Olive Kitteridge was right: suicide is never clean

Last week, I attended a memorial service for a friend who died suddenly.

I didn’t know Debbie all that well, but I knew her as a facilitator for one of my mental illness support groups. She had recently broken her ankle, and apparently, the cast was put on in a way that was too tight. It affected her circulation and she developed blood clots. Apparently, blood clots aren’t necessarily painful, and she had no idea that she had them. When the clots got into her lungs, she couldn’t breathe. She collapsed and died a few hours later.

To say the least, everyone who knew her was shocked when they heard the news. Life is full of mysteries, but you never expect someone to die as the result of a broken ankle. Yet, as I spoke to several people who knew Debbie better than I did, I heard an almost unanimous hushed whisper: Debbie’s life might have been taken from her, but at least she didn’t take her own life.

People have told me over and over again that when someone commits suicide, the grief faced by their friends and loved ones is the worst kind of grief imaginable. After attending Debbie’s memorial service, I think that’s probably true. No doubt, a death as sudden as hers is difficult to process. I really only knew her from support groups, and it’s hard for me to fathom that I’ll never see her again. But suicide would have been worse.

olive-kitteridgeRecently, I watched the HBO series Olive Kitteridge. Olive, the protagonist, is a woman whose father committed suicide. Though she admits to having depression, her father’s suicide affects her in more ways than she realizes. There’s a scene where she talks a young man out of committing suicide. He’s outside in the woods and he thinks no one can see him. Olive tells him that kids live in a house nearby, and they often look out the window. “What if they see you,” Olive asks the young man. “You can plan and plan, and you think suicide can be clean. It’s never clean.”

It’s never clean. Those three words hit me like a ton of bricks. I loved the mini-series Olive Kitteridge so much that I’m now reading the novel that it was based on. Debbie’s memorial service reminded me that Olive is right: suicide is many things, but it is never clean. As someone who has certainly been down in those dark depths myself, I know full well that most people who kill themselves probably aren’t thinking of the pain they cause others, and they certainly shouldn’t be blamed for it.

But at least for me, it’s important to remember what Olive Kitteridge said. And it’s important for me to remember that, as hard as Debbie’s death is to deal with, I am comforted knowing that she did not take her own life.

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