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.