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2

Suicide is a taboo subject for conversation. Particularly what makes a person want to commit suicide or what to say in the face of their pain.

“A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future.”
― Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

Suicide is a subject almost everyone has thought of at some point or the other. Almost everyone has wondered what it would be like to end our own life or how it could be done without confronting the great fear - pain, suffocation or other discomforts. Yet suicide remains a taboo subject. The feelings behind suicide. What makes someone commit suicide. We can talk statistics or prevention or helplines, but in the face of actual pain that drives a person to suicide, we have no skills. There is a difference between contemplating suicide and planning to commit suicide. An important one. The first is a fairly common and natural response to unbearable negative emotions. The other is an irreversible action.

I admit I have often considered suicide. I have written about suicide before too. From a perspective of statistics, from a perspective of understanding widespread distress needing political answers, from a perspective of empathy when I read about suicide, from a perspective of failing to support and grieving when someone I know commits suicide and I have also considered suicide as an option to end my own life when I was very sad. Yet, whenever I have tweeted about the subject, I have immediately got responses that amount to stopstopstopstopstopstopstopstopSTOP! It is so immediate that it would be hilarious if the subject were not grave. I have got helpline numbers as replies, I have got advice to not let dark thoughts enter my mind.

Hello! I write and tweet and comment and contemplate issues of human rights abuse. How in the world can one do that without having any dark thoughts? If I were planning to commit suicide, why would I be tweeting instead of finding myself a rope? I understand that it can sometimes be a cry for help by a distraught person, but if the rest of the words are perfectly normal, where is the harm in reading to find out what is being said?

Because here is the thing. Even if a person were tweeting about suicide publicly as a last ditch call for attention and help, the last thing they'd need is to be told to shut up or a sea of platitudes. What they would be needing is an empathetic listener who cares.

What exactly is this fear of talking about suicides?

“The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

I admit I have spent a great deal of time contemplating committing suicide over the years. As in killing myself. I have been in unhappy relationships involving heartbreak, I've been in an abusive marriage with an alcoholic, I've been a broke single mother of a disabled child. Despair and depression are no strangers. And yet I am here, typing this post.

I have actually found thinking about suicide in great detail helpful. Instead of fearing the pain of death (and thus possibly taking a rash step "while I have the courage" maybe after a glass or two of vodka), I've gone and researched methods of suicide. What would cause the least pain? What are the consequences of failure? What is the best method so that it causes least pain and least risk of failing and living with permanent damage? And anyone who knows me knows that when I say research, I mean obsessive information finding till I am convinced I know the subject in and out without actual experience. Enough to make a very well considered decision. On and off, when I'm in utter despair, I've gone and rechecked all the information. And yet here I am, typing all this.

Is this a guarantee I will never commit suicide? No. But it pretty much guarantees that I have given it thorough thought and not found it a better tradeoff for now. It guarantees that if I do it, it will not be a thoughtless impulse, but a decision I take about my life after considering all options I have.

So how has contemplating suicide helped me?

By giving me an option. By giving me an exit from the pain. By giving me the concrete information that if all this gets unbearable, I still have the option to exit. In the process, a miracle happens. I am no longer cornered by my despair. I always have the cheat route out. And because I know that, I am never out of options. I lose the fear of making attempts to change my circumstances that could fail.  Just allowing myself to spend time thinking about ending myself is a catharsis. If no one else, at least I am acknowledging how bad things are. I am listening to myself. It helps me feel heard. It gives me a vocabulary for describing my situation when asking for help. No, I don't mean "I am suicidal, help me or else." I mean "This, this and this is the reason for my despair. I am not able to see functional ways out. I need help." - because hello, I've gone through all the reasons in my contemplation and have them now sorted out in my head.

And sometimes, in a very cynical way, the contemplations have saved me. If I don't care whether I live or die, why not try this one last thing or the other? If I hit a dead end, I can always die.

“Killing myself was a matter of such indifference to me that I felt like waiting for a moment when it would make some difference.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man

Here is an example how. When I was younger, my emotions were more volatile. Taking what I felt seriously and giving it serious thought helped me see things more clearly and invariably, I ended up thinking that if there was any hope, I could use it and if there wasn't, well, I could always die. But the well thought out option being there and not at any threat of being taken off the table gave me the confidence to know I could opt for it any time and there was no need to do it right now. I could afford to wait and see. I am truly grateful no one immediately tried to stop me at such times, or I'd have been tempted to use the opportunity before someone blocked it from me.

Now I am older. I have a young disabled child. Whoever knows me knows that I'd chew my arm off before I allowed anything to harm him. Well, losing a mom would definitely harm him. So suicide is totally not an option any more. At least while he is alive. He needs me. Period. Again, if I hadn't thought this through, I could have been at risk of giving up without considering the impact.

In some of my more selfish and melodramatic ways, I've even thought "What will be, will be" If I am not there, someone or the other will care for my son, though I can't imagine who, right now. But then, in such a melodramatic moment, the desire is also to leave a lasting mark on the world when I die. And oops, it is not "orphaned kid in moment of despair". I'd like to be remembered for something better, thank you very much.

Whatever it is. Others may have their own reasoning. Still others may come to a well considered decision that suicide is actually a good choice for them, When my father was dying of Parkinson's, he had the option of looking forward to an indeterminate bed ridden existence with little control over his body, being bored out of his wits and too exhausted to do anything about it but to wait to die. He begged me to kill him almost every week. It is illegal and I have two more dependents, or I would definitely have arranged for him to be freed as per his will if it were legal. Others do it out of poverty. Starvation. When the alternative is to live in debt and watch your family suffer with no hope of ever providing for them in sight, it can be a brutal life to look forward to, and death may simply be a matter of running out of the ability to fight.

“Let them think what they liked, but I didn't mean to drown myself. I meant to swim till I sank -- but that's not the same thing.”
― Joseph Conrad, The Secret Sharer and other stories

Whatever it is, however it plays out, a suicide is not about dying or exiting the world, it is about escaping unbearable torment. A person who feels unheard and uncared for, is unlikely to respond to a panicked flood of platitudes that s/he has heard a hundred times that drowns their voice all over again, even in the contemplation of death.

How agonized we are by how people die. How untroubled we are by how they live. ~ P. Sainath

My suggestion is that we all examine what this fear is that stops us from listening on hearing that word. Because the lives of many around us could depend on how we respond to their pain. If someone has made a well considered decision to die, there isn't much we can do about it, but if someone is screaming into a void of despair, perhaps us offering a listening ear will give them the space to be heard, and in the process get a clearer view of their situation.

What do you think?

4

This morning, my mother woke me up telling me that my father was no longer breathing. It wasn't entirely unexpected. He was suffering from Parkinsons and had deteriorated rapidly in recent times. And he had suffered. Coming awake in a hurry, I checked him. No breath, no pulse, he was still warm. My mother had seen his last breaths and stayed with him to comfort him before waking me up.

I called the doctor, who confirmed the death and issued a certificate. My father had wanted to donate his body. However the delays with arriving relatives and his extensive bedsores along with having to cross district lines to submit his body to the Anatomy department at JJ led us to decide to cremate him locally.

It was the strangest day I have lived through on many levels.

My father was many people. To his siblings, he was a devoted brother. To his many nephews and nieces, he was a doting uncle. To my mother, he was someone who undermined her constantly and was frequently cruel to. To me, he was Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Someone who encouraged me to pursue achievements and also someone who disowned me in what he perceived as failure. A large part of my adult life had troubles directly born from trying to exit his home. He was the one to go on a tour with my mother while I returned to his home separated from my husband. He gave another key to the home to the husband I was trying to leave. He manipulated me into coming to live with him when trying to exit an abusive marriage, only to force me back with a disabled infant in tow. He has wished my mother and me dead over the years, predicted that we would have long and paralyzed lives and worse.

He was an extremely self-sufficient man and could cook, clean and do whatever was needed to keep the home running. He did not like household help and when my mom wanted to hire a maid, he took over sweeping, mopping and washing utensils rather than hire one. While he constantly berated my mother for not acting more housewifely (any and every reason would do - housework was just one), he most certainly never expected her to be the only person working in the home (they both had jobs and incomes). His abuse was more an issue of control than misogyny. He'd support me to become a brain surgeon, but not to make choices he wouldn't allow, for example. He happily supported my mother going on her own for the Kailash Parikrama, but in routine life, her salary went to his hands on payday and she never had over twenty rupees in her purse till I hit my teens, then, with inflation it became fifty, then a hundred - for emergency expenses strictly. No whimsical snacks or rickshaw rides. Nor did he ever buy her a single ornament if he could avoid it.

To be honest, I've never seen my mother complain other than occasionally when she really wanted something. She lived as frugally as him, initially to repay the loan for their home, and then to save for their old age. Neither of them smoked, drank alcohol or had other habits commonly understood as vices. My dad's addiction was junk and they both loved to travel and lived unbelievably frugally to fund travel without touching savings.

My father was a tinkerer. A compulsive DIYer who haunted flea markets and junk shops to bring home broken treasures to be brought back to life and gifted or used. While I thankfully don't scour the world to bring junk home, I do think I got my tendency to do stuff myself at his knee, holding a solder wire as he fixed something with the iron, helping him create furniture for his home, reading tiny tiny numbers on electronic parts with my sharp eye for him, or using things for purposes other than they were designed for.

He was an avid traveler all his adult life, and organized travel would give way to two treks a year in later decades. There was no such thing as a summer vacation without a tour to some far away place. And then Himalayan treks. Strangely, by the time I grew up, our rift was so deep, that in spite of him having a daughter who did specialized cultural tours and extreme treks in the Himalaya for a living, we have never been on a trek together. Ever.

Perhaps one thing many would appreciate was his successful saving. He purchased his own home in Vile Parle before he married my mother (though both of them worked to pay off the loan well into the marriage). He saved like a religion. And for someone who had only one job in life - as a factory worker (and machine setter at the end) - he saved enough to be still offering people in need money and affording two treks a year and trying to buy a second home well into his retirement (long story). He wasn't rich by the standards of today's upper middle class, but given the frugality of their life, he had enough to cover his needs indefinitely. I did not get this from him. my financial planning is dismal. I may have supported with care in his last days, but to his last breath, he could most certainly afford all he needed.

To his friends from work, he was a mentor. An elder brother who guided them true in their work and life. One of his friends had come today. Tears streaming down his face to see the pitiful state my father had been reduced to, from a fit and physical ex-bodybuilder, ex-factory worker, ex-trekker. I was able to give him some peace when I shared that their visits in the preceding months had brought my father great joy.

He is also the man who hosted ice cream parties for my cousins and me in the summer vacations when color television and VCRs were a novelty so we could watch films and have fun. He was the one to unfailingly rush to the side of his siblings when they fell ill, serve them tirelessly and offer as much money as he could to them.

Today, I would meet many of these cousins. People whose eyes welled with tears to see his body on the floor when all I could feel was relief at no longer having to change dirty diapers for someone who didn't recognize me for most of the last months, and was unlikely to be happy about it if he did. The benevolent figure they lost today, I'd lost somewhere in my teenage. For someone who had lived with him around the clock for the last ten months, I did not recognize the person they were mourning. The person who was lying dead had little left in him that would support life. He had spent the last few months in pain. He had lost control over his body to the point that the last few days before he died, he had even been unable to open his eyes or swallow more than a few spoonfuls. What was to mourn? This was freedom. Freedom for him from pain, freedom for my mother caring for him round the clock in her old age, freedom for me from the exhausting effort of caring for someone you would have preferred to not run into at all again.

Today, my mother looks exhausted, but far lighter than she did last night.

Did I wish him ill? Not at all. The man who had done untold harm to my life was not the slowly dying man who came into my home ten months ago. This was simply an old and scared man knowing he had a difficult future awaiting and knowing there was no way he could escape it. He had all my compassion, but I felt little attachment. Would I prefer for him to have been alive? Not at all. It was time for him to go. For his own sake too. I felt no guilt for not caring, because my conscience was clear that I had done all I could for him while it could make a difference.

I didn't particularly like my father. He was of a judgmental nature and had let me down in some of my worst times in life. While he had been a paragon to his blood relatives and colleagues, at home, he had been cruel to my mother and me as well once I entered my teens. I hadn't lived with him for the most part of my life and frankly had no ambition to be around him at all till his fall last May brought the parents crashing back into my life. His condition had deteriorated too much for them to live safely on their own. My mother was not capable of caring for him alone. I rented a larger place in a hurry while we extended his stay in hospital so we could move him here.

In these months, I saw another side of my father. The monster who kept trying to drive me out of his home was another creature while living in my home. He was a helpless old man who pined to see the home he had purchased with his sweat and blood one last time before he died. A wish we were not able to fulfill, because of his condition, and the fact that we were two women and a disabled child other than him in the home, with no real manpower for the kind of effort it would have to be.

He was also an intensely proud man humbled by circumstances and humiliated by having to live in the home of a daughter he had driven away. He saw many of the curses he had heaped on my mother and me come true about him with his extended helplessness in a bitter twist that life can be. He was often a very frustrated, sad man, and my mother, as usual was the one to bear the brunt of his anger.

But all was not bad. Before he lost his mental faculties, he did attempt to build a tentative and more respectful relationship with me. In turn, I lost a lot of my bitterness and contempt for him, because he simply wasn't the man who had caused them anymore. We would never be close, but we did develop a carefully polite relationship that did not create new hurts and allowed for the occasional casual or even profound conversation, like when he told me that he did not want to be admitted to a hospital no matter what, since what he had couldn't be cured. He would rather not prolong the discomfort and leave my mother money instead of finishing it on a lost cause. Another time, we had a conversation on assisted suicide and even euthanasia which was pretty raw and helpless given that I agreed with him, but both were not options by law. While he never apologized to my mother to his dying breath nor stopped venting his anger on her, he did learn to appreciate the uncomplaining tenacity with which she served him, in spite of being a patient of schizophrenia herself.

These ten months, he got time to spend with his grandchild. Said grandchild adored him, since he was the only one in the home who was slow enough and idle enough to offer endless entertainment. Nisarga used to go into peals of laughter the minute my father started walking - something he never did for anyone else. Perhaps he thought it was exciting when my father did it, because it was clearly so much effort and achievement for him? Regardless, his hysterical squeals would get my father laughing helplessly to the point where we worried if he'd fall from laughing. This was the only thing that could make him laugh, when his face was not even able to smile anymore. And I was glad that they both had this time together.

It was a day where I wanted to burst into a grin while many were fighting tears. And many, many reflections. While not a sad day for me, it was profound. It was also a sort of transition. I'd been promoted by circumstances to the position of the "man of the house" where the other two members were an aged woman and a disabled child.

So today he lay there and we were discussing who lights his pyre. An aunt was adamant that women can and should do it when appropriate, and as his only child, me doing it was appropriate. My mother-in-law disapproved of women at crematoriums at all. My mother thought that the person who took responsibility for him in the tough time prior to his death should do it, which was me (as opposed to me just being his daughter). Me, I'm an atheist. I don't really care who cremates someone. The easiest way to resolve the issue would be for me to murmur that I don't want to do it. It would be a graceful exit. No one would pressure a woman to light a cremation pyre. However, just because women don't do it as per social tradition, I thought I should. I most certainly had the right as his only child in a world attempting modernity (no other women from the family came to the crematorium regardless), and I did it. There were no last rites to be done. Both my parents had done them while still alive. It was a matter of lighting the thing. I did it. I even did it in the traditional manner, holding the torches behind me, for respect of the beliefs of others there.

As we watched the pyre burn, the question came up of returning the next day to collect his remains for immersing in flowing water. I wasn't interested. I didn't see the point leaving my bereaved mother alone (not to mention what impact today would have on her schizophrenia) at home to do yet another rite, and if he'd got his wish of body donation, there wouldn't be remains anyway. I knew for certain that my mother didn't care about this, but said that I'd discuss it with her when we got home, and return for them, if she wanted it done. My lack of interest probably alarmed cousins who consider it as a closure, and one of them found a way of getting it done with a short wait, using the bones of the lower part of body, that burns faster.

Strangely, while I didn't think of it as a ritual closure, I was glad that we did that. It resulted in a nice drive to the beautiful Agashi beach and the release of the bones into the sea. The bones, to me did not matter so much, but after the ugliness of the last few months, the beauty and peace of the beach was a much better scene to close the story with.

Asthi Visarjan
Asthi Visarjan

And thus it is done. My father died today, got cremated and his remains released back to nature. A fitting end, I think for someone who has been a passionate trekker for decades before his Parkinson's flaring up in his last trek to the Everest Base Camp a few years ago.

He is free. We are free.