Is Suicide Selfish?
By Leann M. Gouveia, M.P.A., Executive Direcotr, Fresno Survivors of Suicide Loss, Inc. (Fresno SOS), California
The grief journey, particularly for survivors of suicide loss, is very difficult. It is a struggle to come to terms with the loss, finding the meaning of the loss, and settling the endless questions associated with suicide.
My mother, Sharon, ended her life in 1994. The two grief topics I had the most trouble processing involved religion and suicide as a selfish act. I worked on the “selfish” subject for years before I finally came to a place where I could better understand what selfish meant to me in this particular situation. I came to understand that the word “selfish” is a relative term and subjective. It was only until I educated myself about suicide, this devastating depressive disease from which my mother suffered and society’s lack of knowledge about suicide, that I was able to reach peace.
Society tends to pigeon-hole itself into a way of thinking about suicide; judging the act itself rather than understanding the medical/mental condition of suicide as a process not just a final act. It is well known that suicide is not THE problem but rather the result of illness and the ending of internal emotional suffering. Cultural beliefs contribute to a lack of understanding. To say that my mother was selfish is to do a great injustice to society. To say that my mother was selfish is to invalidate her life. It is to place judgment rather than understanding. It is as comparable to me to say that my father died of cancer and that was selfish. It doesn’t make sense. My father did not want to die and those who take their lives typically do not want to die either.
I know that my mother did not suicide to hurt me, her daughter. I understand that some people do, however. The truth is most of us, without knowing, probably kept our loved one alive longer than we realize. She tried really hard to stay alive for her children. She was too sick. It was the illness that took her life which affected her ability to rationalize. Why was it so hard for me to understand? I was not sick and had not lost my ability to rationalize. Often those who suicide feel that others will be better off without them. You might say they are being “altruistic.” They really think that they are the problem and to remove themselves will relieve their family of the burden. My friend, Ann, who is actively suicidal, once said to me, “My children do not deserve me. They do not deserve a sick mother.” That breaks my heart. She honestly believes her children will be better off without her. The depression she has effects her ability to process decisions. I recall being at a meeting and one gentleman said to me, “I cannot believe my sister-in-law would be so selfish as to do this (suicide) to her children.” I responded, “I cannot imagine how painful it must have been for her to make that decision.” He just looked at me and said, “I never thought of it that way.” Was he being selfish? It’s all relative.
At one point in processing my grief, I actually thought that I was the one who was selfish. I wanted my mother here because I wanted her here! In a sense, it was selfish of me to expect that she should stay here for me in her agonizing illness. Just as if I wanted my father to be here for me no matter how sick he was.
The selfish issue was significant in my grief journey. It caused me to examine my mother’s life and try to think and feel like her so that I could understand where she was coming from. It was critical in my forgiveness of her and of me. This was a gift. It helped me become more compassionate toward others and try harder to understand where they are coming from and to be less judgmental.