How to Help Suicidal People
One night, I asked my wife for her permission to die. This happened about three months after I wrote her a suicide note. I told her I couldn’t bear the pain of living anymore.
She was scared and furious. She told me all I have to live for, who I would be living behind, and she focused especially on the painful burdens I would leave behind for her.
I stepped back. I entered counseling through the Veterans Affairs. The VA social worker gave me resources, encouraged me to attend online classes, and gave me the veterans’ crisis line. Yet months later, I was telling her a part of me wants to be dead, and it will always want to be dead. Without properly tending to this part of me, it will continue to sabotage our lives.
Anyone who’s dealt with suicidal thoughts and ideation has probably been through all this before. In his book, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, David Kessler details how suicidal people die, and often choose to do so in an impulsive moment. Kessler writes that suicidal people want to escape the horrible pain they’re enduring.
Meanwhile, society classes suicidal people as broken and selfish. Religion classifies us as damned sinners. We commit suicide, like it’s a crime. We succeed or fail at it because apparently, suicide is not just a crime but a contest we can win or lose too. To be suicidal means you are a selfish, self-destructive person and you have broken one of society’s worst taboos.
As someone who’s contemplated dying more times internally—sometimes daily for weeks-long stretches—than I can recall, I can say there is way more to suicide than people understand.
Suicide is not all or nothing
Death is conceived as a final point for life. That once you’re dead, you’re dead. You might have a soul and it might go somewhere else, but wherever it is, it’s not here on Earth. Your body rots or is burned in the crematorium. Death is not the end, though. We linger. We imprint the Earth and the people we have encountered. We leave behind trials, burdens, pain, and grief, but not just negative things. We leave behind the holidays, the candlelight dinners, the slow dances, the vibing while drinking fruit juice, the afternoons lying still in the shade, and the thousands of tiny, joyful pieces scattered across every person we ever met or knew.
Suicide ideation is as much the fixation with death as it is the literal want for it. It is the “call of the void,” the idea we are mortal and life is resilient but fragile. Wanting to die can be momentary or surge to the point where we will do it. It does not mean we’ll ever do it. We might not, but then again, we might decide it’s time.
If we want to die, we will, and nothing will stop us
This is one of the hardest truths to swallow about suicide. A person who wants to die and is committed to it will wait years — decades, even — to do it. They often want to spare people pain. They realize someone will find their body. They know someone will suffer from anguish. These thoughts often hold us back from doing it, albeit temporarily. If we are committed to it though, that day will come.
Hunter S. Thompson is someone who, once he decided he was finished, he killed himself and requested his remains be shot from a cannon. Brittanny Maynard suffered from terminal cancer and went to Oregon, where medically assisted suicide for terminally ill people is legal, to die safely and in peace. Kurt Cobain suffered from heroin addiction and an undiagnosed stomach condition (probably caused or exacerbated by his addiction). He also felt jaded by fame and did not want to be in constant pain anymore.
Each of these is a famous suicide story. Each person had decided to die. They planned for it. They were committed and although multiple people had tried to talk them out of it, once the moment to die arrived, these people took it.
Not all suicidal people want to die — they just want validation for wanting to die
I fall into this category. I don’t want to kill myself. There is a part of me, though, which wants to die. This part exists in suicidal people. It stems from trauma, attachment injury, anxious attachment style, addiction, abandonment, abuse, and other physical and mental wounds we endured at crucial points in our lives. Some of us have survivor’s guilt. Others suffered sexual violations and trauma. A lot of us have PTSD.
Somewhere in our journey, we realize death is an option for us. It’s permanent and it’s affordable. In the United States, a nation with no universal healthcare and huge, negative stigmas towards mental health, “cheap” is a bigger lure than people can appreciate. A lot of suicidal people are poor too. For the affluent ones, it’s likely more about breaking the taboo — having power and control over their own lives — than about money. They can afford treatment. They just don’t want it or think it won’t help.
Many of us suicidal people get help though. We call crisis lines. We cry to our partners and spouses. We go to therapy. We hate ourselves for constantly presenting our loved ones this deep pain. We resent others for not having this swirling black hole in themselves. Death rips open a vortex and once there, it’s never filled. It never goes away. No therapy, no amount of skills, and no amount of medication can cure it. It can be treated though. Suicidal people don’t always kill themselves. What we often need is the permission to die, if we want, but the reinforcement that living is much more preferable.
Most suicidal people want to live, but need catharsis, release, and connection
Humans ritualize death all the time. We have done it throughout history. Christianity’s central tenet is the death and rebirth ritual via Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. Zoroastrianism teaches purification through fire, burning away evil and death. Judaism has several holy days dedicated to atonement, rejuvenation, remembrance, and renewal. We die and rebirth ourselves after divorces, break-ups, quitting bad jobs, moving to new places, decluttering our houses, making New Year’s resolutions, and even celebrating birthdays. We are a species compelled by death. We are dying, symbolically, all the time.
For a suicidal person who wants to live, this means we need acceptable, supportive, and positive ways we can “kill” our dark thoughts, wasted longings, and regrets. We need rituals. We need cathartic releases. We need to connect with other living people during these acts. We also need to consciously create joy in our lives to remember life is meaningful and worth having. Finally, we need partners co-creating that joy with us.
I have done so much to die and rebirth myself. I joined the military. I moved around the country. I changed my name. I read constantly. I write about grief and death. The black hole within me is always trying to take things away, so I need regular rebirth in order to survive. I have filled my life with meaningful tasks in order to keep myself focused on mindful, present-tense living.
What I have told my spouse though, is despite my pain and how often I’ve presented it to her, I don’t want her to only want to sit with me while I’m in pain. I need her to create joy with me, and to co-create cathartic rituals and activities. I need to be alive, but I need an outlet for that dark part of me too.
I believe this is what most suicidal people need to keep the void at bay. We need connection and catharsis, ritual and symbolic death and rebirth. We need to know it’s okay to want to die, but there are ways to die which aren’t permanent and harmful. We also need to know we’re supported and there are safe, joyful and accepting places to where we can return when we are ready to rise again.