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December 9, 2014
Richard Handler

Few deaths resonate like news of a suicide. These deaths play discordant chords in our hearts, souls and psyches.  If the person who killed him or herself was supremely successful -- a Robin Williams -- people may think, “my god, even he can take his life—a man who had everything!” Poems and stories are written about those who present a glad, rich face to the world, and kill themselves in despair in silence. 

Here is part of Edward Arlington Robertson’s famous poem, Richard Cory.


He was a gentleman from soul to crown

Clean favored and imperially slim...

And he was rich, yes richer than a king

We thought that he was everything

To make us wish that we were in his place


And the poem ends with these words, this stanza:


And so we worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night

Went home and put a bullet through his head.


Who knows what goes on in the mind of another, the quiet grievances, the despairing thoughts, the harsh bargain with a universe that has become a source of pain and suffering?  

When a Marilyn Monroe or Robin Williams, idols of a celebrity culture, commits suicide, it confounds our very hopes and strivings. 

But even those who are not world famous, just notably ordinary, can have this effect.  I recall one writer in a large newspaper in Canada who had killed himself, dumbfounding those who both knew and didn’t know him.

Yet sometimes we can see it coming. I have known people of whom I could well expect such an act of self extinction. They suffered secretly. Some even endured publically, right in front of your face. I knew one person, a colleague for a time, who suffered from various mental illnesses. He had been in and out of mental hospitals. He was gentle and likable, if not without a measure of reserve. Everybody who worked with him knew his history.  But he didn’t fume. He was affable and mostly quiet. When I encountered him, years later, in front of a coffee shop, he told me he was living in a half way house. 

“Let’s have coffee one day,” he said to me.

The next I heard, he had placed himself on a railroad track and let a train roll over him.  I was not surprised.  He was a person whose time had run out.  He must have said “enough,”  and lay down on the tracks.

I know another person who has hinted to someone I know that if things don’t work out, he will end his life.  How do you argue with such a person?  This man calculates that he will give life so much time, and then, if he’s not feeling any better, he’ll do himself in.  This is not Richard Cory, the surprise suicide.  This is a man who wants to retain the final decision in life that he sees as endlessly broken.

I know Christians say all of us are broken. And if you’re a secular person, you can make an equivalent statement---- we are all neurotic, have a mental disorder or some such designation. A Buddhist will tell you that all life is suffering; detachment is a remedy, an end to endless craving. But a person can suffer horribly in a mansion while others, with the most miserable lives on earth, can scrape on by in a refugee camp. 

And suicides need not be terribly self-centered. One sign, so the specialists indicate, of a serious intent to kill yourself, is the wish not to be a burden to others (let alone yourself). And if the suffering is endless, non-stop, then such a calculation can appear rational.  A religious person holds all life to be sacred—it’s against God’s law to end it.  That’s a good vaccine against suicide, but not against the pain of suffering.

Richard Handler - the Stubborn Agnostic - is a former CBC Radio Producer and former producer for CBC's Ideas. He lives in Toronto.




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