The Emotional Legacy of Suicide
~ Melody Nolan, M.S.
It is often said that suicide is selfish…is it? That depends on your definition of selfish. If someone is in such despair that he or she is contemplating ending life, that person is so engulfed in emotion that it is impossible to think about anyone or anything except living or dying. One who is in the throws of suicidal ideation is incapable of considering the feelings of others or identifying the consequences of choosing to deliberately end life. In fact, thoughts and perceptions are often distorted.
I am a burden. Everyone will be better off without me.
The remainder of this rationale goes undetected: The “burden” loved ones assume of episodic needs for care will be replaced with permanent grief, endless replays of conversations in an attempt identify something they “should have known” or “could have done differently… and if they do find something, an eternal plague of regret ensues.
When my brother died by suicide five years ago, I was angry. I, too, struggle with severe depression, and now, not only do I not have John’s presence in my life, grief has become my burden. Furthermore, I believe that people live by example, so during the dark days, I twist John’s decision to take his life into him giving me permission to do the same. This distorted thinking is dangerous, and I can attest with complete certainty that it is not the message John wished to convey. He was one of the most loving, compassionate, supportive people that I have ever known. In fact, he was THE most loving, compassionate, supportive man I have ever known.
If John had known that I would interpret his suicide as a green light for me to take my own life, he never would have done it. If he had known the impact it would have on our family, he never would have done it. If he had known that his drum students would feel abandoned by their mentor given his choice to die by suicide and how it would challenge their relationship with their art, he never would have done it. This is how I know that in that moment he wasn’t thinking of us. However, this is different than willfully ignoring or disregarding us, which is my definition of selfishness. John’s world had become so excruciatingly painful and so small that he could not see beyond it.
This anguish will never end.
When I am suicidal, all rational thinking dissolves. Black and white thinking prevails. It’s all or nothing; everyone or no one; never or forever. There is no room for sometimes, maybe, or less than perfect. Although I have come out of depressive episodes in the past, I am convinced that this time is different and that if I live, I am doomed to experience every second of the rest of my life in intolerable despair. When I look back on healthier days, it’s like watching a black and white movie with no sound – I see the pictures, but I can’t relate to or connect with the feelings at all. The only thing I feel is utter desperation to relieve the pain, and I am convinced that death is the only remedy. I degrade myself with words I would never say to another living being: I repeatedly tell myself I am a burden, I am worthless, I am repugnant, I have nothing of value to offer anyone, I am a drain on society, and that I am a waste of oxygen. I devalue myself further for having suicidal thoughts, and I use what’s left of my intellect to justify my decision. I may not actually want to die – I simply cannot tolerate life as it is.
Core beliefs are challenged when losing someone to suicide
My brother was a chef, a drummer, a teacher, and a Buddhist. He was a friend to all. This is the legacy he intended to leave behind; these are the qualities he wanted people to associate with him. Losing someone to death by any means is always traumatic because despite what we say we believe, we do not have definitive answers as to the reality of an afterlife, reincarnation, judgment or eternal bliss. We don’t know with certainty whether or not we will see our loved ones again, if they are at peace, or if they have ceased to exist. The best we can do is to theorize and to interpret our life experiences in a manner that is consistent with what we want to believe. When we lose someone to suicide, we are forced to confront beliefs we have held dear, perhaps for our own survival: God never gives anyone more than they can handle; Things always work out for the best for those with sincere hearts.
We keep our loved ones alive in our memories. I honor John’s memory hourly as I go about my personal ways of contributing to the prevention of suicide….and the stark reality is that no many how many lives I touch I will never be able to bring John back. I make a conscious effort to remember the taste of his cuisine, the tone of his voice, the beat of his drums, and the warm, loving feel of his hugs. To do so, I have to peel away layers of images of his death while knowing that he carefully planned and executed the means by which he died. I have to peel away the questions as to if there was anything I “should have known” or “could have done.” Because I myself have survived suicide attempts, I also have to move beyond survivor’s guilt in order to remember who he was.
I, Melody Nolan, am an advocate, a musician, and a writer. I am the founder of TreasureLives and the #AwesomeHero movement. I am creative, talented, educated, intuitive, and intelligent. I am nurturing and empathetic. I hold myself accountable for my words and my actions. I live a life of transparency and moral courage. This is the legacy I wish to leave behind, and I am committed to both living and dying in such a manner that this legacy will be naturally accessed and preserved.