I can’t remember where I heard the story; but a gentleman invited all his friends to a Farewell Party. As I recall, he was a friendly enough chap with a houseboat on the Thames. That probably means up near Chiswick or beyond – although I’m no expert on houseboats or, come to that, the river Thames. Never mind, he had a houseboat and having sent out all the invitations by word or on paper, he bought in the nibbles and the wine, sorted out the record player and selected all the best dance music that he had.
It would be the best party he’d ever give in his life.
It all went swimmingly. No, perhaps that’s not quite the right word, given that he had a houseboat; suffice it to say that everybody had a wonderful time. Everybody was saying goodbye to him, and he was always surprisingly vague about where he was travelling. Nevertheless, a farewell it was, and everybody said their farewells in the nicest and friendliest way possible.
Naturally enough, everybody was expecting a postcard, and given that at the time it could take weeks for one to travel from some far flung part of the world where they imagined he’d gone. Oddly enough, none came. After a month or so, a friend checked up on him to find that he hadn’t travelled anywhere at all.
He’d committed suicide.
I’m writing this post because there are several extremely important issues to note about this story. The first is that he said nothing about his intentions, and this is not uncommon for those who fully intend to end their lives. This isn’t going to be an essay on the levels of despair that lead people to see no future for themselves; I’ve been there myself – the origins of which I am not going to discuss publicly at this point. Suffice it to say that my ex didn’t listen and cared less. My kids were too little and my parents too distant.
If you haven’t been in this position, you will know someone who has.
What I want to look at here are the warning signs of a potential suicide. They aren’t so hard to spot, but they are not the traditional, outward signs of someone telling everybody that they’re going to top themselves. There is one rule in psychology that is hard and fast: look to what a person does and not to what they say. This is the key to understanding my forthcoming post on fake news; it will be crucial to you if you want to keep an otherwise happy looking friend from ending it all.
So when someone tells you that they’re going to commit suicide, take it with a pinch of salt. That doesn’t mean you should be any the less concerned for them; they want an ear, and shocking people in this way is sometimes the only way to get it. I have no trouble with people who do this, we all have our ways of grabbing attention and we all have times when we need someone to listen. Whilst you listen to them, be assured that they will retreat from their intention as they pour out their miseries to you. You’ll both be awake in the morning to enjoy a pot of tea.
There is one thing in the way the determined suicide leads up to the point where they end their life, and it is that they care what happens once they’ve gone. This is the first key to understanding the suicide.
The genuinely suicidal will think of their friends. The fake-news story about the suicide of the Germanwings pilot took no account of this whatsoever, and in concocting other elements of the story, effectively undermined their credibility. It was quite clear that they didn’t understand the realities of the situation. A further exploration of this topic I leave to that future post.
Suffice it to say that the true suicide does not want to make any difficulties for their friends – forgetting the emotional side of things, of course. The person wishing to commit suicide, as is common with allillusions of this kind, will usually ignore important elements of the psychological jigsaw. The pilot taking a planeload of passengers with is not the usual course of events. Hanging himself in his bedroom later that night most certainly is.
This is the second key to suicide. Valuables. Whatever we do in our lives, there will always be things we have that are dear to us in one way or another. In contemplating my own suicide it came to me that getting rid of three quarters of my possessions would be easy. The last quarter would be harder, and dealing with three quarters of that would be difficult but not impossible. The last tiny bits would be extremely difficult to part with.
It must be clearly stated here that the value of these objects has nothing to do with their cost. Value in the strict sense of the word has nothing to do with money, and anybody who confuses the two will find doing business a matter of how to lose money and not make it.
In the case of the determined suicide, and I have to say here that by the time my circumstances had changed – I must add that it was a stroke of luck rather than anything else – I had disposed of half my belongings. I was well along the way, I hadn’t gotten to the difficult bit: what to do with the things one truly values.
I must add that there are spontaneous suicides that leaves a person dead in the way they die in a road accident. I cannot say that I know the statistics, but my bet is that this form of suicide is less frequent than the determined kind. Whatever the facts, the point is that with a spontaneous suicide there is nothing one can do but wipe up the mess afterwards and go through their phone book to contact their friends.
Back to topic: the real issue here is that whislt the individual isn’t going to talk about their suicide, they will be giving their possessions to their friends. I was brought this jewel courtesy of AFN Stuttgart who were running a series at the time, and you can imagine, it hit home. I hadn’t untangled the issue about value at that point, but the reality of the situation remained with me all those years.
In short, if you see one of your friends giving away their treasured possessions, an old teddybear, a photograph or a selection of their most treasured books, their cello or saxophone, the alarm bells should be ringing.
Because they aren’t going to tell you.