The Buddhists have a saying: “Are you sure?” There’s not a lot in life we can be one hundred percent sure of—many times our thoughts and ideas are actually assumptions rather than facts. This is not to say they are good or bad. But it never hurts to stop and question things we feel certain of.
Let me pose a scenario to you: someone you love—a sister, a friend, a lover—is alone in her home. She is preparing to die. For whatever reason, she no longer sees any point to living. Tonight is the night her life will end.
If that were happening, what would you do?
Different people will have different answers to this question. But I’m willing to guess that very few would answer “Nothing.” And I also believe that most will feel very sure that if this situation were really occurring, they would take some kind of action. I would believe them.
But how sure are you that this scenario isn’t happening or couldn’t happen?
Are you sure that if someone you love were suicidal, you would even know? How? Do you think they would tell you? Are you sure someone hasn’t already been trying to tell you?
The World Health Organization estimates that 121 million people worldwide suffer from depression. This figure may not be clear: many argue that people are misdiagnosed with depression due to the over-prescription of anti-depressants while others argue that many people with depression are never “clinically” diagnosed. It is likely that most of us know someone who has depression.
It is also estimated that 90% of suicides have clinical depression or another diagnosable mental disorder. Obviously (and thankfully) not all (not even most) people with depression commit suicide. But most suicides have depression. Sometimes people die because of their depression.
Think about the person you know with depression. Will their depression be terminal?
Are you sure?
Blame is an inescapable part of suicide. Sadly, it does not seem to benefit anyone.
Many of Alice’s friends and relatives mentioned that they felt to blame for what had happened. This is problematic for many reasons:
1. It does not help anyone. Nothing can help Alice at this point. I do not think feeling guilty helps anyone heal. It keeps them stuck in their grief.
2. It takes away the power of Alice’s decision. From what I’ve learned from Alice’s journals, it is clear that Alice did not place blame on anyone for her own decision. Of course, many people and experiences influenced her life and she sometimes wondered how differently she would have turned out if those influences hadn’t happened. But she was who she was and recognised that she was actively making a choice–a choice she made simply for herself and not as revenge or to harm anyone else (though she was aware others would be hurt by it).
3. While no one but Alice could give a specific reason for her choice, her journals do not point to one cause: nothing seemed to say this caused her to do what she did. There is also nothing to indicate whether or not her depression had a physical cause; therefore, she may have ended up as she did regardless of her experiences.
I did not know Alice, but I’ve found nothing but evidence through her journals and my interviews that she was a reasonable and intelligent person. A hurtful comment or a bad break up does not make a reasonable and intelligent person decide it’s better to end her life. As much as it’s possible for anyone to say, I want to say to Alice’s family that they are not to blame.
However, part of the purpose of this project is to help others learn from Alice’s life. Taking responsibility for being kind to others is not the same as taking responsibility for others. Sometimes a nice word, a phone call and invitation or inclusion in an activity can make a difference to someone. A man who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in a suicide attempt said that had one person smiled at him as he walked to the Bridge, it would have made a difference. Does that mean those non-smiling people were to blame for his choice? No. Absolutely not. But what an opportunity they missed. How often do we miss those opportunities—with our family and friends or even those we pass throughout our days?
One thing many people who knew Alice told me was that they wish they had known she was struggling. They seem to believe that if they had known, they could have done something to help her. If they had known, they would have comforted her.
We can’t be sure if this is true.
But what we can be sure of is that we don’t always know when people are struggling. Perhaps we should offer help and comfort even without “knowing.” Someone close to you, someone you haven’t spoken to in a while, someone at your workplace, someone sitting on your bus might be struggling as Alice struggled. Why not offer them help or comfort now? Why wait until it’s “too late,” until you find yourself saying “If only I had known”?