Fact or Faith: the ‘Better off Dead’ Question

When I was 11, I was in the deepest throes of adolescent misery.  My family had just moved from the neighborhood where I had spent a safe and happy childhood to CONNECTICUT, of all places…and I definitely did not fit it.  I had the wrong hair, wrong clothes, wrong body, wrong attitude; I had braces, thick glasses and a strong desire to hide in my room for the rest of my life reading books and eating Pop-Tarts.

My parents, who were adjusting to a new job, new house, new community and new routine, understandably had little time for my anguish.  Unlike me, they understood about transitions, awkward phases and hormones, and didn’t share my concern that everything would be like this FOREVER!  Of course they were right, and once I got “over the hump”, I have a lot of happy memories and good friends from the years we spent there.

But before that happened I had a day, while in the thickets of despair, where I thought I might kill myself.  There was no internet to research methods and my family didn’t have weapons or potentially dangerous medications about, so I decided that drinking a cup of bleach might do the trick.  I remember sitting on the washing machine holding a pink cup full of bleach and crying.  I felt unheard but NOT unseen; everyone, from my classmates to my family could see me for sure, and their responses felt like a complete rejection and dismissal.  Everything about me felt wrong through their eyes.

What anchored me that day—and throughout my life, in fact—was the belief that I was not alone in that laundry room.  My faith had taught me that there is a higher power that was watching over me and supporting me, even then.  The perceived judgments of others were not a final verdict; the “small, still voice” reassured me I was okay, and I persevered.

I have since often wondered if it is part of the human condition, when we are going through a rough or tragic part in our journey, to at least entertain the notion that perhaps, instead of experiencing this fear or pain or trauma we might be better off dead?  While in the depths of an excruciating loss or heartbreak, when suffering seems to be all that is available, do most of us think death might be some kind of a relief?  Or is this reaction reserved only for the depressive and highly sensitive members of our society?

I am thinking about this now because of a recent controversy surrounding an article published and then retracted by xoJane in which the writer described the death of a mentally ill friend as “a relief”.  Reading about it caused a very visceral reaction for me; I had that punched-in-the-stomach, tears-in-my-eyes, goiter-in-my-throat feeling we all have from time to time; because who among us does not have mentally ill friends and/or family?   Who among us has not lost someone to suicide and wondered, “Was there something I could or should have done to prevent this?”

Mental illness is now more accurately diagnosed and better treated than at any point in our history; but stigma and confusion still predominate in our perception of it.  Ignorance remains the biggest hurdle to overcome in how people struggling can be best supported, especially when we are ourselves are disconnected from the reality of their pain.    As a society, we toss around the descriptor “crazy” often, both casually and with derision.   Is it such a surprise then that someone in ignorance would express a sense of relief over the loss of what she viewed as an unpleasantly unsolvable puzzle?

I am not making excuses for her; the expression of relief was hardly the only problem with what she wrote and it has been brilliantly deconstructed elsewhere.  I am pointing out that while we have advanced in diagnostic and treatment options, we have not yet evolved our public conversation in a truly progressive way.  I think this woman may have tapped into that collective unconscious belief in the “better off dead” stratagem—when the struggle is too great, when the pain is too much, death represents a mythic release.  We do in fact use this kind of language to describe death that is the result of physical illnesses, like cancer.   Was she taking such a huge leap, then, in describing her friend’s death thusly?

Since ancient times our species has been driven by the fear of the unknown.   In ignorance it drives us to superstition; in humble exploration it drives us to greater wisdom.  Death remains perhaps the epitome of the unknown…is there something behind the curtain or is this life experience we have the whole of it?  There are precious few facts for us to utilize in our contemplation of the subject, so for most people, death has become a vehicle of superstitious belief and/or faith.   The vast majority of us choose to belief in faith that there is some kind of positive outcome:  “heaven” or “the better place” or “peace”.   This helps us cope with the inevitability of it.

However, it is important when we are discussing the death of a mentally ill person by suicide to separate the facts from faith.  Facts tell us that mental illness can be successfully treated.  Facts tell us that there are endless resources available that we as a community need to fund and promote for people who are struggling.   Facts tell us that there is a lot to live for, even when we are afraid, even when we are in pain.  It is our faith that tells us that even if we lose the battle, there is a greater good we have served.

How often have so many of us described the death of a loved one following a long physical illness as “a relief”?  It is a relief for us to no longer watch a beloved experiencing physical pain, but also (we hope) a relief for the one who has at long last been released from suffering.  The mistake this woman made in talking about her friend’s passing was not acknowledging how her own ignorance and fear of the unknown were the primary motivators in her experience of relief at the loss.  Her friend’s illness presented to her as an insurmountable obstacle, an incurable cancer of the brain, so to speak.  This is an ignorance many and probably most of us share with her; however, some of us try not to act or speak from that place.

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, mental illness of any kind or serious suicidal thoughts, it is important for you to understand that when anyone says they were “relieved” by a death, they are on some level telling a lie.  Because if there was even the glimmer of a chance that the alternative to that death was some kind of meaningful life, that is always the preference.

Always, always, always.

We lie and we say we are relieved because sitting in the excruciating possibility that something could have been done to help or fix the situation is that punched-in-the-stomach, tears-in-our-eyes, goiter-in-our-throat sensation that we want to avoid at all costs.  We are too afraid to contemplate your pain because we are too afraid to acknowledge our own.

When we lose someone we care about, “better off dead” is a faith based story we tell ourselves to help cope with the pain that we fear will overtake and undo us.

It is an act of compassion we make in order to mask the truth that we feel powerless and actually don’t know what the hell we are talking about.

So when we start talking about mental illness or suicide or any topic where we don’t know what the hell we are talking about, it is critical that we acknowledge that fact up front.  To say with any kind of authority in a public forum that death-by-suicide is a “relief” is dangerous and irresponsible.  Let’s try to remember to err on the side of compassion whenever possible, okay?  Even when we are dealing with people who have done dangerous and irresponsible things.