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Why Suicide Isn’t a Selfish Act

In the three months since my brother took his life, I’ve heard a phrase repeated: “Suicide is cowardly. It’s a selfish act.” The words have come from my closest loved ones, others at church, and those who didn’t even know Jim. They argued that only a selfish man would abandon his children.

It’s an ignorant, hurtful statement, one that bothered me from the start. And it’s not true.

Like an Emperor Penguin cradling his baby eggs in winter’s deepest freeze, Jim shielded his boys from the brutal sides of life. In several of our last conversations, he fretted over the pain he thought his depression was inflicting on them. His suffering was so dire, he thought he would hurt them less by dying instead of staying alive, a shred of the man he once was.

The last night I saw my brother alive: Aug. 10, 2013, at a Cleveland Indians Game in Ohio

Lisa, Jim and me, on the last night we spent together: Aug. 10, 2013, at a Cleveland Indians Game in Ohio

I’ve since spoken with other survivors of suicide. They too mention how irksome it is to hear it relegated to a selfish act. Saying so undermines the complexity and the tragedy of suicide. Writing on Suicide.org, Kevin Caruso explains that “Suicide is a desperate act by someone who is in intense pain and wants their pain to stop. That is a HUMAN response to extreme pain, not a selfish one.”

Likewise, Dr. Thomas Joiner writes in Psychiatric Times that:

Friends and family who have been surprised by a suicide often consider it to be deeply selfish. This is understandable because the bereaved are often convinced that the decedent did not consider the impact of his or her death on those left behind. However, those who die by suicide certainly do consider the impact of their deaths on others; but to them, death is a positive rather than a negative outcome. This is wrong, but nevertheless, it is the view of the person who attempts suicide.

My brother was in extreme pain. A friend of mine who is a psychologist explained that there is a form of depression that’s all but untreatable, much the way stage four cancer is. I can’t prove it, but I have a sense that Jim’s depression may have been that same unwieldy sort. He fought it with everything he had. Without a doubt, Jim exhibited otherworldly strength. Running on a year of sleep deprivation and down 35 pounds, he still trained for a biathlon. He clocked better cycling and running times than most people see when they’re in full mental health.

I fought to convince Jim that extinguishing himself was not only a bad idea–it wasn’t an option. So did my sister and Jim’s two best friends. We came close.

Elizabeth David said, “There are people who take the heart out of you, and there are people who put it back.” Though God didn’t empower us to save him, I rest knowing that he gave us authority to love him, and restore his heart while he lived.

11 Comments
  1. Beautiful post, Kristina! This will be healing for all who knew Jim, I’m sure. You continue to bring blessing to those around you. So proud of you. Krista

  2. Thoughtful, sensitive, and an important perspective for those who haven’t walked where you have walked, Kris.

  3. Kris, thank you sharing your thoughts. Wish I would have known your brother. What a beautiful soul he had. Comforting to know God was with him from the beginning till the end.

  4. Dear Kristina. What a thoughtful and different observation you have mentioned here. I too used to feel the same way as others did about selfishness. Until my own husband, on several occasions tried to commit suicide. I felt that his pain was so unbearable that he would find peace in death. He even conveyed to me that I would be better off without him. I liken Tom’s situation to Jim’s on a much smaller scale, though. Unless a person has walked in your shoes they have no right or knowledge to have an opinion on a matter as sensitive as suicide. I don’t know your pain but Jim was and always will be with me. Without judgement on my part. Thank you for this wonderful insight. Love, Laurie Burchick

  5. Beautiful. Touching and powerful. Thank you for all the posts you share about Jim, his life and his death. Through your writings those of us who didn’t get to meet Jim, get to know him. He lives on and we are blessed to see glimpses of him. This is a wonderful post and a beautiful perspective.
    Love you…

  6. Profound insight into a common conception. You’ve changed my perspective. Thank you.

  7. Once again, lots of thought expressed so well. It is good to hear from all sides of the story, especially when comments like this are made. Thanks for continuing to challenge our thinking.
    Love to you, Esther

  8. Thanks for sharing Kristina! I’m so blessed to have met Jim at your wedding! Praying for you and your family during Christmas. Seems to be the hardest time for the family. Wonderful insight into the world of depression! I agree with you 100%

  9. My family lost 3 people within a five year period. The eldest was on anti-depressants mixed with alcohol created massive heart failure and the two younger members committed suicide. I come from a large family and I see and sense a shift in our behaviour due to their deaths such as:

    Low self-esteem
    Highly sensitive to criticism
    A constant loss of happiness in our eyes
    Increased intolerance and impatience with some people
    Judgemental and critical of ourselves and others
    Less trust in each others decisions
    Less humour
    A defence wall which is constantly up

    Alot of our behaviour is created from taking heed of people’s comments, usually people who never knew our family but tend to stake some claim to our tragedy for gossips sake.

  10. Thank you so much for this post. I had a really rough day yesterday seeing all the misguided (and sometimes plain ignorant) web comments on depression and suicide. Part of me is glad that such an important topic has the spotlight, albeit for a terrible reason. The rest of me is disappointed that people who have never stared down suicide or been on the front lines with someone who has are offering everything from spiritual cliches to flippant solutions. You can’t know unless you’ve been there—you really, really can’t.

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