“I was angry with myself for missing the clues, and angry with him for not seeking help. A mental health professional, he had saved the lives of others, but was apparently incapable of reaching out to save his own.”
— David Axelrod, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, writes about his father’s suicide
Maybe, he was not incapable of reaching out, but as a professional, he knew the limits of available help.
Mr. Axelrod’s fathers actions were considered. He reached out in a phone call some weeks before he acted in what Mr. Axelrod later determined to be a farewell call. They weren’t the actions of one bad night, one attempt to act out current emotions.
The notion that everyone who decides to end their life could be saved by some sort of mental health intervention appears to me to be wishful thinking by those who experience the suicide of a loved one.
It is easy to judge that some just are incapable of doing everything that would have been required to “save” their own life, but that judgment misses the fact that everyone reaches out for support and that support often does not convince us that there is real hope for substantive change in our relationship with the world.
The world is as it is and everyone has to adapt to it, doing the work to align with the desires, requirements, needs and priorities of the system around us. If we decide that we are incapable of doing that, does that mean we didn’t “reach out” properly, didn’t appropriately shape our communication so that others could hear us and then, in some magic way, “heal” us?
Deciding that suicide is a personal failure of the person who took their own life is comforting and reassuring to those left behind. I understand that.
The attitude, though, that other people have a responsibility to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, the obligation to “reach out” and get what we need to “save” ourselves, is the kind of attitude that adds to the struggles of those considering ending their life.
“You should just do the work to reach out and save your own life. If you aren’t getting what you need in the world, it’s only because you are not trying hard enough. Just get over your own damn self and do anything and everything that needs to be done to save your life or we will all judge you a failure.”
Does suicide always mean failure? Maybe it does.
Does suicide always mean the failure of the one who takes their own life? Do other people around them have any responsibility to be present and assist? Is there a broader failure?
Well, as Mr. Axlerod knows well, it is the ones who remain that write the histories, who assign blame and responsibility.
His father was “apparently incapable of reaching out to save his own” life.
His suicide, his failure.
I’m sure that his father was willing to accept that judgment pf others when he finally got to the point that he decided hope was lost and that he could not create the change he needed.
After all, he knew how much he reached out and tried to make better connections, tried to get what he needed. He decided that his labours were enough, figured that they would only lead to diminishing returns.
He was willing to accept failure and termination in the world. Even if he also knew that no man is an island and we all have responsibility for our fellow man.
Suicide is failure. yes. As a marginalized person, though, I refuse to take the libertarian view that somehow, the only party who didn’t do enough to save a life is the person who decided that, facing what they faced, they had to go.
No matter how comforting that might be to others who claimed to love us.