I have been absent from the blogging world for over a week. The pen ran out of ink, metaphorically speaking and I simply could not bring myself to express anything in blog form. A friend passed away last Wednesday and we have been dealing with the after-shocks and fallout. An earthquake or nuclear explosion are both fitting analogies to describe the impact as his death has decimated our world, and we are left wandering helplessly, sifting through the rubble of his lived experience. He was my partner’s best friend, much loved by so many people from all walks of life, one of those ‘few good men’ that I have blogged about previously. He was one of my ‘blogging buddies’, a prolific blogger himself, so I guess he would have wanted me to blog about the impact of his death, ‘cos that’s what he would have done. During our last conversation, he mentioned Socrates’ choice of death over exile, suggesting that given the same choice, he would take Socrates’ path. I argued that society was very different in Socrates’ era, that exile implied something more than what it would mean today. He deftly changed the topic, as he so often would, and never elaborated upon these thoughts. Almost 24 hours later, he took his own life. Yesterday afternoon, my partner and I attended the funeral service.
Mental illness and suicide are amongst the most complex and confronting topics to discuss. From my perspective, the tragedy of a completed suicide is up there with the death of a child. In both instances, we are left with too many questions and few, if any, satisfactory answers. Since his ‘breakdown’ four weeks ago, our friend had been on prescribed medication and had seen a counsellor three times. He had made ‘promises’ to people, was talking about possible futures after his recovery and even had plans to socialise with friends and family for the forthcoming weekend of Grey Cup (Canadian Football Finals) celebrations. By all accounts, there were ‘signs of improvement’, whatever that means. I have come to realise that ‘signs’, intervention attempts and recovery indicators often amount to very little when someone has such a strong and resolute intention to end their life. Try as we might, we cannot ever fully know the workings of the mind of another individual, especially during a period of mental illness. Therein lies one of the most the tragic ironies of human connectedness. All our lives we strive, some more successfully than others, to form intimate relationships, all the while never truly knowing the innermost thoughts of another person, only glimpsing aspects that they choose to show us and so often through a distorted lens, shaped by our own experiences and self-concepts.
The old saying rings so true “people come into our lives for a reason, a season or a lifetime”. My partner met her best friend six years ago, they went to university together and shared many good times and stimulating intellectual discussions. I had known him for only a few months, but over the past few weeks, had met him for coffee on three occasions. During this brief time, had come to realise why he was so highly respected and loved by so many, including my partner. He was more of a feminist than many of the women I know, a man of great intellect, humour and compassion, a man who could just as easily dialogue with people from the world of academia as with locker room jocks. He was passionate about sports, music, issues of race and racism and social justice. His buddhist leanings may have provided him with some kind of spiritual foundation, but even this was not enough to dissuade him from taking his own life.
Contrary to common beliefs about suicide being a pathway to finding peace and an end to suffering, Tibetan Buddhists believe that those who commit suicide merely take their suffering to the next life. The state of mind at the moment of death is considered central to the process of re-birth, so it is vital for one’s mind to be free of any form of negativity. In my mind, suicide is an act of violence, against oneself in the immediate moment and ultimately against others. It is an assault on the spirit and rips apart the fabric of the community left behind. The karmic imprint is profoundly negative.
In the process of struggling to make sense of this story, we each construct our own private narratives, identifying setting, themes, protagonists, antagonists, minor characters, triggering events, complications, soundtrack and maybe even some kind of resolution. Although, I doubt there can ever be closure to a tale of death by suicide. Essentially, there is no single story, no documented truth, no defining moment that leads to such a definitive and final act. Our friend posted on facebook that he was ‘looking hard for answers’ in the final hours before his death. We will never know all of the questions in his mind, or the enigmas in his heart. We will only drive ourselves crazy replaying the various scripts over in our minds, trying to piece together an incomplete and incomprehensible puzzle, seeking both blame and redemption. Through his leaving, our friend may have wanted to extend a powerful message to some, but the tragic irony is that to some extent, he also forfeited his voice. In the final analysis, the journey that lead to his death matters as little as the circumstances of his suicide. As happens with each experience of death, there have been and will continue to be emerging lessons and questions from this single act.
For me, this represents an ongoing quest to accept the reality of our fragility and impotence in the face of mortality. I am now painfully aware of the cumulative effect of grief. I realise that within myself alone, there are many different selves struggling to deal with this, each in their own unique way. The woman who is trying to support her partner through the loss of her best friend, the fellow blogger who lost a peer of immeasurable value, the daughter who recently lost her father. I am reminded to be grateful for my own life and for the love and light that prevails through the darkness, despair and anguish of loss. Inevitably, there remain more questions than learnings. I continue to struggle with the contradictory human impulses of self-actualisation and submission to a greater power, and the tension between the rights of the individual and responsibility for others. I will always question whether our capacity to help others is determined more by our individual and collective actions or by the capacity of others to accept and receive our offers of support. And I will never know the formula for resilience, nor will I understand the mysterious workings of the human mind.
Socrates was condemned to death or exile by the Athenian government for his controversial teaching methods, which had provoked scepticism amongst his students and dissent against the state. In an expression of his unyielding commitment to his ideals, Socrates chose death by hemlock, in that context, a decision that might understandably be interpreted as a noble act of martyrdom. Moments before the deathly poison took effect, the 70 year old philosopher said ‘I understand, we can and must pray to the gods that our sojourn on earth will continue happy beyond the grave. This is my prayer, and may it come to pass.’ His friend Crito paid tribute to him, saying “this was the end of our friend, the best, wisest and most upright man of any that I have ever known”.
All that being said, I have once again run out of ink.