About a month ago I had the opportunity to give a presentation to a group of Vietnam veterans. They asked several questions at the end of my talk that would be good subjects for blog posts. This is one of them.
“Have you ever thought about suicide?”
The gentleman who’d asked it hadn’t seemed overly interested in my presentation–spent most of it staring at his plate of half-eaten food. I had the impression it was a subject he was acquainted with.
“Yes” I answered. And then I wondered why. I’d never sat in a darkened room listening to Morrissey and painting my nails black–but I had thought about suicide. I never had an intent or desire to try, but I had wondered what it would feel like. I’d wondered what would win the race to my brain–the report of the gun or the bullet. I imagine hearing the report would hurt my ears so I was rooting for the bullet. There’s a logic train for you.
[Disclaimer: The entirety of my professional counseling credentials and experience amount to exactly 0. Zilch point Oh. But I have done some reading and thinking about my own experiences and believe suicide is something that should be talked about. I feel not discussing the issue only pushes potential victims deeper into the darkness where they believe themselves profoundly alone. That misconception can be deadly.]
It’s no secret that returning veterans, whether they got back last week or fifty years ago, are at increased risk of suicide. While the reasons for each tragic decision are known only to the individual, I think there is a common thread. Veterans have become intimate with death in a way that makes it commonplace. They simply don’t fear it anymore.
In combat, young men and women are exposed to pornographic death–fantastic, gory, and devoid of meaning beyond the physical. They learn that man is just a bag of goo wrapped in a thin membrane–poke holes in it and if enough goo runs out, the man dies. Death is everywhere–a sniper’s bullet, a bag of trash, an overturned vehicle–and its randomness makes everyone vulnerable. Warriors cause death, watch friends die, revel in preparing to deliver it and delight in cheating it. This overexposure destroys death’s mystery and the men and women who return from combat often view life through old eyes.
The concept of death without mystery sets veterans apart from ‘normal’ society. They no longer have the luxury of enjoying life without simultaneously knowing it could randomly end at any moment. And after the incredibly intense emotions and experiences of combat, normal life seems pale and boring. Add to this boredom the challenges of physical wounds, trying to get a civilian job, marriage troubles, mounting bills… and the veteran’s outlook on life can get understandably dark. They are comfortable with a concept of death that amounts to ‘turning off the lights’ and ask themselves “Why wait? Death is coming. It’s easy. Why should I struggle through this bullshit when the result is going to be the same?”
Great post, Dan. Thanks for the pick-me up–Jerk… I know. Gimme a second.
So, what’s the fix? How does one come back from over-familiarity and restore death’s mystery? Its meaning? I don’t have an answer for everyone. But I can share what worked for me.
My Grandma recently gave me an unexpected gift. I knew it was special, but I didn’t understand how special until I considered the Vietnam veteran’s question about suicide.
She was always my quiet grandmother, my mom’s mom. She wasn’t very demonstrative, probably something in her Slovak nature, but I always knew she loved me very much. Here’s how.
I always waited until the last possible minute to leave my trail crew at the end of each summer. This meant I left Pinkham Notch, NH around 5pm and drove through the night to get back to Penn State in time for classes. Every time I did that drive, midnight would find me near Grandma’s house and I’d pull in. She’d answer the door in her nightgown, never once asking me what the hell I was doing there so late. She’d heat up stuffed cabbage and kielbasa–my favorite–and huff a little about if she’d known I was coming she would have made more. She would sit quietly as I shoveled the food down and then put a pot of coffee on. Around one in the morning I’d be on the road again, recharged for the rest of the drive.
She was ready to go long before her time actually came. The slow descent had tired her out and she was simply ready. When the hospice nurse started identifying the signs of final closure, our family gathered around her. I, who had been close to death many times, steeled myself for what was to come by refusing to think about it. That was what I’d done in the past, when friends hadn’t come back from flights and when men died as a result of my actions. I put on the blinders and walked in, protected from what I expected to see–another battle for life doomed to failure.
But the atmosphere in her room surprised me. It was calm, quiet, and comfortable. I watched as my mom and aunt swabbed Grandma’s mouth with moistened Q-tips–her gag reflex was gone and she’d drown if she tried to drink. There was no stress, no crying or lamentations. Grandma was at peace with everything that mattered–her life, her death, and her faith. She was happy to see us, but not overly emotional about it. That was just her way and besides, she was confident she would see us again.
The way she died, her body slowly shutting down as functions ceased, was natural. It had nothing to do with killing or being killed–actions that defined my concept of death–and her composure and grace were striking to me. They contrasted sharply with the rage and violence that surrounded my previous exposures to the ending of life. Although I didn’t want to, the reality of what I was observing clashed so strongly with my expectations that I had to wonder why.
Questions bounced around my head while in her quiet room. Why was she so composed? Why was she so content and welcoming of what was coming? The more I thought about it, the clearer the answer became. It was because she had lived a good life and she was at peace with her God. What she was going through was simply natural. It seems silly to say, but the idea that death could be natural had never occurred to me.
Being close to death on the battlefield imparts a feeling of inevitability in a veteran–a violent end will come eventually, why wait? The meaninglessness of wholesale death makes those who see it question if life has any meaning. But our education is incomplete. The battlefield has only shown us the unnatural, violent side of death.
Until I watched my Grandma die, I had no concept that there was another way–a natural, healthy and even beautiful way–for life to end. Grandma’s gift was in giving me an ultimate goal, an ending I could only achieve through really living life: a calm, contented death.
But such a death isn’t easy to come by–one has to live a fulfilling life first. Figuring out how to do that is a mystery I’m eager to tackle head-on. And it sure as hell doesn’t include suicide.