When is it okay to die?

Fair warning…..this post tackles a more intense topic than normal. Today is April 2nd, which would be my brother Rick’s 46th birthday. This post is about his death.

Rick is in the middle. Grandma on the right. I’m on the left. Sister Penny in front of Rick. Bunch of cousin-rats in the front row. Circa 1989?

On an early morning in November of 1995, I returned to my college dorm room from Taco Bell with a sack of tacos and a pretty furious hangover. I was also wearing red converse sneakers. It’s funny the details you remember when your world is turned upside down.

A campus security car was sitting outside my dorm room entrance and it quickly became clear that they’re eyes were trained on me.

First reaction: Oh shit, what did I do last night that I don’t remember?

Unfortunately, the message I was about to receive wasn’t nearly as pleasant as ‘you stole a bunch of raw fish from the dining hall and snuck it into a professor’s bedroom as a prank and you’re busted’.

My older brother, Rick, had committed suicide.

Rick and Mike - College
Rick in college with his good friend Mike Kammen.

The loss of a loved one, unexpected, sudden and inexplicable, or expected and after a long and losing battle with an illness – is devastating no matter what. But in this case, I can’t honestly say that my brother’s death at his own hand was unexpected or inexplicable. It WAS expected and after a long and losing battle with the illness of depression.

Flash back to 1987, 8 years prior. As a 12 year old sharing a bunk bed room with my brother I awoke to find him twitching and foaming at the mouth. He had overdosed as his first (to my knowledge), attempt to kill himself. He survived and spent a month plus in the hospital.

But some diseases are chronic. You can treat symptoms temporarily – in this case with antidepressants, lithium, even shock therapy – but the disease remains, growing and insistent. As Rick progressed through what was left to him of a high school experience, through college and ultimately into the first years of medical school, the sickness was always there, and he attempted suicide multiple additional times. My other brother would get a call in the middle of the night that Rick had gone missing again and have to go hunting, sometimes for a day plus while the family held its breath, to find him somewhere on the side of the road in his car. Not quite dead, but certainly no longer living. Back to the hospital. Restart the process.

This experience, year after year, took a significant toll on the rest of the family. The never knowing. The always waiting. And it is this toll that causes me to reflect that it’s not always the most selfish thing to do to kill oneself as some have said. In some cases, finally ending a life might be a mercy to many around you.

Weeks before Rick finally stepped in front of train, making a decision that was not ambiguous, not a cry for help, he visited me at college. Late one evening, in tears, Rick confided to me simply how miserable he was, how insufferable his day to day existence was. And I said to him in no uncertain terms that he couldn’t continue to drag the family through repeated suicide attempts. That it was a misery for us as well. And that if he was going to kill himself, do it for real. I believe I said ‘put a shotgun in your mouth and make it permanent’. I didn’t say this with animosity. I said it out of love. Love for Rick, and love for the rest of my family. That may be hard to believe, but it’s true.

Did he take my counsel in making his final choice? I don’t know. Do I feel guilty? I also don’t know. But do I know Rick is at peace? Yes. Do I know the family, though saddened by this loss, is at peace? Yes.

To be clear, I am not advocating for anyone to commit suicide. I believe there are many ways to get better. Medicine. Therapy. Time. By definition, suicide is the only last resort. But I do think there is a point when it is okay to die. I don’t believe Rick made a selfish decision. And I can respect a decision made out of love, no matter how hard and permanent that decision may be. I know this will be controversial. It may be a very unique perspective. I invite open discussion in the comments about this and am happy to continue to share my thoughts and experience.

With over twenty years in the rearview mirror, my last thoughts of Rick are quite pleasant. When we went to his apartment to clean out his things, I found a cardboard box with my name on it, and a note to open out of view of our parents. Inside was a massive collection of VHS porn. I know that Rick did this as a playful joke. A final act of love to remind me that while he knew I and we would struggle with this, his care for us never ended. And in the depths of the grief that was still days fresh, I laughed. Thank you Rick.


2 thoughts on “When is it okay to die?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s