Is Suicide a Selfish Act?
The other day a group member in one of my educational support groups made a startling announcement. It was the twentieth anniversary of his uncles’ suicide, something he had never talked about.
As the group member reflected on this memory he said, “My uncle had so many people who loved him. I am angry. I see what he did as a selfish act.” He then paused at length and said, “On the other hand, my uncle was deep into his depression. I suppose he just wanted out of his pain. Nonetheless, I’m still upset.”
Hearing this story made me wonder, “Is suicide a selfish act?” This is a complex question, but in short, I believe: “No it is not.” The person who is suicidally depressed does not want to die; he just wants to get out of his pain. The problem is that this pain is unbearable, ever-present, and worst-of-all it feels like it will never end. In this context, suicide is often seen not as an act of self-destruction, but as an act of self-love.
But what about the devastating impact of suicide on the people left behind? Doesn’t the suicidal person think of them? They certainly do. During my 1997 suicidal depression, I was concerned that if I killed myself, my friends and family would not only be grief-stricken, but angry and guilty as well. “I’ve already gone through so much suffering, why would I want to inflict this on people I love?” I thought. Years later, a group member expressed a similar sentiment. “If it weren’t for my children, I would have checked out a long time ago,” he said. “They are what keep me here.”
Hearing accounts like this, you would think that the suicidal person would use their connections to loved ones as a deterrent to self-harm. That’s what I believed until a group member shared her suicide attempt of the previous year. At the time of the attempt, she had two daughters, seven and eleven.
“For me, it was not a selfish act,” Fran said. “My brain was so sick that I could not connect to my two girls. They were like ghosts to me. People told me, ‘Stay close to your daughters. They will keep you here.’ I loved my daughters, but I couldn’t feel the love. Neither could I think about the consequences. I had crossed the point of no return where no one or nothing could anchor me here.“
“Right now that I am in remission I feel the love for my daughters and I would never do anything to hurt them” she continued. “But when I was actively suicidal, my thinking was not rational. I was in so much pain at that point. I had been hospitalized five times within the year. My marriage was incredibly stressful. It all combined to push me over the edge.”
Fran then continued by sharing that her suicidal depression was triggered by her father’s suicide two years previous. But, she was able to reach a point of not being mad at her father.” He was in so much pain,…” she said. “…that he couldn’t think of us. I felt sad for him, but not angry. I don’t think he was in his right mind. Who could jump off a high rise building in their right mind?”
When someone is in abject pain, their overriding need is to end their suffering. And in the process, their thoughts can deceive them. Often people in suicidal pain believe that their loved ones would be better off without them, thus their death a generous act. They see death as the only way to end their agony and that the effects on others will be forgotten or slight. Unfortunately, the aftereffects of suicide on survivors are immense and can last a lifetime.
Although I do not believe that suicide is a selfish act, I also don’t believe it is the most skillful choice. I have learned there are ways to counteract the lies that our brains tell us in a suicidal crisis. I have learned that there are ways to cope with and reduce one’s pain besides ending one’s life. This website is dedicated to sharing these coping strategies for overcoming suicidal pain.