Book by Jennifer Michael Hecht reviewed by Dorothy Paugh
As someone who has endured the loss of two family members to suicide, I am not impartial. Hecht’s work is a rational, secular rallying cry that digests 2,500 years of writing on the subject of suicide. Her thoughtful analysis constructs a buttress to counteract the downward force set in motion by the catastrophic loss of a loved one to suicide. She seeks to engage the minds of those who may be contemplating suicide out of despair and encourage them to stay among the living, for the sake of others and most especially, for the sake of their future selves.
Hecht does not want anyone to give up for lack of a cogent reason to stay and brings the weight of the world’s great thinkers to bear on the side of affirming life. Rather than be blindsided by the despair that almost inevitably afflicts every one of us, she asks us to consider where we stand on suicide in advance, before the turmoil and trance come upon us, while we can use the considerable power of our rational minds. This mental preparation may prevent some impulsive suicides. Interviews with those who survive attempts show many conceive of the idea and act to end their lives in less than one hour.
For centuries, religions have added to the suffering of those left behind by painting the lost loved one as a sinner who cannot be redeemed. Enlightenment thinkers lifted the burden of shame and made suicide morally neutral, a medical condition and even an individual right. Hecht finds it an oversimplification that religions are against suicide while rational thinkers are not. Hecht believes a personal and cultural stance against the act of suicide helps protect many who might otherwise be seduced into escaping this life prematurely.
Each one of us is an independent person, but each also affects and is affected by many others, more than we can know, for better or worse. It is well documented that one suicide often triggers imitation by those who were close to or who identify with the suicide. Reports of suicide are harmful without the whole context to include its catastrophic effects on others and resources for help. Positive intervention after a suicide—sharing our grief and healing work--stems the contagion. As Ronnie Walker, MS, LCPC and founder of the Alliance of Hope for Suicide Survivors said, "postvention is prevention."
Building a sense of community where suffering is acknowledged, accepted and shared helps immensely not just in the aftermath of suicide, but also as a preventive. It is my fervent hope to prevent as many suicides as possible in the first place. We have to talk with someone about our disappointments, failures, fears, sorrow and confusion without shame. As a society, we need to glorify more than winning, material success, power, fame and beauty. We all need models, concepts and skills to equip us for enduring tedium, pain and depression. When it becomes too much, we need to unashamedly reach out for help.
My father took his life when I was eight. That one fact tripled my own risk of suicide. Knowing this, for many years, I read everything I could find on the meaning of life and eventually made a conscious decision that no matter how hard my life might be, how worthless and hurt I might feel, I would not end my life. I believe it matters very much what ideas we let take hold in our minds and what we take to heart. My resolution to live held strong when a tragedy I never imagined came to pass.
My middle son Peter ended his life two years ago without warning at the age of 25. He was a man of science, respected at work with a girlfriend and family that loved him. Although raised attending church, he doubted the reality of the spiritual. He prized his intelligence and might have listened to a secular, rational argument against suicide like the one Hecht articulates.
Peter was too young to know that although we cannot see over the horizon, our lives will change, many times over in the course of a natural lifetime. His note to me said “something is wrong with me and life seems like too much of a burden.” He did not know that suffering and despair are normal, part and parcel of life.
My resurgent resolution to live drives me to share a message of hope that values this life with all its terrible shocks. We may not know whether death brings relief or peace, but we do know life here can eventually bring great joy, deeper, more potent and lasting than happiness or pain, which are often fleeting. As Hecht says, it’s not just for others we choose to stay, but also for our own potential selves. Too much brilliance and sensitivity has already been lost to the world.
Jennifer Michael Hecht is a poet, a historian, a philosopher and a commentator who wrote Stay after losing two friends to suicide. She earned her Ph.D. in the History of Science and European Cultural History from Columbia University in 1995, and has taught in The Graduate Writing Program of The New School and Columbia University.