My wife has a customer Leah, who has become a friend. She is elderly, a widow with three children who has decided to ensure that her affairs are in order for the inevitable day. We were standing on the veranda as she was leaving when she asked me a question.
“Julian, why does somebody throw themselves under a train?” Not quite zay gezunt, see you next time with a kiss on the cheek as I had expected her to say and do.
When I was doing my clinical training our course coordinator told us about a patient she was seeing. This man, married with kids blessed with a comfortable and secure life had ‘decided’ that he wanted to end his life. The course coordinator dispassionately explained as if teaching us techniques of psychotherapy that she was helping this man, who she insisted was not clinically depressed but was of sound mind, to end his life. Seeing the consternation in our faces she urgently assured us that she was not intending to be instrumental in the actual act of life-taking, just active in the supporting of his free-willed choice to die by his own hand. I was appalled with the ease by which she was able to justify and rationalise her actions as a professional.
Leah was troubled by the immensely violent nature of the suicide. I agreed, to me it indicated a strong desire and commitment to ensure death. One could be fairly certain that throwing oneself under a moving train would result in a catastrophic outcome…death. Was this person ensuring, planning ahead that there would be no chance of survival? In the violence was there a message to those who survived, those he left behind? Lots of questions.
In Judaism there are two perspectives on suicide which amongst other things relate to the issue of burial rights. A distinction is made between those who are in full possession of their physical and mental facilities (b’daat) when they take their lives and those who act on impulse or who are under severe mental strain or physical pain when committing suicide (anuss k’Shaul).
I thought about Leah’s question. I wondered if she was referring to someone she knew; a friend, a member of her family, a child God forbid. I wasn’t sure it didn’t feel like it though.
I suppose the expected explanation would be to suggest that the person was depressed and it was this mental disease, this disorder, this illness, this mental strain that would account for the suicide.
In fact before I uttered any response Leah proposed an answer to her own question suggesting that the person must have been depressed.
I guess what she was saying and perhaps what most people would say is that the only way to explain why someone would take their life is to suggest that somehow they were not in their right mind.
But really what does that mean? Here is the main thing that I want to say.
How does this explanation actually help anyone to understand why someone would intend to end their life by falling under a moving train?
At one point there were 13 counsellors at the school representing all the age based campuses. We met regularly to discuss cases, talk about our jobs and how hard they were but mainly to devour butter croissants spread with egg mayonnaise. We were fortunate to have Dr Patrick as our clinical supervisor. He would join the group once a month to hear our cases and advise thereon. His genius and his wisdom was that he hardly ever did that. He managed the discussion by encouraging us to come to our own understandings and conclusions. That was farginen. There were a lot of psycho-educational assessments undertaken at the school…there were a lot of kids. The final reports of these assessments were long (once 17 pages) and technical (read hieroglyphics) and if the truth be told not particularly useful for those who really needed to understand… but in terms of our university training they were top-notch…the APA would have been proud. Patrick decided that it was time to stand back and look convention in the eye; really, 17 pages of gobbledygook? So he bravely stepped outside of the laager, away from the safety of the plural diffusion of the guild. Instead of technical reports to parents and children he wrote a short letter addressed to the child using ordinary language that spoke to the child of his understanding and appreciation of what life & learning was like, what was easy what was hard, for this human being…this child, based in part on the technical psycho-educational tools he had used to assess the child.
I was struggling to answer Leah’s original question. I wanted to offer words that were actually of some use. Suicide to my mind is about being alone…..in one way or another. It is about disconnection; disconnection from self, from others, from God. Perhaps all three. Not just being alone, not just loneliness but disconnection. But even these words do they actually explain or do they perhaps still frustrate. I remembered (again, as I have to do often) ) that as much as I wished to be useful and to provide words that made sense succinctly, there was not going to be a satisfactory, soothing answer to this tragic question.
I had a psychology lecturer at university. During a particular lecture he was discussing with the students the most elemental essential question of the discipline; why do people do what they do? Is there a more important question in psychology? Listening attentively our curiosity piqued we sat in eager anticipation of the ‘holy grail’ of answers.As we waited, pens in hand ready to enshrine on paper the words that would grant us power unbounded, the formula that would unlock the secrets, he quietly suggested that if we desired to understand why people do what they do that we should read books, watch movies, attend plays, read poetry; consciously seek and listen to the stories of life….that we would not find the answers in our very expensive textbooks. There was an audible moan of anguish registering the disappointment the waiting lecture theatre experienced when the answer finally came.
So the only question to ask that is likely to yield an answer that does not do violence to the person is not why does somebody throw themselves under a train? But rather why did this person throw himself under a train? What was this person’s life like being who they are? That would be a useful story to hear and to understand.
PS, I can understand how someone reaches the point where wanting to die is considered viable. I am not submitting that every ideational intent and every act of suicide can be prevented….
The burden of those who survive is beyond immense…is irenconcilable….is life-long….