Joe Biden recently delivered a poignant personal account of losing his wife and daughter in a 1972 car accident, leaving his sons barely clinging to life:
“It was the first time in my career, my life, I realized someone could go out — and I probably shouldn’t say this with the press here, but — no, but it’s more important. You’re more important. For the first time in my life I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide,” Biden said Friday. “Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts; because they’d been to the top of the mountain and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again, that it was never going to be that way ever again.”
I can identify with what he said here. Days came and went after my partner died by suicide when I was jealous and bitter. It felt as if he had found an escape hatch that was as simple as walking out my front door, never having to return, permanently freed from everything, good or bad.
I also accept that this statement is Biden’s reality, perfect and whole, no need for further explanation or justification.
Reality, for me, is a bit different.
I’m fully on board with understanding, during the experience of deep, sudden, trauma, “how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide.” This speaks directly to the motivation for suicide: Piercing, previously unthinkable pain from which there appears to be no possible recovery. In a life filled with hard work and perseverance, ups and downs, mountain tops and deserts, all of which could be challenged and/or celebrated rationally, one horrific thing has landed which defies all logic.
At the same time, I’m not on board with the caveat, “Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts.” (I trust that Biden, given the opportunity, would have chosen other words to describe people living with mental illness.) I don’t draw bright lines between people who consider themselves mentally well and those who are receiving mental health care. I’ve known enough folks living with deep and difficult issues who counted themselves “lucky” to have avoided getting mental health care, but it seemed plain that friends and family who were seeking out care for comparable issues were benefiting immensely from it.
My reality is that recognizing the motivation, or the impulse, to choose suicide did not lead to suicide because effective care and support was available to me precisely when external events left my mental health tattered and impaired.
That’s consistent with what the evidence tells us about suicide. There is almost never a single, cataclysmic event which acts alone to trigger suicide. Losing one’s family can certainly bring a person face to face with wanting to die, but it is unlikely to happen apart from other complicating factors.
I appreciate Biden’s honesty and empathy among folks who have experienced sudden loss. As a newly elected 30-year-old senator, life as he knew it was shattered, leaving him with jarring suicidal thoughts that he had assumed were only for the long-term mentally ill. But, it’s not remarkable to me that a relatively well guy had such thoughts; instead, it strikes me as ordinary that he survived with great support systems and whatever care he needed.