The Permanent Parish of Ceasing to Be: On Suicide as a Negation of the Self


This essay deals extensively with suicide. If you are considering suicide, you can call or text the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 any time to speak with a trained crisis counselor and be connected to resources.

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My daughter leapt to her death off the Golden Gate Bridge. It was early July in that first godawful summer of Covid and the last cankerous year of the Trump presidency. It was the summer of George Floyd and John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Whether any or all of these grim contingencies had anything to do with her suicide, it is impossible to know. Nor do we know if she acted on impulse or planned it in advance.

She had driven across the country, leaving her husband and carrying a torch for an unrequited love—a man she’d gone to a prom with decades before and hadn’t seen in years and who had unambiguously rejected her sudden advances. She’d been hospitalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia earlier in the year—a diagnosis and treatment she never agreed to or accepted.

A court, on the testimony of her medicos, had determined that she was, indeed, a threat to herself and others, and so supplied her husband with an order that approved her rehospitalization if she ceased to take her prescribed medication. But hospital beds for the mentally ill filled with the breathless victims of pandemic. Her escape from husband and home and further hospitalization created a reality that tendered constricting options. She drove west to the ocean and then turned left. She never made it across the bridge.

Because her suicide happened on a holiday weekend, and because she was a couple thousand miles from home, the news was not traced back to her family in Michigan until the following week. There were few details: there were witnesses to her leap, which was also filmed by the closed-circuit cameras on the bridge, a popular venue for those seeking oblivion and abyss. She was fourteen minutes in the water, and after recovery her body was taken to the Marin County morgue under the name of Jane Doe. Eventually, authorities googled the name on the rental-car agreement they found in the vehicle left on the bridge and traced her back to family in Michigan at the funeral home they operate in her hometown.

The pain of being seeks relief in the distant and permanent parish of ceasing to be, from which there is, alas, no return.

Her brother Michael got the call from the coroner on a Tuesday afternoon. He called me up at the lake where I was quarantined against the pestilence. I called her mother, her stepmother, her other brothers, her godfather. Then I called a firm of funeral directors in San Francisco who had my long-dead mother’s maiden surname and told the young woman in charge to please get my daughter out of the morgue and ready her for transport home. Michael flew out to California to escort his sister’s body. He called from the embalming room of the McAvoy O’Hara funeral home to say it was Heather Grace, his sister, my daughter, there on the porcelain table.

His brother Sean and I met him at our local airport late Thursday afternoon and waited at air freight to get her into our hearse and home again. We got her back, alas, to let her go again. She was laid out for a limited (by pandemic policies) visitation on Saturday. Her parents and brothers, aunts and uncles, cousins and close friends kept a quiet vigil. Her female cousins served as pallbearers, bearing her wicker coffin to the grave, where she was buried on Sunday afternoon in Oak Grove Cemetery. There’s a stone there now with her name and dates on it: Heather Grace, 1975–2020.

We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss—we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain. By slow degrees our sickness and dizziness and horror become merged in a cloud of unnameable feeling. By gradations, still more imperceptible, this cloud assumes shape, as did the vapor from the bottle out of which arose the genius in the Arabian Nights. But out of this our cloud upon the precipice’s edge, there grows into palpability, a shape, far more terrible than any genius or any demon of a tale, and yet it is but a thought, although a fearful one, and one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height. And this fall—this rushing annihilation—for the very reason that it involves that one most ghastly and loathsome of all the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination—for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it. And because our reason violently deters us from the brink, therefore do we the most impetuously approach it. There is no passion in nature so demoniacally impatient, as that of him who, shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a plunge. To indulge, for a moment, in any attempt at thought, is to be inevitably lost; for reflection but urges us to forbear, and therefore it is, I say, that we cannot. If there be no friendly arm to check us, or if we fail in a sudden effort to prostrate ourselves backward from the abyss, we plunge, and are destroyed.

–from “The Imp of the Perverse,” Edgar Allan Poe, 1845

In the fifth paragraph of his story “The Imp of the Perverse,” Edgar Allan Poe dispassionately describes the impulse to destroy oneself as an imp—a mischievous devil child. The death wish, or Thanatos, Sigmund Freud would call it half a century later, fashioning it as the countervailing psychic energy to Eros, the life instinct.

Shakespeare puts the rhetorical question “to be or not to be?” up front in Hamlet’s soliloquy, which he wrote early in the sixteenth century. Some few years earlier he had investigated the dark imbroglios of love and death in Romeo and Juliet, a harbinger of Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia three centuries later.

As with the English bard, so too the Irish master: “I am still of the opinion,” wrote the old poet W.B. Yeats to his former lover Olivia Shakespear in October of 1927, “that only two topics can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mood—sex and the dead.”

This bifurcation of the human enterprise—an impulse to be and a contrary impulse to cease to be—accounts for so much that undergirds our lived experience and requires that we learn to mediate these equal and opposing gravities, to achieve a kind of balance between opposite poles and their magnetics.

Among my first recollections around these themes involved a young man whose funeral was handled by my father’s funeral home when I was in my teens. What was known about this poor client was that he was damaged by a broken heart, which was the predicate for destroying himself. His girlfriend had, apparently, broken up with him the week before, and, fraught with feelings he had never experienced before, he kept calling her frantically on the phone.

When she stopped answering, he went over to her house, ran through the front door and up the stairs to the master bedroom, broke the lock on the gun cabinet, pulled out a shotgun, and lay on the erstwhile girlfriend’s parents’ bed. Placing the muzzle in his mouth, he managed to pull the trigger with his toe, accomplishing in horrendous fashion the “overwhelming gesture” his diary explained he wanted to offer his former sweetheart of his devotion to her.

It was the notebook his parents brought to the funeral home when they met with my father. I held the door for them as they came and went that day. They were vacant-faced in their desolation but managed to thank me coming and going. I wore a black suit, white shirt, striped tie, and polished wingtip shoes and worked for an hourly wage to buy cigarettes and date girls and put gas in my car. I’d no clue about the future or the past. I lived in the moment like the gift the present is.

I’ve often wondered if my father planned for me to see this poor boy’s corpse in case I might, as young men do, harbor thoughts of such convincing gestures. He could have sent the boy’s clothes down to the embalming room with one of the embalmers but rather called me up to his office, after the parents left, to have me take the blue jeans and plaid shirt, underwear and cowboy boots down to the basement where the bodies were. And when I saw the body on the embalming table, unembalmed, I could see his skull split like a hapless pumpkin by the gun’s dull power.

Whatever else his gesture accomplished, I thought standing there, the dead pilgrim looked ridiculous, the cleavage of his cranium above the nose leaving him a grim cartoon of his former self. If I’d ever had any romantic notions about suicide, the sight of this poor grotesquery banished any remnant of them. And though I’ve had some aggressive, downright murderous designs on politicos and bad drivers, I’ve never thought that I should be the target of my own violence.

Still, the vision of that dead boy’s ruined body remains alive in my imagination. A poem by which I sought to address the in-betweenness of equal and opposing gravities, emblematic of my astrological sign of Libra with its scales of justice, was an effort to understand my own double-mindedness. It includes a reference to the horrendous suicide.

Libra

The one who pulled the trigger with his toe,
spread-eagled on his girlfriend’s parents’ bed,
and split his face in halves above his nose,
so that one eye looked east, the other west;
sometimes that sad boy’s bifurcation seems
to replicate the math of love and grief—
that zero sum of holding on and letting go
by which we split the differences with those
with whom we occupy the present moment.
Sometimes I see that poor corpse as a token
of doubt’s sure twin and double-mindedness,
of certainty, the countervailing guess,
the swithering, the dither, righteousness,
like Libra’s starry arms outstretched in love
or supplication or, at last, surrender
to the scales forever tipped in the cold sky.

–from Bone Rosary: New & Selected Poems, 2021

It is known that in the more serious cases of psychoneuroses one sometimes finds self-mutilations as symptoms of the disease. That the psychic conflict may end in suicide can never be excluded in these cases. Thus, I know from experience, which someday I shall support with convincing examples, that many apparently accidental injuries happening to such patients are really self-inflicted. This is brought about by the fact that there is a constantly lurking tendency to self-punishment, usually expressing itself in self-reproach, or contributing to the formation of a symptom, which skillfully makes use of an external situation. The required external situation may accidentally present itself or the punishment tendency may assist it until the way is open for the desired injurious effect.

–from The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Sigmund Freud, 1901

By the time Sigmund Freud breathed his last, his dog recoiled from the stench of his oral cancer—the toll of his addiction to cigars. And when the Nazis came to Vienna, he fled to London, where another refugee, Max Schur, promised to assist him with morphine out of the predicament of his painful and grotesque terminal cancer. He died on September 23, 1939, and soon after was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium, where his urn and ashes remain these decades later, when the notion of “assisted suicide” would define the context of Freud’s demise.

As with the late-twentieth-century iterations by Jack Kevorkian, Freud’s overdoses of morphine were more an agreeable homicide than an assisted suicide. The outcome is the same—to wit, the former being has ceased to be—but the etymology of suicide does not allow for any assistance. It refers to a killing of and by oneself, the operative syllable being sui, “self.” The two acts differ much as assisted sex differs from masturbation.

So Poe and Freud and the poets agree: we humans hanker for a balancing between the will to live fully and the will to die, between love and grief, the longings to be and cease to be, between intimate attachments and deadly detachments. But what is clear from each of these nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century paradigms: the seed of our own demise is bred into the bone and sinew of our coming to be. Which is why “la petite mort,” the little death, commonly refers to the moment of ecstasy and lost consciousness associated with orgasmic sexual ecstasy, as sung into an old folk song by Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary:

Some girls will die for money,
Some will die as they’re born,
Some will swear they’d die for love,
Some die ev’ry morn.

It is a haunting tune and haunting concept—that love and death belly up to the same bar. I read Freud and Poe, Shakespeare and Yeats in my late teens, and possibly the commingling of their theories took shape in my own particular curiosities about self-harm and suicide.

In her classic text On Bullfighting, the Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy reports that the fear that she might look ridiculous in death—she was planning to leap from her fourth-floor window in Glasgow because she was suffering an extreme case of writer’s block—combined with the blaring of “Marie’s Wedding” on a car radio down the block, were sufficient to bring her off the ledge and safely inside to live to write another day, and other books.

I pray the melancholia; its manic poor cousin, the paranoia; and the desolation were all transformed, as love transforms the broken heart to hope.

But whether the confrontation of suicide inoculates against the contemplation of suicide, or the choice of a soundtrack for the occasion makes a difference, it is hard to know; like much about self-destruction, whether plan or impulse is to blame, most of it remains a mystery secure behind the locked door of purpose and intention.

Freud knew as much, which may account for his reticence in addressing the issue comprehensively in text. The closest he seems to come is in Mourning and Melancholia, where he blames a failure to deal effectively with the experience of a “lost object,” a person or circumstance or identity that has become central to someone’s sense of self.

If the love for the object—a love which cannot be given up though the object itself is given up—takes refuge in narcissistic identification, then the hate comes into operation on this substitutive object, abusing it, debasing it, making it suffer and deriving sadistic satisfaction from its suffering. The self-tormenting in melancholia, which is without doubt enjoyable, signifies, just like the corresponding phenomenon in obsessional neurosis, a satisfaction of trends of sadism and hate which relate to an object, and which have been turned round upon the subject’s own self in the ways we have been discussing. In both disorders the patients usually still succeed, by the circuitous path of self-punishment, in taking revenge on the original object and in tormenting their loved one through their illness, having resorted to it in order to avoid the need to express their hostility to him openly. After all, the person who has occasioned the patient’s emotional disorder, and on whom his illness is centred, is usually to be found in his immediate environment. The melancholic’s erotic cathexis in regard to his object has thus undergone a double vicissitude: part of it has regressed to identification, but the other part, under the influence of the conflict due to ambivalence, has been carried back to the stage of sadism, which is nearer to that conflict.

–from Mourning and Melancholia, Sigmund Freud, 1917

In this work Freud finds that mourning and melancholia, grief and depression, are, to borrow an Irish bromide, “the same but different.” Whereas mourning is the natural and healthy response to the loss, often the death, of a beloved person, melancholia, what we might call today a sort of chronic depression, becomes a pathology, a disease that works its way through life and time and ends, sometimes, with the final, fatal symptom.

In much the same way as acute myocardial infarction becomes the final fatal symptom of coronary artery disease, my daughter’s leap from the Golden Gate Bridge was the final fatal symptom of the depression, the melancholia, the psychological distress she’d suffered from most of her life. Her long estrangement from her family of origin, her disavowal of her paternal family name, her difficulty in holding on to meaningful employment or long-term relationships, the grandiosity of her plans compared to the paucity of achievements—all of these, in retrospect, seem like symptoms of a pathology, no doubt related to unmanaged loss, which nonetheless left her with few paths toward remediation.

Furthermore, it might well have been exacerbated by her confinement, her hospitalization against her will just months before in the midst of a psychotic episode, which neither she nor any of her family had any experience with, rendering us all helpless to intervene in any corrective way. That I had spent two years and more in weekly joint therapy sessions with her does not, in hindsight, comfort much. Her troubles were outside the range of talk therapy. Mostly I believe that the suicides I have known were too cruelly permanent in their outcomes for the temporary, though intense, distress they sought to relieve. We’ve all had times when we did not want to be alive tomorrow, but the rate of suicide, of those who wanted to be dead tomorrow, remains miniscule but convincing.

Whether the lost object that figured into my daughter’s painful case was the fantasy of love with a former prom date, the disappointments of marriage, or the end of the family occasioned by her parents’ divorce when she was nine years old is hard to know. Possibly her melancholia was hereditary. Her maternal grandmother was also diagnosed with schizophrenia in her menopausal years. Still, all we get as bereaved survivors of suicide is the occasional glimpse of intention and motive, a momentary look into the sad heart of self-destruction.

In the months following my daughter’s suicide, I would wake in the middle of the night with a sense of the acceleration of a body falling through space in pursuit of thirty-two feet per second squared, which is said to be the rate of gravity. It was neither a fright nor comfort, only a momentary effort at knowing what my daughter’s last sensations might have been. The rest, the answers, much as Freud’s inconclusive writing on the subject suggests, remain just out of reach. As Tim Buckley sings in “Song to the Siren,” “I am puzzled as the oyster / I am troubled as the tide.”

In the long years of my daughter’s estrangement from her family of origin, I used to tell my nearest and dearests that a death in the family came with consolations— social, ritual observances, protocols and traditions—whereas none had developed around the predicament of estrangement, the renouncing of family connections and communications by one of its central members. In some ways, I was in the habit of saying, estrangement is more difficult than a death in the family. I was wrong.

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The analysis of melancholia now shows that the ego can kill itself only if, owing to the return of the object-cathexis, it can treat itself as an object—if it is able to direct against itself the hostility which relates to an object and which represents the ego’s original reaction to objects in the external world.

–from Mourning and Melancholia

To destroy oneself, according to Freud, the obsession formerly aimed at the lost and beloved object must be turned on oneself. The pain of being seeks relief in the distant and permanent parish of ceasing to be, from which there is, alas, no return.

When I think of my daughter on Golden Gate, I pray she saw the open, beckoning embrace of the abyss and heard the seductive song of the siren promising surcease, release, relief, oblivion. I pray the melancholia; its manic poor cousin, the paranoia; and the desolation were all transformed, as love transforms the broken heart to hope.

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This essay will appear in On the Couch: Writers Analyze Sigmund Freud, edited by Andrew Blauner, out this May and available for pre-order now from Princeton University Press.

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“The Open-Armed, Beckoning Embrace” by Thomas Lynch appears in the latest issue of Image Journal.

Thomas Lynch



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