Suicide. A terrifying, endlessly sad word. One that makes the abstraction of death so real, a sharp slap to the deepest part of our minds and hearts.
Recently, two teenagers, survivors of the 2018 Parkland school shooting, took their own lives. They were young with a lifetime ahead, yet that path lay dark, offered no joy, no love. Stunned, we weep for them, for their lives now gone.
There are suicides that make some sense, where we can understand the choice, where it seems reasonable, although we might not do the same. These are end-of-life suicides, when a person suffering from a terminal illness has only a few months to live and may be faced with spending those days in great pain or unconsciously medicated. In California and a few other states, someone in that condition can choose to end their life. A life where the future is short, its road narrowed to the soon to come end. Knowing this choice, family and friends can say goodbye and embrace the one who has decided to die.
But when suicides are abrupt, without warning and, perhaps, with only a final note, we cannot say goodbye or talk to our son or daughter or close friend. We are simply shocked and distraught, deeply saddened because a once joyous life has left this earth and our lives.
One who decides to do this, one who is young and beginning their journey full of laughs, gaining wisdom and experiencing the happiness of love, is often in darkness, covered with its thickness, unable to see beyond its meaningless enclosure. Unable to see any light in a tight, windowless room. Unable to see any way ahead. None.
When he was 27, with the fullness of a future waiting, my son took his life. He lived far away, and while we talked, I had no idea that he would soon decide to jump from a bridge, jump from life. When he was a teenager, we were close, talked ideas, watched some football, played some tennis. We were father and son. Then he was gone. Gone. And I am here, still wondering why he decided to take his life, wondering what I could have done to help him out of his darkness, wondering about the joys we would have shared. I look at his picture looking down, probably at a book, in Amsterdam. My daughter, his sister, has a shrine of his pictures in her home.
Each day as the news ponders and hashes over political issues, it is too easy for us to forget that individuals suffer, not political parties, not partisan arguers. Deaths like the loss of a parent or child to old age, to dementia, to an illness like cancer. Deaths like the Christchurch hate shootings, like those who die in fires and floods. Death comes to people who breathe, who have aspirations, who have families and friends. They, too, will suffer.
Suicide, though, seems so different because the one who dies has chosen to do so. It’s not the victim of nature or hate, but of a terrible, suffocating night. Each time we hear about a suicide like those of the Parkland teenagers, we must pause and open our hearts to voices in the night.
Jack Hernandez is a retired director of the Norman Levan Center of the Humanities at Bakersfield College. The opinions expressed are his own.