of trust, and an offense to the memory of someone who was a victim, not a ‘murderer’.

There is a perverse character flaw in some people to always assuage grief by transferring it to anger and blame. Grief is internal, and it can eat you alive. Anger and blame are externally focused. They are much easier emotions to handle. And in some cases — like rechanneling the grief over 9/11 into anger at Osama bin Ladin — such transferance is quite rational. But although the exploitative ‘vengeance’ religions would have you believe otherwise, when people suffer and die there is often no one to blame, no one to get angry at. And reaching closure, like dealing with grief, is an internal process. It is about personally coming to grips with loss, with the realization that the toxic ‘what might have been’ is irrelevant, a fiction, closed. It is a slow, painful healing process. And it is a process best undertaken honestly. Using some cheap trick like transferring the pain to anger and blame of a phony straw man merely perverts and delays the process, and stirs up inappropriate emotions that can only confuse and inflame, not heal.

Some advice, we’re better off without.

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  1. David Jones says:

    “……………..and suicide is one manifestation of shutting down and giving up….”As a sociologist I have pondered the suicide issue long and hard in an effort to understand. But I don’t think I can concur with this remark in total. In my view, sometimes the suicide decision may be the strongest statement that the individual has made in a long time, or ever made. And in their view, it is a very positive decision. I’d welcome reaction to this thought.

  2. Dirtgrain says:

    I support you in your condemnation of Mr. Tennis. Perhaps he is the weak-minded one for resorting to some cheap, lowly way to cope with the death of another (not that there is a right way to deal with a loved-one’s death, but hating seems to be the farthest from how one might go about it).I know it’s kind of hokey, but I was watching Wayne Dyer on a PBS fundraiser last night. He cited some research that said when you smile at someone or offer them encouragement, his or her saratonin levels go up, your seratonin levels go up and the seratonin levels of anybody watching this interaction go up. By this, then, I assume that anybody who follows Tennis’s advice is perhaps more likely to get depressed themselves. Surely negative thinking leaves you with lower seratonin levels than positive thinking. I’m taking a leap here, but viewing somebody’s death in a sympathetic and in an as-positive-as-possible way could help raise your seratonin and make you less likely to be depressed. I’m not sure exactly what I mean by positive when it comes to grieving. Maybe celebrate the person’s life instead of focusing on his or her death (especially in a hateful way).David, the decision may be positive from the perspective of the individual, but the decision and its results are so often perceived as negative from other people’s perspectives. My father, a child psychologist, said one of the biggest clues that a depressed person is going to commit suicide is when that person suddenly seems to be happy and positive–this, my dad says, is because he or she has found a way out, suicide. That makes it seem like a positive decision from the individual’s perspective. Still, I wonder how many people who commit suicide actually look forward to it as opposed to dreading it. I don’t suppose we can find out.

  3. WOW a great post!!!!, its one of my favorite topics; personally i will always support suicide why??? because its your last desicion if you was born free why you are going to be unable to decide when and how die?? Is not your last desition?? The main problem (from my point of view) its in both expremes of life, birth and death, because sometimes you depend on others….but if you can decide just be free until your last breath….When read columns atacking the suiciders or i see in the tv a fireman who save an old woman who tryed to suicide because she feels her self useless or very lonely i ask my self?? the fireman is goint to spend the afternoons with this lady??? or Is he going to help to treat her depression or loneliness?? so was it a really good act?

  4. Brett says:

    After reading your commentary, Dave, I couldn’t bring myself to read the column. I knew from your description that it would just piss me off too much. While I would never advocate suicide to someone, I also would never deny someone that option as a solution to whatever they may be going through. It’s just not my business how they live, or choose not to live, their life.(On a bit of a tangent, it never ceases to amaze me the efforts that people make to “save” someone who has attempted suicide, especially in terms of medical efforts.)

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    I don’t think ‘giving up’ is necessarily negative. Watch an animal hopelessly cornered by a predator and it goes into a kind of catatonic state, which scientists think is one of great peace, calm, and thanks to changes in body chemistry (endorphins?) quite painless and even euphoric. By ‘giving up’ I mean resignation that the fight against the dark is futile, which can be positive, liberating, even noble. Thanks for your comments, everyone — I continue to be surprised at which of my articles people think are most controversial.

  6. Els says:

    If I could add to this discussion, the person Cary was addressing was someone left behind. I’ve lost my father, cousin, uncle, three high school friends and a former boss to suicide. One of the things I believe is that those left behind don’t have permission to be angry. And they should be. It helps you work through the loss, because it’s a shitty thing to happen and suicide makes a victim of both the suicide and those who care for them. I would suspect that Tennis would have different advice for someone writing him about feeling suicidal. But someone writing about feeling unsettled and ambivilent. That’s just the way it is folks.

  7. Michael says:

    Thanks for this post, Dave. I appreciate it. You are right on. I hope Mr. Tennis reads this.

  8. shari says:

    Ran across this article in the LAT on Dr. Schneidman who studied suicide/suicidology, which offers some thoughtful words on suicide.Back on topic, where I will now proceed to generate controversy. I did read Mr. Tennis’ article. My take: The letter writer desparately wants closure. Mr. Tennis decides giving the letter writer permission to be angry is the way to closure because of his own personal (unresolved) issue with suicide.This is a complicated subject to deal with in a short column. Giving advice, then, is fraught with peril. I think there is truth to giving permission to be angry. I sense David understands that this means being separate from compassion for the guy who was in so much pain. Not true. In fact, acknowledging those negative feelings ironically will help someone move further on the path to closure. A lot has been written on the stages of loss. A book I’m reading now, Healing Through the Dark Emotions by Miriam Greenspan, discusses the wisdom and transformative power found in experiencing one’s grief and despair.That said, I do agree Mr. Tennis seemed rather callous by calling this guy in pain to be a murderer.I think it unwise to offer such advice so expediently. I wonder about the background of the letter writer: what is the letter writer’s experience with suicide, what values does this person have (conflict with religious, parental values, cultural values), did someone close committed suicide in the past. All this should help color the answer. And Mr. Tennis’ bias comes thru loud and clear: he is still angry about his experience with the man who committed suicide. Methinks Mr. Tennis should have excused himself from definitively providing advice on the basis of his own bias.

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