My daughter, Martha, and I both began to think of suicide in our teen years. The difference between us is that she killed herself at the age of eighteen, while I have lived for decades after that, long enough to father and survive her.
I do not think that my survival as compared to her death represents any greater virtue, intelligence, or sanity in me. Rather, I think it represents a disagreement about something fundamental: what, if anything, is more valuable than one’s own life. In my view, perhaps the only thing more valuable is saving the life of a loved one. Whereas she evidently thought something else was more valuable.
Even six years after her death, I am not sure what that is. From what I know of her, it might have been escape from suffering. It might also have been a noble or magnificent ending, or freedom from the tyranny of people telling her to stay alive. People have killed themselves or let themselves be killed for honor, dignity, country, God, revolt against meaninglessness, unrequited love, the wish to free others from the burden of caring for them, desire to be reunited with a loved one in the afterlife. It may be that one or more of these ideas contributed to Martha’s death.
Since Martha’s death, I have read a lot about preventing suicide, in the hope that I might help to save others from that fate. And almost everything I read is pitifully inadequate to the task. Most of it assumes that suicidal people are mentally ill, and seeks to prevent suicide by treating their illness through medication and psychotherapy. Well, Martha had three years of medication and psychotherapy, and all I have to show for it is one dead daughter. Maybe that model can help others, but in Martha’s case it failed.
If your son or daughter is suicidal, and I had to counsel you, I would suggest that, whatever else you do, you try to understand, sympathetically and without prejudice, what your child values more than life. It might be something you also value highly, or it might be alien to you. But the first step is to assume that your child is a thinking person—not a nut, weakling, or idiot, but a rational being weighing goods to determine their relative values, as all rational beings do. The next step is to fight the temptation to assume that your view is right and your child’s is wrong, but instead to try to understand thoroughly the grounds for your child’s view. Then you can try to explain the grounds for your view.
If your case is good, you might persuade your child. But you might not, because your case will probably rest on experiences and presuppositions that your child does not share and cannot be forced to share. But at least, as a first step, you would have shown your love for your child by treating him or her with the full respect and compassion merited by a human. And that alone might be new evidence for your child of how valuable his or her life is.