To Anderson Cooper: Suicide Attempt Survivors Can't Always Answer 'Why,' Either
Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Elizabeth Cassidy, The Mighty’s news reporter, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.
Suicide is complicated. There’s never only one reason for it, and many suicide loss survivors will never fully know why a loved one has died by suicide. Anderson Cooper, whose brother died by suicide 30 years ago, recently spoke with a fellow suicide loss survivor. He recalled a conversation with her about the one question everyone wants answered after a suicide. Why?
Cooper cited some factors that can lead to someone’s suicide — depression, substance abuse and breakups, for instance. But he also said, “many more times there is no clear answer or not one single reason.”
“Learning to live without knowing why is one of the many things I continue to struggle with,” he wrote.
I can understand why not knowing why could eat at someone who lost a loved one to suicide. Many of us are hardwired to want to find root causes. When something horrible happens, we often want to know how exactly it could be prevented. While I empathize with Cooper’s struggle, I want him, and anyone else who’s lost someone to know that even if your loved one could somehow tell you why, the answer may not feel like enough. And you have to be OK with that.
When someone attempts suicide but lives, loved ones still want to understand why. As a suicide attempt survivor, I was asked “why” multiple times following my attempt.
The first time was while I was in the emergency room the night of my attempt. I was in college, and my friends were there with me. I was hooked up to multiple machines — one being a cardiac monitor. A family member called and asked me what was going on. Eventually, I was asked why I did it. The emotional pain I was feeling was the biggest reason, but I hadn’t yet learned how to describe it. Through sobs, I struggled to explain how much pain I was in and how it had been like that for months despite my efforts in therapy and with medications. I struggled to explain this wasn’t the first time I had felt like this, that it showed up in high school. I struggled to explain that I had this sinking feeling it was never going to go away — that even on the good days, it would come back to grab me.
This was the first time I truly tried to open up to a family member. My friends knew much more and had been there through everything. I felt like I was opening my heart and letting my family finally know what was wrong.
“That’s not good enough.” That was the answer I received.
My heartbeat displayed on the monitor jumped. I looked for other reasons to “back up” my main reason as if I were writing a thesis and needed evidence to back it up. It was the Monday after finals week, and I had started getting my Spring grades. That day I received a C in a class that, had it been any other semester, I would have aced. For someone who barely got grades below a B, it was academic proof I was worthless and had wasted the semester.
The grade was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. It wasn’t the sole reason, but it was the last thing that broke me that day. I told the family member about the grade.
“A grade did this to you? Wow.” It was sarcastic — another way of saying my reasons weren’t good enough.
My heart rate increased again. It hit 153, and I watched nurses run into the room with supplies in their hands expecting to see me needing help. I did need help, but not physically. The nurse who had been in my room this whole time told them I was just on the phone. She said I was fine. At that moment I wished she would take my phone away and say I needed to rest. I wished she’d do what I couldn’t bring myself to say to my family member.
I was asked why again. I retreated. My vulnerability had been betrayed, and I needed to protect myself. “I don’t know” was all I had left to say. I heard words like “coward” and “selfish” through the phone. I slowly shut down.
I don’t remember the rest of the call or hanging up. What I do remember is feeling ashamed and embarrassed. My reasons hadn’t been good enough. My pain wasn’t bad enough. Ironically, it made me want to die even more.
I’ve forgiven my family member for this conversation, and they have made strides in being much more supportive. It isn’t uncommon for loved ones to feel anger after a suicide or attempt. Anger is a natural, valid emotion. That anger normally comes from a place of fear, anxiety and hurt, but there are ways to express these emotions without harming the person who is clearly already hurting.
I understand why Cooper and other suicide loss survivors ask why. But as someone who’s been through this, I can tell you the “why” might not be satisfying. The “why” doesn’t have a clear answer, and any answer you’d get won’t make their death or attempt seem right. Suicide isn’t OK, and no explanation will change that. What we can do is be there for suicide attempt survivors, even if we can’t understand their reasoning or feel as though their reasons are “enough.”
There may not be a good enough reason, but that doesn’t diminish the pain your loved one is in. It doesn’t diminish that the pain is so bad, the only solution your loved one sees is death. You should help them see that there are good enough reasons for staying. You can’t make them see the reasons for staying, but you can help them get there. And if they don’t get there, despite your help, that isn’t your fault.
Here are some suggestions to follow if you have a loved one who has attempted suicide, or if you ever find yourself in that situation.
- Watch your words. Your loved one isn’t selfish, cowardly, lazy, or anything of that nature. They’re hurting, and they certainly don’t need any more help putting themselves down.
- Instead of asking them why they did it, try asking them what you can do to help them feel better. The “why” is in the past, and it’s important to focus on the next steps. They may not know what they need, but it helps to know you’re there if they figure it out.
- Validate what they’re feeling. Do not assume their pain isn’t bad enough. Their pain is so bad they’d rather be dead. Your scale for “bad” has nothing to do with their emotions.
- Let them know how the situation made you feel, but do it when they’re ready to hear it. It was a month before I was able to talk to my friend about how the ordeal affected her. It wasn’t that I didn’t care. I was too busy trying to put myself back together, and I wasn’t emotionally able to hear how I had hurt someone I love.
- Your pain is valid, too. Find someone to talk to about it. Your loved one is the most affected, but that doesn’t mean the shockwaves aren’t felt by others.
And for those of you who have attempted, know that I hear you. I know there’s a lot to juggle after an attempt. You may feel it’s your responsibility to make everyone around you feel better about the situation, but that isn’t your job. Your only job is to keep fighting. It sucks sometimes, I know. But I believe in you, and one day, that indescribable pain that everyone wants to understand won’t feel so heavy anymore.
Image via Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore