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When it’s time to go and when it’s time to stay

Carrianne Leung is a writer and educator who works at OCAD University in Toronto. Her new book is That Time I Loved You.

If we are to consider suicide, we need to consider the conditions that make a sustainable life. We struggle to find language to talk about grief and mortality, so how are we to talk about suicide? This inability to explore the frightening zone of deciding life or death may be one of our failings in supporting those who haven’t made up their minds yet.

Suicide is complex and there is no one template to answer the resounding “why.” There isn’t a singular narrative that describes the quality of despair that makes someone take that last step. No offering of a pat answer. There are no simple answers to “Why” but there are conditions that can be gleaned from the statistics. Depression and trauma from colonialism, mental-health issues, illness, loneliness, racism, transphobia, ableism, queerphobia, bullying, poverty, unbearable pain or maybe just pain borne too long. There are cluster suicides, murder-suicides and assisted suicides. So many kinds and ways to choose to die – and so many whys – that it’s impossible to even talk about it as just one thing. But please let me try, and at least try to put words to this issue, as imperfect as it may be.

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When I was 11 or so, the mother of one of the kids on my street killed herself.

I remember the details of what, when and how, but I do not remember how I felt. The memory is a watery scene of muffled sounds, of the adults’ hushed voices, of slow motion. I remember the feeling of overwhelm that flooded me, of having to ingest something that exceeded my small world. The new information would have had to sit on the surface of my brain and slowly seep in, rearranging all my knowing. I remember my friend’s red-rimmed eyes and the way he sat in his garage for weeks instead of playing with the rest of us. I remember getting swept back into childhood because things happen quickly in childhood. Time passes, the tug of play is persistent, the pursuit of joy is unrelenting even as the world crumbles and falls. Our language became peppered once again with immature and overly dramatic declarations, “Oh my God, I just want to die!” and “I just want to kill myself” over minor embarrassing events or failing a math test.

When I was still young and in the throes of being so insistently alive, it was startling for me to be confronted with the desire for death. When the suicide happened on my street, I was just becoming conscious of life’s existentialist questions. I had just fallen in love for the first time with this wild boy who popped wheelies on his 10-speed, and so the shape of the world was held in a fine balance between this exciting beauty and the figure of my grieving friend in his garage. I wondered what kind of despair could make someone choose death over life, as I was just beginning to feel electrically alive. It took years before I understood that this was indeed choice. It is not true that I didn’t know unhappiness or even despair as a child. I knew plenty of it, but this understanding of choice was an important discovery for me. It gave me some leverage in my life even if the conditions of it did not allow me much space. The knowledge that there is the choice to live or die is a powerful one. I saw it as one to be feared, one to be careful about, one not to think about too much.

This proximity to suicide persisted in later childhood, in young adulthood and now.

I have known and loved people who I sensed walk on a thin edge. They are sometimes so barely there and I have witnessed their struggles to keep on the side of things where people are going through the motions of everyday life with seeming ease. I have sensed the exhaustion with life. I have asked people to please stay. Those who take their own life have their reasons, and I can only imagine the contemplation of both sides of the equation as agonizing. Perhaps, there is a point where there isn’t choice at all. Is this true? That some may not have had all the resources, all the support, the love to be able to see any possibility that might come in a day and a day after that, devastates me.

The dead have been people on the periphery of my life. I have witnessed what has been left in these tragedies’ wakes for the friends and families. I can’t comment on why any of the people who I knew ended their lives. I can only reflect on what remains. Each time has been shocking even in the situations where there were signs that it was coming. Each time, I feel the world move in slow motion. Each time, I am taken back to that first suicide, when I was still too young to have the language to talk about it and, in truth, still don’t.

The reasons for suicide are only things that I sense, not things that I know. The not knowing is sunk in the deep abyss where words or beauty can’t retrieve us from the sorrow and anger of someone we care about leaving on their own volition. Grieving over the loss of a person who died by suicide is conflated with this deep suffering of what we perceive to be the dead’s deep suffering. The confusion of this, the questions unanswered, the guilt and anger that lingers, the unspoken pact that says we must always choose life being broken are all heavy to bear.

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I am not the judge for someone else what is right or wrong, when it’s time to go and when it’s time to stay. When perusing sites on suicide prevention, I keep seeing the word “hope” mentioned again and again. Hope – this nebulous quality that I am never quite sure about. I use this word “hope” so sparingly in my own life, reserving it for moments when I have no other word to soothe. But where does hope come from? Are we to self-generate hope? Or does hope come from outside? What quality of hope is supposed to counter the quality of despair? Is hope a passive thing or is it a kind of justice? Can justice that would right the world of the conditions that make it so hard to live be the kind of hope we need to keep ourselves from dying? How much can hope be sustained by an individual and what do we need in terms of a collective? How can hope be a structural thing?

At the end of it all, I hope you all stay. I hope for “good deaths” where we all live into old age and quietly slip into death in a moment of peace. I hope all the people we love are by our side to help us make that final transition. By hoping for this, what I am actually saying is that I hope for you a good life. I hope for these things, but I am no longer a child.

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