With Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade’s Deaths, The Impulse Is To Ask Why He Or She Did It, But Can We Understand Why Anyone Would Commit Suicide?
Like many in the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking and talking a lot, both in my NYC therapy practice and out, about Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade’s suicides. Bourdain and Spade were both brilliant. Very little they put out into the world was unintentional and none of it was subtle. So for their passing, with loved ones not far and children left behind, what we’re inclined to say is, “I can’t understand why he or she did it,” particularly for public figures who seem to have a good life or be happy.
But, can we understand why anyone would commit suicide? I have nothing to say about either Bourdain or Spade’s deaths that could presume to add understanding. I didn’t know them, but it seems clear no one who knew them understands much either. People in general are tough to understand, even when you “know them” well. For those in great pain, understanding can be even more elusive. How can you come to understand a state of mind that could choose to stomp out being itself?
Our Disconcert When Someone We Love Or Admire Commits Suicide Isn’t Just Grief, But A Lack Of Understanding
Camus said the only really serious philosophical problem was suicide. Suicide has a lot in common with murder–the intentional, preconceived act of killing a human. Like murder, the suffering is for those of us left behind. Our disconcert when someone we love or admire commits suicide isn’t just grief. We aren’t merely stuck in sadness, but we’re also stuck in an inability to understand philosophically.
When something emotionally tough happens, we often say, “I just don’t understand.” In many of those cases, what we mean is that we don’t understand emotionally or maybe even spiritually. If someone dies in a car accident, for example, we can understand practically how a car could spin out in the snow and lunge into another car. There are all sorts of existential questions and confusions, but we understand the physics and morality of it. In contrast, suicide fundamentally doesn’t make sense (it only makes sense to those who’ve done it, but of course…).
For those of us working through our grief for someone we admire or love committing suicide, we have to settle for and grieve our way through this absence of understanding. We have to accept that we can’t understand it.
We Also Struggle With Understanding Suffering
I want Bourdain and Spade alive, greedily so I can see what more they had to offer the world, but also, of course, to remove the pain of those who loved and needed them. But, I also wish they weren’t suffering. Perhaps I take exception to Camus here. Maybe it’s suffering that’s really the problem that befuddles us. Suffering befuddles us because we can’t tolerate it in people we admire and so, they must hide it from us.
“How could someone so smart/rich/talented/exuberant take their own life?” isn’t really the question we mean to ask. We should be asking: Where did they hide their suffering? How did they do it so well? And how were we complicit in idealizing people so they complied by hiding their pain?
Check On Your Friends And Loved Ones, But Also Ask About Their Suffering
I worry that in our efforts to prevent suicide, we set the bar much, much too low. I’m not down to sign onto any sort of project that seeks to prevent suicide that doesn’t also seek to prevent misery and suffering. You can refrain from committing suicide and still be unhappy. Keeping people alive is a bloody poor measure of good mental healthcare.
We should check on our friends and loved ones. We should ask them how their romantic relationships are going, buy them a beer, play cards and plan trips. But we also need to ask them about their suffering. Suffering thrives in a vacuum, in isolation. Check on your friends, but also ask them: How are you suffering? What have I not been able to see of your suffering?