Why is Suicide so Sad?

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by George Charles B...
Virginia Woolf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face, and to know it for what it is…at last, to love it for what it is, and then to put it away.  – Virginia Woolf

Much of the “civilized” world puts a lot a talk into the idea of human rights. As if there is some sort of list of things every one of the eight billion individuals out there is born deserving. In fact the UN has written one : The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
(If you haven’t, you should read it. It is short and clearly-worded.)

Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
Article 4. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
Article 5. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

All of that says to me: Your BODY belongs only to you, and to no one else. If we all agree this is true, then why is it a crime to commit suicide? I believe that suicide is the right of every human.

Terry Pratchett is a prolific author and, more recently, a sufferer of Alzheimer’s. He has become one of the leading spokespersons for the right-to-die movement.
From a recent interview in the Telegraph:

He is dismayed that Tony Nicklinson, the severely disabled man who fought and last month lost an impassioned campaign to end his life, effectively had to starve himself to death. “I put his picture on the little lectern by my desk because I don’t want this guy forgotten. He was very clear about what he wanted and you cannot tell me that two doctors helping him to go to sleep [as in a Dignitas clinic in Switzerland], would constitute murder. It cannot be murder. The law says it’s murder so the law is most definitely wrong and needs to be changed. This poor guy was a prisoner of technology.”

It may be a stretch, but if it is a crime to ‘hurt’ yourself to the point of death, shouldn’t it also be a crime to  participate in any sports where fatal injuries can occur? To drive in a car, or fly in a plane? To give your self piercings or tattoos? Yes, I am being silly, but don’t all of these things have the potential for self-inflicted harm?

Suicide, like anything else a person chooses to do to their body, is none of anyone’s business.

Unfortunately, none of these logical, rational thoughts changes anything. The reason suicide a crime is because the rest of us, the ones left behind, are so horrified by it.

Why? What is so awful about it? Why does it make us so sad?

I will risk a bit of TMI now and tell you that I attempted suicide while I was in college. But, to quote Meneken,

The impulse to self-destruction is a natural accompaniment of the educational process. Every intelligent student, at some time or other during his college career, decides gloomily that it would be more sensible to die than to go on living.

I don’t mean to lessen the impact of my act, quite the contrary. The second time I ever saw my father cry was during the conversation we had about my desire to die. (The first time was when I was ten and he took us to see E.T. in the theater.) My father was sad because my suicide attempt forced him to imagine a future with out his daughter in it. It had nothing to do with the pain that led to that attempt. He dismissed that pain as fleeting and imagined, because from his point of view, it was

Suicide was not altogether unfamiliar territory for my father: his grandfather successfully took his own life in 1930. My grandmother, who was eighteen at the time of his death and had just graduated from nursing school, was often heard saying, “My father always told me that if I became a nurse it would be over his dead body.” (His suicide probably had nothing to do with her: he managed a bank in their hometown and lost a great deal of other people’s money in the crash of 1929.) But her sadness from his death affected her entire life. (Ironically she committed suicide herself. In her 90th year, in excruciating pain from the cancer that had spread across her entire body, she overdosed on morphine. This act, however, made no one sad.)

And all of this brings me to the reason for my focus on this subject: the story of the nurse who, supposedly, killed herself due to the humiliation of falling for a prank. I say supposedly because we don’t know, and we will never know, if that was the reason.
The objective observers see her act as a permanent solution to a temporary problem. But the problem, whatever it is, is not temporary to the subject. It was not temporary to me. It was not temporary to my great-grandfather or my grandmother. To the person experiencing mental or physical pain, the present is the only reality.

Suicide is sad because we miss or feel sorry for the person who is gone. But it is not a crime, and no one, not even two idiot prank callers, is to blame. I would ask that we all show some respect to the deceased and stop reducing her life to one bad decision. Instead, we should recognize that she did what she could with her life, and when it became time to do so, she put it away.

11 thoughts on “Why is Suicide so Sad?

  1. Great post.
    I think it’s difficult for most of us to separate legality from morality. Suicide might horrify people (jaschmehl), and most definitely “harms the web” per francisguenette, but a legal discussion on the topic is inappropriate: imposing societal laws that determine what one can or cannot do with one’s own body (one’s own dictatorship) is a crime of agression. No outside power can be part of the process regarding what goes down in the *kingdom of me*, legally speaking.

    Whether or not suicide is immoral: that’s a different discussion altogether – a personal one. Society evolves (and I’m assuming evolution is a good thing) when we help each other. We’ll always try to prevent another’s suicide – or help them achieve it, depending on the circumstances – because we care about each other. And that is a good thing – but it should have nothing to do with the law. A community of people creating laws that make suicide *illegal* is unnecessary, insulting, and corrupt.


  2. Thanks for expressing your thoughts on what is obviously a controversial subject. Setting aside all issues of criminality or morality for that case (in my opinion, neither apply) – I want to make an argument for the interconnectedness of all our lives. We live and survive within such a delicate web of connections. The decision to end one’s life is a very final and irrevocable choice and no matter how convinced we might be that it is our decision to make – it harms the web, there is loss. And not just loss of who the person is today, in the now moment – but loss of potential for what this person could have been or accomplished. I don’t deny that the thoughts and emotions of the person considering ending their own life are real, in that moment. But these things can be like a wave – you reach the peak and then it falls away – what then? A good Sunday morning read that has really made me think – thanks.


    1. The loss of one effects the whole – I agree completely. But which is more important: the desires of the group or the desires of the individual? Tricky question without an easy answer.

      Glad to have inspired… but thinking on a Sunday morning makes my brain hurt… need. more. coffee. 😉


    1. The pleasure is mutual then. 🙂

      Thank you for such a thoughtful comment – It is wonderful when someone really understands what I’m trying to say.


  3. A really thoughtful, engaging piece of writing. I am completely in favour of euthansia. I believe that it is our right to decide when we want to die without having to break the law. I would also support the legalisation of drugs for the same essential reason: I don’t believe it is the place of government to tell us what to do with our own bodies. A truly fair and nurturing society would provide support for those who consider taking their own lives, without condemnation.
    I’ve been thinking about the nurse who took her own life and I feel so sorry for her family, but also agree that it’s not fair to blame the pranksters. They could never have predicted that their actions could lead to her death.
    Your statement, ‘the present is the only reality [for some people]’ is very powerful and it has helped me to understand how hard it is for those who do go through with it to see beyond their own pain.


  4. I agree that suicide ‘aversion’ is about public horror rather than what is ‘right’. I ranted at some point about how the government won’t legalise euthanasia because they say ‘it would open the door’ to us bumping off relatives and ourselves. Really?
    All this tells me is that the government have such contempt for us they think it’s only a law that prevents us from killing our relatives, or that our lives are so pitiful we’d all rather end them.
    I don’t see them doing anything to improve that quality of life, however.


    1. I think your government (and I’m sorry if I am wrong about this, politics is not my strong point) is one that is supposed to take good care of its people, and it is a shame that they often fail to do so. As an American, I don’t expect the government to help me at all, and I actually resent their interference into my decisions of what to do with my life.


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