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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.


08/13/2014 at 10:43 AM
I understand this is an old blog. But this issue still relates to the present. My friends and I have had this discussion before. I agree with you that "selfish", in regards to suicides, is relative and subjective. Not all suicides are selfish. They are the cause of unbearable pain and suffering over long periods of time. And the only recourse for some, is to end their lives. Both for themselves and their family and friends. But there are also those, that don't fight like these others. They give in far too quickly, while dealing with less than clinically depressed individuals. 1. Because they are weak willed. 2. Because they don't want to deal with the work and effort to get better. Or 3. It's a way out of a bad situation. ie. Killed someone and don't want to face the consequences, or own up to their to their actions. Statistically, 80% of clinically depressed individuals are successfully treated, IF and WHEN they seek help. Many don't because of pride and fear. And of those that are clinically depressed (worse kind of depression), only 15% actually follow through of ending their lives. The rest, are half hearted attempts. Not to end their lives, but to set themselves to fail. It's a way of seeking attention, so that they can get help. Then there are those, with the help of media glamorizing this tragedy, who would end their lives to make an "impact". Or the misguided notion of it. These are the selfish ones. If many clinically depressed individuals can find it in themselves to seek help and get better, why can't others? Especially those that aren't as far gone. For some, it's just easier for them to end things, without ever trying. And "It's better for the family. Less burden." isn't one of the reasons. Depressed individuals don't suddenly become invalids. They know right from wrong still. I don't understand, how they can easily think ending their lives, without even trying to get better. They don't talk to anyone. Even to family and close friends who see them going through their ordeals. They lie about it. They get mad when asked if everything is ok. Not all suicide is a "selfish" act. But there are those that are. When you owe it to yourself, and your family and friends to fight. But don't. Knowing that you can get better if you sought help. But would rather just end things instead of try. THAT to me is a selfish act. For me, labelling some suicides as "selfish", isn't meant to be judgemental. It's meant to motivate, or trigger an eye opening epiphany of their self-centred ideas. To make them realize that their loss of life will ripple through many people's lives. That some of those lives are greatly affected by their loss, that they too become depressed. When the first thing that comes to mind is ending your life, rather than fighting for it first. And taking into consideration that others have been successful at it. I see that as being "selfish". As an example, Robin Williams. I don't think he was selfish in taking his own life. But the kid (with no history of depression) who sent nude photos online, and was ridiculed for it, and "couldn't deal" with being chastised, ending his/her life without ever seeking help. And posting their intentions on social media. THAT is selfish.
03/08/2013 at 4:40 PM
My father committed suicide in Nov 1994. This has made me rethink things. I think he was just suffering too much, he didn't really want to leave me. He wanted to be part of my life but he was too sick. Thank you so much for this article. It has helped me so much!
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