Suicide’s devastation and odd harvest

Through early morning fog I see
visions of the things to be
the pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see…
that suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.

From the movie M*A*S*H

To me, suicide is one of these impenetrable mysteries. I think I can understand how someone who has had the bottom dropped out of their lives might want to take their own life. What is there to live for if, for example, all your living relatives were killed in a car bomb attack? Nonetheless, feeling as if you want to kill yourself and actually doing it are two different things. Our life force is incredibly strong. No matter how much pain we have in our lives, no matter how bleak our future looks, almost always something will pull us back from the ultimate act. Instead, we seem to prefer to kill ourselves slowly through the usual vices like drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, food and risky behavior.

Nonetheless, suicide happens. In 2001, approximately 30,000 of my fellow Americans killed themselves. The favorite method is to use a firearm. You are most likely to kill yourself if you are male, white and age 75 or older. You do not expect someone who is relatively young and very gifted around 6:30 one morning to plunge head first from her eighth floor dorm room. This young woman, age 18 and from a good home, was a close friend of my daughter. She, along with her many friends and her devastated family are left to grieve, wonder if there was something they should have done to prevent it and to struggle with the powerful feelings a suicide will surface.

At first, the story of her friend’s death came in muddled. We heard that she fell down a stairway. Where? At home or at college? It must have been a very long stairway to cause massive brain death. There was no hint that the death was a suicide. That came later during a gathering of friends of the young woman. At the gathering were a school counselor, friends and parents of friends and many, many suicide notes that she had written, including one to our daughter.

I met Taylor a couple times. Like most of my daughter’s friends, she was bright, goofy and artistic and she had a skewed perspective on life. She showed up most recently early last month when she attended her belated 18th birthday party. She had come home from a university out of state for the occasion. They laughed, ate pizza and a birthday cake, and watched videos. It felt somewhat quaint. Here was my daughter, a high school graduate taking a gap year between high school and college and she was still able to muster a small coterie of close friends for a birthday party.

Six weeks later Taylor was suddenly, tragically and pointlessly dead. She left few tangible memories: a long missive in our daughter’s yearbook, a few gifts received over the years, and one last unfathomable suicide note. My daughter is mostly quiet but we know that she is wracked with pain. She feels great anger at her friend, but in her final act, Taylor left no way for her to reply. Suicide closed all channels of communication. She feels survivor guilt. Should she have noticed her suicidal tendencies? She also feels a prematurely early brush with mortality. When you are 18, you should think of life as limitless and the possibilities boundless. Death is an abstraction. No more. Here is one more radioactive thing to sort out as she struggles into adulthood. Fortunately, her boss cut her some slack. She did not lose her job while she struggled to sort out her feelings. Three days later, she headed back to work, in part in the hope that it will distract her from her constant circular thoughts.

Most likely, her pain will linger. At 18, my daughter has to try to make meaning from an act that really has no meaning. She has to figure out how get beyond survivor’s guilt. In the end, she has to find a way (if it is possible at all) to move beyond her anger and her feelings that her friend was a coward, into acceptance. More likely though her feelings about Taylor’s death will forever linger, rising its angry head during moments of stress in her life. She has no choice but to come to terms with her loss. She lost a close friend, someone she thought she knew intimately but apparently not well enough.

We are keeping a close eye on our daughter. At some point, she may need grief counseling. I can imagine but not really understand the magnitude of the pain her family is going through, particularly today when family becomes the center of our lives. A million charitable acts, a thousand hugs and expressions of sympathy can never wipe away the devastation her family must feel. An amputee can learn to have a productive life again, but can never erase the memory of life before the amputation. So too a family struck by suicide will never be the same again. It can go on, but it will never be the same.

Taylor was declared brain dead, but her young organs were still alive and were harvested. I presume that many of her organs are now occupying new bodies. Likely, her organs are helping others live better and more hopeful lives. While nothing can erase the devastation of her death, some small measure of good came from it nonetheless. Perhaps her youthful heart now beats inside the chest of a woman with severe heart disease. Perhaps her kidneys will mean that two lucky people will no longer have to make twice-weekly trips for dialysis. I cannot help but honor her family for making these were painful but correct choices during a time of utter devastation.

Taylor’s mind and spirit are gone. Yet pieces of her body are still alive in others. While her family and friends remain devastated on this Thanksgiving holiday, other families are probably celebrating their perverse good fortune. I do not know if Taylor would have wanted her body used this way or not. Perhaps she chose to fall in a way to kill her brain so other parts of her body could be used to bring others happiness that she did not feel. Her tragic death is more evidence that life itself is utterly baffling. Yet even in a death this bizarre and tragic, a few are getting the chance to live again.

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