By Louise Ure
I’ve been thinking a lot about suicide this week.
No, don’t worry. I’m not thinking of taking my own life.
But look at all the ways that suicide featured prominently in the news this week.
First, the stories that say, “I am willing to end my life to save another.”
How about the Suicide Team of elders in Japan who have offered to go clean up the nuclear power plants at Fukushima? More than 200 pensioners from the Skilled Veterans Corps have made that offer, stating that, as the cancers they might contract are slower growing in the elderly, they would prefer to do this service for their country, sparing the younger workers to live on.
Or all the stories about heroism coming out of tornado-ravaged Joplin, Missouri? Stories of convenience store managers who gave their lives in order to protect a ragtag band of employees and shoppers who had taken refuge in the store. Parents who fought to protect the life of their child or a stranger, only to sacrifice their own.
They may not be suicides in the way we normally think of them. We often call them heroes.
And it’s this kind of suicide that we crime fiction writers often focus on. The hero. The risk taker. The brave one. The Paladin. The Samurai.
We love the fact that he’s willing to risk his life for another, but we desperately don’t want him to have to deliver on that promise. (Otherwise, what on earth do we do in Book Two of the series?)
But there’s another kind of suicide in the news this week, and it’s the kind we don’t often deal with in our writing. The kind that says, “I am willing to help someone else die.”
Jack Kevorkian – aka Dr. Death – died of natural causes at the age of 83. He had more than a month of knowledge of his own imminent demise. Did he just wait too long and was then too weak to take his own advice about assisted suicide? Did he not have a doctor or relative who was willing to help?
Or did he just change his mind at the last minute and decide that today was not a good day to die?
And then there’s the third kind of suicide in my life right now, the kind that says, “I am willing to end my life.”
I’m in Seattle right now, taking care of my father-in-law during his last days. We are blessed by the fact that Washington State, like Oregon and Montana, is a Right to Die state, a place where death with dignity is possible. He has not asked me to help with a suicide — at least not yet — but he has been very proactive about making final plans, and wonderfully articulate about what he wants from me. No doctors, no hospitalization, no respiration aid or nutrition or hydration. It will kill me to watch him die and be able to offer nothing but comfort, but I will do it because he asked me to.
(if you have not yet done so, I hope you can watch HBO’s brilliant documentary “How to Die in Oregon.” You probably won’t be able to watch it all in one go — it is just that sad. But it’s also a truly compelling and important story that needs to be told.)
That final day is not here yet for Adolph. Yesterday he wanted fresh Dungeness crab and I made a salad to go along with it just the way his wife used to. Catalina dressing and all.
I am cherishing this time with him. And I think he is cherishing his final days.
But enough about sad thoughts and suicide. It has been 75 degrees and sunny here in Seattle for days … weather so beautiful that you might be tempted to believe that we all got Raptured after all, and this is the afterlife they’ve always talked about.
PS: I can’t help myself. One more random thought about suicide: Have you ever heard of a suicide note written in the third person? The closest thing I can come to it are the lyrics from “Miss Otis Regrets,” although that may not count, because she was hung by a mob rather than killing herself.
So what would a third person suicide note look like? Would it be written in the past tense? And what would it indicate? A massive ego? An assisted suicide? A murder?
Now go play.
Great blog. This is a topic that should be discussed but isn't. My 2nd nitty gritty book I'm working on, Off Limit, has a character who attempted sucide and my critique partner thought it might be to much. I enjoyed reminding him that when I was a teen two of my friends killed themselves. Sucide is touchy but that's why we should talk about it. Thanks so much for this blog.
I think a third-person suicide note could indicate a detatchment so profound that death would seem no different.
Or perhaps a refusal to believe that the writer would not be there to observe the aftermath.
Hugs to you and to Adolph.
Wow, a third-person suicide note? All I can think of is someone with multiple personalities where one wants to lop another but then that's a case of murder (in a sense) and not suicide. Hmmm.
I have heard of a suicide note written in prose which I suppose is better than limerick I suppose.
I am stunned, as always, by your boundless compassion for others. It is part of what makes you such a great writer.
Third-person suicide note? Hmm, that would be a tricky one. I know some authors who refer to themselves in the third person during talks, though, so maybe it's just an extension of ego?
Good for you for going for the attempted suicide character, Renee. That's what makes for a real person.
Detachment, Sarah? That would make for an interesting character. As would one with multiple personalities, Sylvia. Hmmm…suicide or multiple murder there?
Writers who refer to themselves in the third person, Zoe? Ugh. That sounds more like politicians. Or crazy actors.
Are we really going there??? Are we being bluntly honest here??? I've written third person suicide note before. More than one, actually. I'm a writer, I write stories. Wen I think about taking my own life, and I want to leave something of myself behind, I think lioe a story. It's never "I", it's always she. I don't know why. I don't have a multiple personality disorder or anything of the sort. I just… it's a choice, I guess. I've never acted on my dark thoughts, though they're always hovering around. But, yeah, I've written suicide notes before, just in case.
Tell you what, I'm in class now, but there's a short story I've written that is a suicide letter of a character of mine. It reads just like my own (that I'd NEVER post online), but since it's a fictional life with fictional problems, I could post it here when I get home if you're curious how a third person suicide letter reads.
Louise, I'm glad the days are sunny up there. Sometimes that helps. I've lost too many friends to suicide. And wow, that's the second time this week it's come up.
Oh, Louise, I read this and my heart took a dive off the top of the tower. You have had to shoulder far more than your share, but how childish of me to speak of shares. A high school buddy used to talk of the Karmic Sink — if you can handle it, your're going to get it. Exhibit A: Francis of Assisi. What better way to reward your gentlest, kindest, most saintly saint than to pierce his hands and feet with the stigmata?
I'll be honest, I worried about you this past year, and still do, though your voice has found its legs, as it were, these past few months. But then I read this and feel I'm letting you down, not doing as much as I might. You know the offer is there, forever unrevoked.
It's one thing to assume command of one's own death, quite another to be at the wheel of someone else's. I realize providing mere comfort feels like helplessness, but my God, the alternative. How fortunate he is, though, having lost his son, to have gained you. I remember the weight of the power put in my hands, and I know the full body shock of bearing it. I know you well enough to intuit a bit of how you're probably handling it all. Give yourself credit. You spoke of heroes. Don't sell yourself short there. Absent bravery, you'd be nowhere near Seattle, no matter how lovely the weather.
As for a third person suicide note, I suppose it's all in the tone. The bitterest part of grief is seeing the entire world move on while you're still stuck in the tar pit of pain and loss. That's no less true when you're the one who's exited, stage death. Perhaps third person in a suicide note would capture that — bitterly, contemptuously, resignedly, wisely. He was a better man than he let on (and better than you deserved). He would have loved so well if only given the chance. He hated every single one of you, except Bumpy, the cat.
There's a thought — a suicide note as though written by your pet. He was a little slow with the bowl some days but the portions were good and overall he understood that my barking was none of his damn business. (Reminds me of a poem by Billy Collins, "The Revenant," about the family dog coming back after death to address his owner, saying, "I never really liked you.")
My own third person note: He understood his death was the falling of a petal from the rose. No more. No less.
P.S. I knew a lawyer who talked about himself in the third person, not ironically. He envisioned himself on the grand stage of the legal world, the hero in the great drama of his life. Smart guy, cutthroat, funny. Ambitious (duh). He wouldn't write a suicide note — he'd write his own NY Times obit.
P.P. S. A woman I know — not well, but well enough — jumped off the GG Bridge two weeks ago, so this is all a little less than academic at the moment for me, too, but for vastly different reasons. Incredibly bright woman, breathlessly funny, bitterly depressed. But that's something else.
Barbie, I hate to think that you've gone that close to the brink, but perhaps the fact that you experienced actually writing those notes helped you get through a bad time. Yes, I'd love to see that 3rd person character's note you described.
Yes, JT, the sunshine helps.
David, forgive the shortness of my reply–you deserve more–but I'm pecking this out on an iPad and that will make me more terse than usual. I'm so sorry about your GG Bridge friend. It takes a lot of pain to make that decision. But I love the notion of a suicide note written by a pet. "He always tried to be at least half the man his dog thought he was."
I'll be okay. I'm doing one nice thing for myself every day up here. Yesterday, I bought peonies–the most beautiful flower in the world.
Dear Louise, How fortunate to have you at the bedside. With wisdom and compassion, you offer love.
Like David, I have searched your writing for signs. I will not go on about how marvelous you are knowing you would only protest. I keep thinking of titles for books as I see your journey through the forest, sometimes dark and deadly, sometimes seeing you stepping into a ray of light filtered through the branches. I adore the depth of your humor and your ability to describe pain. I’ve seen you broken and bloody, yet with a hand reaching out.
I wish Jack K had been able to establish his dream…every hospital with a team ready to assist passage from this world. He did marvelous work to awaken us.
My loan for the lake house is not approved. I think I’ll write a self-help pamphlet. Dealing with bankers and other frustrating information. — and only sell it in bars.
I’m off for a cruise tomorrow. I’ll be in the bar.
Love, hugs and other sentimental mishmash J
P.S. She wasn't going to do herself in, but when the underwriter asked for her complete income tax return for the fourth time,she sat at his desk, tore it into pieces, swallowed it and then drank two gallons of water. She exploded with a smile thinking.
P.S spread my ashes at the lake house.
Louise, Louise, you are always shoring others up. First you cleaned out Adolf's house, and now you are sitting vigil with him. Extraordinary.
I have shouted from the rooftops that my demise will not be serene, without doctors and extraordinary measures, but I want it all, I want the last drop of undignified life I can squeeze out of it. Diapers before death. My living will says don't pull the plug until I'm stinky. Blah Dr. Death. Just not my way.
I think of this as I reflect on the 10th anniversary of my mother's death, she did the pallative thing with her last bout of cancer and was only 72 and I had to respect it, while every ounce of me wanted to fight. It still rankles. But it's important to respect each person's path, as you are doing with Adolf.
A third person suicide note would be ironic and reflect the worthlessness the person is feeling, the helplessness and inability to escape or control the overwhelming pain they are under with their depressiojn ("She isn't worth worrying about; she's better off; she loved you all just not herself). Awk.
The sun is shining here finally after so much rain, the Giants won in the 13th, Cal Baseball redeemed itself after almost being shut down for good, and my 15 year old niece is in from Alaska, sullen, impossible and lovely all at the same time. Life is pretty shiny wonderful right now, and maybe a little brighter after thinking about suicide. Much love to you.
This one hits close to home, as my dad killed himself when I was twenty and he didn't leave a note. For years it drove me crazy that he didn't provide his last words and thoughts, that he didn't give me some final instruction or comfort regarding his feelings for me and the world around him. But later I thought that if he had written a note it might have ended up as a confused, blurry mess. After all, he was incredibly depressed and not exactly in his right mind. It might have been more painful to read a note written under those conditions.
But I support assisted suicide. I have a close friend whose body is tearing him apart as we speak. He's in the late stages of MS. If he asked me to help him die I would be very tempted to assist. It ain't fair that I would be stuck with a murder rap if that were to happen.
I can't believe what you're going through, Louise. Please give Adolph my love and the love of everyone here at Murderati. And to you, Louise…our love to you.
Oh, Louise, I'm so sorry, I forgot to send hugs for you and Adolph. You've been in my heart and my thoughts a lot for the last year! Don't doubt that!
I'm never too far from the brink. I've been there for many years now. I don't know if I'll ever get out. Writing certainly helps some. Some days are better than others. I guess as long as I never cross the brink, I can handle being around it, as much as I'd like to step away and live far away from it.
The letter. I forgot how to do html here, so, it'll have to be plain text. It's really like a story, except that the main character is the person writing. When I wrote my letters, it was about Barbie, and why she was hurting, and why she was going to kill herself, and how sorry she was. I always/am always aware that Barbie is me. But, distancing myself when writing, somewhat helped, maybe to be more objective and not let myself be drowned by the strong emotions running through my head. Here you go some little bits of it. (T he first person lines are all italics in the real texts, here they're plain, you'll have to bear with it, sorry!)
Annie Sterling's suicide letter:
"So tempting. So easy. Annie Sterling stared at the bottle of sleeping pills in front of her. It would be so easy. Just swallow them, one after the other. It’ll be just like falling asleep. The pain would go away, just like that. No more of that. Any of that. Breathing wouldn’t hurt as much. Hell, she wouldn’t even be breathing to start with. She didn’t want to breathe anymore. It had been a hard decision to make, but she’d made it. She couldn’t take it anymore. What was the point in living if every day was a burden? If waking up in the morning was torture, and going through the day even more? If the sleepless nights seemed endless, the nightmares crept through her mind, even when she was awake? The pain in her body was physical and real, and every step literally hurt. Her shoulders felt heavy, as if there was this invisible mountain on them. It hurt, too. Everything hurt.
It was anguish, all the time. Never ending anguish. She felt it right before she fell asleep, and it was her first feeling as she took a deep breath in the morning. Morning? When had it been the last time she’d actually woke up in the morning? She hadn’t been able to sleep at night for so long. She napped, but, most days, she wasn’t even sure she’d slept. She was tired, all the time. Even her dreams were so real, so full of actions, feelings. She’d wake up more overwhelmed than she’d gone to bed. How would she ever be able to rest, to feel at peace again? She wouldn’t.
She used to dream, that once things changed, once she got out of high school, and then of college, once she’d gotten a real job, had her own apartment, her own life, a boyfriend, things would be different. But there weren’t. I have it give it some time.
But she had. She’d given it twenty-three years. Wasn’t it enough? Had she even been happy before? As a child? She supposed so, but she didn’t remember what it felt like. She didn’t remember what it was like waking up, and being happy, excited to live that day. When did things change?
She wasn’t sure, either. She must have been eleven or twelve. Maybe she was ten. But she started to feel alone, so alone. No one understood her, even if they tried. She liked being around people, but it didn’t fulfill her. Nothing did anymore. In such a long time. She didn’t remember what it was like to feel complete.
She was tired of dreaming. She always did, she was a dreamer, that’s why she hadn’t given up before. She had plans, so many plans. Traveling around the world, meeting people, exploring places, learning languages, studying, taking pictures, writing. It seemed so perfect in her head. But it just didn’t happen. She was starting to believe it never would.
She’d spent so much time in pain, dreaming, waiting. She couldn’t do it anymore. It had to end. It all had to end. She was probably crazy. There was no other explanation. What else could explain her hopeless feelings? She could already see her parents’ disappointment, having a crazy daughter. They had successful, balanced children. Doctors, lawyers, cops. Maybe they’d blame it on the devil. Yes, she could totally see her mother taking her into a church and having her exorcised. The thought made her chuckle.
Church. Hell? Was there such thing as hell? Is that where she would go if she killed herself? Could there be something worse than what she was experiencing now? This is my hell. It’s a gain-gain situation. If it’s better, I’m free. If it isn’t, I’m used to it. Would God forgive her? Understand why she was doing that? Why she was taking her own life? She hoped so. She murmured a prayer.
She chuckled mirthlessly. A catholic prayer. One she’d rolled her eyes at for years at church. That’s what she was hanging on to near the end? Oh, sweet irony! I need some light.
Sundays at church with her family, during her childhood. She’d hated it. They all had. None of the sterling children liked church, much for their parents’ dismay. Her family popped back into her mind. She had to think about them. They’ll be okay without me.
… [she goes on talking about her family]
Mom and Daddy. "They think I’m a disappointment. They worry that I’m wasting my life away. They’ll never have to worry anymore. "
She had to do it. She owed it to the people she cared about, people she loved. "Will they miss me?" She hoped not. "I don’t want to be forgotten."
A note. Should she write a note? Try to explain the unexplainable? Would understanding make it easier for those who stayed? "I'm sorry if I've ever hurt you. I'm sorry if I will. Just know, whatever decisions I make are my own. It's no one's fault but mine."
So tempting. So easy. Annie Sterling stared at the bottle of sleeping pills in front of her. It would be so easy. So, she just swallowed. One after the other. And waited to fall asleep…
I'm so glad that you can be there for Adolph, Louise. You need each other and that you can be there and he can talk and share with you, there's nothing better. I loved talking to my grandparents and hearing about their lives and how different it was and what they did. I still miss them.
After my grandfather died, my grandmother had a living will that asked that no extraordinary measures be taken. She died in her sleep after a mild heart attack. I think that this need changes as we age. At 41, I'm only halfway done (I hope!) but when I'm 82 I might have a different feeling about extraordinary measures. As far as assisted suicide–nope.
I don't consider heroic acts to be suicide, even if by doing so you know you will or probably will die. I consider them selfless acts of human beings filled with boundless compassion and the moral strength to draw on their courage even through fear. If I died while protecting my child or even a stranger, I would not want anyone to call it suicide.
I know someone very well whose father killed himself when she was young. Her parents were separated, but his selfish act has had life-long impacts on his daughters and wife. I could cut him slack and suggest he might have had deep depression (and I know he was an alcoholic) or needed treatment or meds, but it's difficult to be generous with him when I see the pain his actions caused.
Judy, so sorry about the lake house, but I do love the perect suicide in the underwriter's office. Could you just make an underwriter the victim in your next book?
Allison D, you are a fighter. I should have expected no less of you.
Stephen, I thought about you and Cornelia as I was writing this piece. I hope it has not cost you pain. Adolph's decision–in pain and at 89–is so much more acceptable than your fathers'.
Barbie, that's a gut wrenching story. You've written words that pulse and ache with their honesty.
And Allison B, I love your description of the Hero: …with boundless compassion and the moral strength to draw on their courage even through fear. I want that as my epitaph.
No pain for me at all, Louise. And I agree with Adolph's decision. I'm sure it means a lot to him that you are supporting his decision and that you are there for him all the way.
Having gone through what you are and then writing about it in what turned out to be my second published novel – I so send you love. You honor your father in law with your love and your help. I hope you see joy soon – you deserve it.