Tuesday, September 16, 2008

In Defense of the Man Whose Wife Finds Him Hanged

Selfishness and cowardice are traits attributed almost reflexively in our culture to the act of suicide. And what could be more selfish than committing suicide in a manner such that one's spouse, lover, relative, or close friend will be the first to stumble upon the shocking scene of one's dead body?

In this piece, I wish to examine the alleged selfishness of this action, with reference to the practicalities of committing suicide in light of the general suicide prohibition, and to the options available to a suicide.

In light of the suicide prohibition, if one attempts suicide and is interrupted before death is final, one is at risk of being "rescued" and forcibly kept alive. Few methods of suicide are instant (even suicides committed by gunshot carry a risk of survival, especially if discovered and "rescued" soon after the act). Get discovered prior to death, and you stand a good chance at ending up like Patient X from the Annals of Neurology study, forever in a twilight coma while doctors perform medical experiments on your unresponsive body. Therefore, in a society that attempts to forcibly prevent suicide, the single most important consideration for a suicide is to have a controlled environment without the risk of interruption. One's home is often the only place where one is familiar enough with the routines surrounding it to reasonably guarantee against interruption for the crucial hours or even days necessary to ensure successful suicide. What are the other options? Hotels? The outdoors? Unfamiliar environments carry major risks of discovery. Some of the risk is from lack of information and familiarity; some of the risk is from lack of control. But one's home is one's castle, and familiarity and control are both reasonably assured.

But what about those who choose to die far away from loving folk who might discover their dead bodies? There is a risk on the other side: that of subjecting one's family to unnecessary worry and uncertainty prior to discovering one's suicide, during the period that one is missing. Jake Baysinger's family wondered about his whereabouts for weeks (while his dog famously guarded his remains) after he committed suicide way out in a rural field, where his wife would not discover his body. Which is more cruel?

The pain of not knowing, and the pain of being confronted with death, are different sorts of pain. But both of these aspects of suicide's "selfishness" - discovering the shocking scene of the dead body of a close friend or relative, or experiencing the fear and worry of not knowing his whereabouts for weeks - are both artifacts of the suicide prohibition. Legal, physician-assisted suicide for everyone would, in addition to requiring potential suicides to think maturely about their actions, eliminate the fear of not knowing and the shock of discovery.

The suicide is not the selfish party in these situations. He has no other option but to live, and that, for many, is no option at all.

For many survivors of a friend or relative's suicide, the suicide comes as a shock. Survivors may feel angry at the suicide for "abandoning" them, or for not saying goodbye. But the conversation preparing one's family for one's suicide is one that cannot happen, is in effect forbidden from happening, in an environment of suicide prohibition. We cannot say goodbye if we are truly suicides. Saying goodbye or having a serious conversation about one's potential suicide would be perceived as a "cry for help," and carries the risk of forced hospitalization and other miseries.

It is the suicide prohibition, and not the suicide himself, that is responsible for a large part of the pain inflicted on those left behind. I am sorry for the wife who discovers her husband hanged. (Can you imagine your own lover, face drained of blood and distorted, lifeless, hanging dead in your house - when you had expected to come home and have a conversation and cuddle?) But, in his defense, he had little choice. The blame for a great part of her suffering lies with the policies of coercive suicide prevention.

8 comments:

  1. When I watched that documentary about Golden Gate Bridge suicides, it occured to me that some people might settle on a such a notorious destination in part to spare friends and family the trauma of discovery. You have professional units patroling the waters constantly, so there's a good chance your body will be discovered and reported promptly. And you'll be ladeled up by someone who sees you as just another statistic, or even job security.

    The problem, of course, is that there's no guarantee that the impact will kill you.

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  2. That's an excellent point. The problem people have with suicides "selfishly" allowing themselves to be discovered by their intimates could be broadened to a general societal anger at suicide's selfishness and "failure to realize" that, even if it's not a relative, someone has to discover, and clean up, the body.

    What I think people fail to think about is that someone has to clean up everyone's body - suicide or not. When you die naturally, a fairy doesn't come and lift your bodily remains to heaven. The only thing a suicide can be accused of is hastening the process. Also, under our current suicide prohibition, the least messy means (overdose, etc.) are also the least reliable. The most reliable methods are the messiest (shooting oneself, etc.). This is not the fault of the suicide. One shouldn't have to remain alive just because societal prohibitions render one's death inconvenient for others.

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    1. Precisely.

      If and when society legalizes my right to end my life when I wish, then I'll be concerned about these side effects. Until then, it inflicts the evil it accuses me of.

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  3. Conversely, if you do it in such a way that no one will ever find your body, then you deny your survivors the "closure" of being able to bury/create you with some ceremony. Worse (possibly) yet, if any of them have legal ties to you, absence of your corpse may make it unduly difficult for them to settle affairs (like common property, etc.) It's too damned hard to out yourself politely (I say this in all seriousness.)

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  4. I'm so glad I found this blog. Love the outside-of-the-box thinking. The only thing I'll add is that if I were to commit suicide at home where someone could find me, I'd do it in a room with a lock on the door, lock it, and put a sign on the door asking not to come into because I had committed suicide and to call 911. I'd also have the suicide note attached or nearby. I'd do almost anything not to have my loved one exposed to my body.

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  5. *Sorry, I'd put the sign on the door BEFORE locking it. LOL.

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  6. "I'm so glad I found this blog. Love the outside-of-the-box thinking. The only thing I'll add is that if I were to commit suicide at home where someone could find me, I'd do it in a room with a lock on the door, lock it, and put a sign on the door asking not to come into because I had committed suicide and to call 911. I'd also have the suicide note attached or nearby. I'd do almost anything not to have my loved one exposed to my body."

    And you're under some impression that they wouldn't try to break in the door, to stop you?

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  7. Or that they wouldn't feel anxiety wondering if you were dying, or just getting ready to hang yourself, right at that exact moment?

    I'm just saying that isn't a perfect solution, by any means, and it would be better if society just allowed those who wished to end their lives to do so without the hiding, shame, guilt-tripping, attacking mocks of selfishness and cowardice, and unwanted "rescue".

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