Two days ago the news broke that Kate Spade had killed herself. Since then, I’ve been flooded with people online and in person talking about how “I guess money can’t buy happiness” and “you never know how people are really feeling” and “she hid her pain so well.” News reports are suggesting marital problems, identity issues, depression. And all of those things might be true. But here’s the thing. They might not be either. I think that we, even professionals in the field, have this idea that people who commit suicide live in a deep pit of sadness. That they are long-suffering, lonely, and despondent. We plead for them to “reach out” and ask for help. We advertise the hotlines and our kitchen tables, where there’s always a warm cup of tea and a friendly ear. Again, those things are great and I would never argue that there aren’t millions of people who have been helped by the suicide hotlines and caring loved ones. On the other hand though, sometimes suicidal people aren’t sad or lonely. Sometimes love and friendship aren’t the cure.
Four months ago, my father died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He wasn’t sad or lonely. For the month before his death he had been stressed out about his job and his finances. He hadn’t been sleeping. He wasn’t long suffering and he wasn’t alone. He had been seeing a therapist and a physician, who prescribed him a medication to try to help him sleep. He was with his wife nearly 24 hours a day. He’d been in regular contact with all of us. From what I can piece together though, in the days before he died he lost touch with reality and started to believe things that weren’t true or logical. Sleep deprivation can cause psychosis and it seems like he started to get paranoid beyond reasoning.
He had access to help lines. He was seeing a therapist. All of us were in contact with him and he knew how much we loved him. He was invested in his family and his grandkids. In clinical terms, he was “future oriented.” He didn’t write eloquent notes or give away his belongings. We had NO idea that this was something he was capable of, to the point that when the police informed me of what had happened (via Facetime, thank you technology), my first response was “Are you sure?”
My dad was a writer. Not an author, but he wrote things down and he kept them. After he died I went through thousands of pieces of paper. After death there is no privacy. Most of it was mundane, but some of it was difficult to read. My father was human, no doubt. But even in those personal pages that he never intended to be seen by anyone else, there was no sadness, no desperation. No evidence of a slow-burning depression that none of us noticed.
I think what I’m trying to say is this. We need to continue to encourage people to be kind. To love each other and to reach out to each other. Suicide hotlines are an incredible resource for a lot of people. Our country still has work to do on de-stigmatizing mental illness. But we also need to acknowledge that sometimes, those things wouldn’t have helped. Kate Spade’s family and friends may be just as shocked as we were that this happened, and the suggestion that a cup of tea or the help line phone number could have prevented this tragedy minimizes the devastation that they’re going through. It suggests that had they been better, more loving, more attentive, this might have ended differently.
If you are feeling suicidal, please do reach out. Tell someone. And if they don’t listen, tell someone else. Call 1-800-273-8255. My dad, ironically now, always said that suicide was a permanent solution to a temporary problem and that it causes so much more pain then it resolves. If you feel like your loved one is in danger, do something. Reach out. Reach out again. Talk to them. Tell them you love them. Call 911. But know too that sometimes you can’t see it coming. If you know someone who has lost a loved one to suicide, and you probably do, please be conscious that well-intentioned Facebook memes suggesting cups of tea or hotlines may be helpful, but they may also implicitly suggest that the friends and family didn’t do enough or that they could have done more.