On death and suicide

Facebook post on 15 June, 2020.

A rising star dies. He has decided to end his life. My Facebook timeline fills up with shock and grief. With messages about that term ‘mental health’ which seems to be everywhere these days.

In a month and a half, we have seen many beloveds from the cinema die. Irrfan, Rishi Kapoor, Yogesh, Basu Chatterjee. Now Sushant, who took his own life.

Perhaps the times call to us to look at our relationship with death. Perhaps to live without relationship to this fact, the only other fact that is as pervasive, as insuppressible, as life, would be to live as half a human being.

In my 35 years, I have lost four persons I was close to, to death. Four friends, all of them men, young, middle-aged, and elderly. The last of these was the death of 89-year old Brother Barrett two and a half years ago. I knew him for three years before he died, having met him while writing a dissertation on the meaning of prayer in our inner life. He was unable to read anymore, age having weakened his eyes. I would read to him. The Bible. Some modern Christian texts of the contemplative life. When I first met him, with another friend, he was reading, or rather listening to, Harsh Mander’s book ‘Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India’.

He had seen new India come into being, having lived here since he came in 1954 as a 26-year old, teaching in the various schools that his order had established. He spoke to me of his prayer life, his loneliness, his deep love for a woman he had known for over 20 years. After our conversations, he would walk slowly with me to the gate of the school where he lived.

In January 2018, when a common friend told me that Brother Barrett had died a few days ago, I immediately felt deeply connected to him. I felt that he would have thought of me in his last days, that he had something to say. That something to say, kinship, love, friendship, was still being said. I felt he had moved to the other world, the world he had deep faith in, and the world whose presentiment he had lived with in all his years on this earth.

A deep stillness stayed with me for several days, as if it were a parting gift from him. I attended the memorial mass for him. Recited hymns together with thirty-odd other people whose lives had been touched, moved, shifted by his in various ways. I went to his grave a few times in the months to come. Laid down flowers, prayed, communicated with him.

His death was an event that deepened our relationship. That brought alive what had been the essence of our friendship, a shared love for the texts we read, for the togetherness of persons of different religious traditions, such as the two of us. Those texts remain part of my life. The pain of his absence was accompanied by the meaningfulness of what he left me with. His death was, strange as it may sound, the culmination of our relationship.

Too often, we don’t wish to think of death. It disturbs us, shakes our core.

When someone chooses to take their own life, it is a painful choice they have made to put an end to this body, hoping that the feelings they have will also end. Perhaps they will. Or perhaps not.

I wonder how I would respond if Sushant had spoken to me in the last few weeks. People do often speak of dying in the work I do.

I would not have told him to stop thinking about suicide. I would have stayed with the fact that this is a wish that a human being can have, and that most human beings have had, at some time or the other in their lives. My goal would not be to treat it like one of the illnesses frequently being added to the compendiums of mental illness, making him feel ashamed of having such a thought, something to be cured, something that must not be spoken of for it will raise alarm and admonishment – all ingredients of this word social science gives us: ‘abnormalisation’.

The law, until four years ago, would make a suicide attempt a punishable crime. The law now makes psychiatric medication a compulsory part of a mental health professional’s response to a person who wishes to die, the professional being liable to be punished if he doesn’t comply. We tell the person to ‘think positive’. Therapists begin therapy with a ‘no suicide pact’. Our turning all thought and talk of death into a taboo, and all desire for suicide into something abnormal, go hand in hand.

Like every other feeling and every other desire that is simplistically repressed, out of shame or fear, made to go to the periphery of consciousness by the hysteria it may evoke if expressed, the wish to suicide has a buoyancy. It comes back. The more it is repressed, the more it returns explodingly, impulsively, when inner turmoil upsets our set mental habits.

The wish to kill oneself is neither a disease to be treated, nor a sin for us to be purified from. To treat it as that is the superstition of a modern society, which seeks to overcome aging and death, spending tremendous resources trying to do so. The wish to die is an expression of the human condition, a wish that no human being that I have deeply known has never had in their life, however light or heavy its force, however small or perpetual its duration has been.

Let us learn to talk to each other about our suffering without making it a problem to be fixed, an abnormality to be ashamed of. Let us find a relationship to death that is one of fullness and engagement with the pain it brings, and with the inspiration it can bring.

It could be a mystical perception of what dies and what does not, which all spiritual traditions speak of. Or it could be it a straight, unflinching look at the inevitable fact that this life is finite and will end – a perception that infuses life into our lives, into our hopes, and makes us feel more intensely that we can choose meaning over meaninglessness, purpose over floating around with destiny. Spiritual, existentialist, humanist, whatever kindles our flame, a relationship with death makes for far better mental health, or preferably, a far richer inner life, than the abnormalisation of it.

It is not a coincidence that the further we get into the depths of modernity, into a disengagement with the meaning of death, rates of suicide continue to increase. Only when removed from this framing as abnormality-disease-sin, we will truly engage with the choice of death that a person may be contemplating. We will actually, then, see less of suicide, for it will not be banished into the unconscious, only to be brought back by the buoyancy of the repressed.

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