Trying to make sense of suicide

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What does it take for a person to decide to commit suicide? What psychic pain is so unbearable that only death can liberate you from it, can lead you to discount the way your act leaves permanent scars on the people you love and who love you? My clinical psychology training leaves me no closer to answering these unanswerable questions than any man or woman on the street.

In graduate school, one of my teachers was Dr. Edwin Shneidman who, in his day, was the country’s foremost expert on suicide, the creator of a field awkwardly named suicidology. I learned from him not to medicalize suicide by treating it as an illness, but to see it instead as an existential cry of pain, an ache that cannot be quieted merely by the prescription of medication or by conventional therapy. I learned from him that people who attempt suicide are highly likely to try again if their original attempt failed. But something very crucial is missing. To paraphrase Dylan Thomas, there are a thousand things to know about a wasp, except why.

This why question haunts me because Michael Kelly committed suicide last week. I’ve known Michael for more than 30 years when he was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan dating one of my daughter’s roommates. When he and Lucy married, they settled in Chicago, his hometown and when we landed there as well, we were able to stay in touch. Michael became a powerhouse school social worker in several suburban Chicago communities, landing finally in schools in his hometown of Oak Park. For a time, he shared some of his personal writing with me. He was interested in the way I wrote about my work in schools in a more literary than academic style. Some of the writings he shared were about his struggles with depression. They stunned me. Michael presented himself as cheerful, upbeat, energetic and supremely self-confident. How many times do we have to learn how little we can read from these external signals that so often mask inner turmoil?

Despite these dark shadows that haunted him out of view of the people he worked with and the many who admired him, Michael continued to accomplish amazing things. He ran marathons. He earned his Ph.D. in social work. He asked me to serve on his dissertation committee, which gave me the chance to read his ambitious study based on a survey of school social workers in Illinois which confirmed his fear that too many of his colleagues were trapped into allotting the bulk of their time to processing the Individual Education Plans (IEPs) of special needs students rather than building programs of social/emotional support that would benefit the entire school community.

Michael joined the faculty of Loyola University in Chicago where he built an international reputation in his field, including a permanent partnership with programs at Oxford University. Professionally he was a super star with a career that would be the envy of many.

I have an image of Michael that I wish existed on film, not just behind my eyes. He and Lucy brought their two-month-old twin boys to Elana’s wedding. In the middle of the night the inn they were staying in sounded a fire alarm, triggering an evacuation of all the residents. There was Michael standing outside with an infant carrier in each hand waiting out what turned out to be a false alarm. Thirteen years later I watched him exuberantly circulating through the crowd of celebrants at those boys’ bar mitzvahs, just as he had for his older son’s coming of age. I recall these two images to emphasize how he and Lucy had built a family and a marriage that was also worthy of envy – or seemed so in any case.

And what was someone named Michael Kelly doing with kids who were being bar mitzvahed? He was a Catholic who never abandoned his faith. When his father died, Rosellen and I attended a celebration of his life at his Oak Park church. He had been a part of a kind of spinoff group of politically progressive church members who had built a strong supportive community. It was no accident that Michael’s middle name was Stokely. Nonetheless, he and Lucy had agreed to raise their children Jewish which Michael appeared unambivalently comfortable with. I can picture him sitting proudly on the bima of the synagogue in Oak Park where his three boys were all confirmed. It’s also the same synagogue where his funeral will have been held before you read these words.

Michael had friends much closer than I who could add a cornucopia’s worth of stories about his amazing qualities and strengths. They would simply deepen the question of why someone who had accomplished so much and still had so much more to accomplish and take pleasure in would close the book of his life so prematurely. I understand that everything I’ve described from outside added up differently for Michael. I’ve read accounts of people in deep depression who are completely immobilized and unable to find any compelling reason to go on, but I still lack the imagination to understand it.

When we lived in New Hampshire, we knew a man named Rick Chollet, a hugely successful entrepreneur who founded in our town the Brookstone Corporation, now an international presence in almost every airport in the world. Rick’s suicide stunned everyone who knew him. Everything about his life appeared to be a success, but it clearly didn’t add up that way to the sufferer himself. So it is with Michael.

And what am I to do with the anger I feel toward this wonderful man for the suffering he has inflicted on his wife, his children and his mother. Their lives are forever scarred by his act. What does their first daylook like back at school or in Lucy’s office where she practices medicine? Can there ever be another encounter with the outside world on which Michael’s suicide doesn’t cast a shadow? The only path to forgiveness lies in recognizing the pain from which he needed release. I can’t imagine that they’re ready to bestow that forgiveness on him right now when the implications for their own lives are in the foreground, but perhaps it will come with time.

When the date of Michael’s funeral was announced, I had to contact the person with whom I was supposed to meet that day to cancel and reschedule. In his response he said that he too had lost a brother to suicide. It reminded me of how many of us have been touched by these tragedies. Both Rosellen and I have suicides in our families, people we weren’t close to, but still their deaths have left an indelible mark on our family trees. I’m sure this will be true as  well for many of you who will read Michael’s story and wonder, as I have, about the mystery of a decision to give away something most of us cling to desperately.

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Marv Hoffman

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