Tag Archives: suicide

The Deaths of Two Classmates

By now, in my early 60s, I have encountered the deaths of people who were dear to me, and of others who were not. In the latter category, within the past few months, I have discovered that a kid who had bullied me on the bus in high school, circa 1973, had died some years ago — of alcoholism, I think they said. Also, shortly after my PhD program advisor helped to terminate my last attempt to start a new career, he keeled over dead of a heart attack.

I did not wish those two men to be dead, and I could see that at least the latter one would be missed by family and friends. But neither did those two evoke particularly complex feelings. So I would not be writing a post about them for this blog. The situation could be different, however, for people whom I knew better, or over a longer period of time.

Tonight, I became aware of the deaths of two of my classmates at Columbia Law School. I have often thought about what has been happening to them all — those 300 classmates who chose me as one of their student senators; those people about whom I published a book (1991) describing some of my encounters with law school and the legal profession, starting there at Columbia in fall 1979.

I did not know those two classmates well. But their departures do verge somewhat closer to my own life. It seems it might be appropriate to gain some perspective on how they turned out, and what happened to them. They were very different from me, and from each other. I think a frank and honest appraisal may be helpful — for me, and perhaps for others as well.

Paul

One of these two recently departed law school classmates was named Paul. Paul was a rich lawyer, son of rich parents, a snob, grew up in a Park Avenue penthouse, and attended a fine prep school and Yale. I think he looked down his nose at me, in law school, but he didn’t seem to feel the need to rub it in. I, in turn, felt he was a bit of a turkey, in the style of people who acquire recherche tastes and stilted ways of speaking, due to too much exposure to wealth and its tendency to separate its possessors from the lives and cultures of ordinary people. Very few of my law school classmates were like him in that sense.

Ultimately, Paul and I were from different worlds, and we left it at that. Or at least I assume we did. It is possible Paul ridiculed me behind my back. I’m not saying he did; if he did, I doubt he did much of it. My impression was that, when Paul did make witty little derogatory remarks about people who were not present, he did it with a light touch, not with malice toward them but merely to signal the pecking order.

Paul and I were in the same relatively small class group, in our first year of law school. Both of our surnames began with W, so we were among the 30 students in the T-Z group. Most first-year classes were large, containing half of our 300-student cohort. But our Contracts course, especially, was broken out into these smaller groups, at least part of the time. While we were of course free to interact with any students, it was natural for social life to arise especially from the small group. Most of the parties, outings into NYC, and other social activities in which I participated during those three years of law school did involve members, or the friends of members, of my Contracts subgroup. So while I didn’t see Paul very often outside of the law school, I did see him more often than I saw most other classmates.

Paul married rather late, at age 38, to a slightly older woman with a penchant for nonprofit support and a day job as director of international affairs at Pfizer. I saw somewhere that they acquired a daughter — through adoption, I guess — maybe ten years ago. I didn’t recall ever seeing Paul with a date during law school. I suppose marriage and family life was something he got around to, after years of relatively comfortable bachelorhood, when its time seemed ripe.

I hadn’t seen or talked to Paul since law school, 35 years ago. And now I was looking at his obituary. In the picture there, I saw that he was smiling. It didn’t look like a forced smile. I would guess that he had wound up being happy in life. He was no longer as skinny as I; he had definitely put on weight. It said he died of a heart attack. He had just turned 60. Heart conditions didn’t seem to be hereditary, or at least his father had died only eight years earlier, at the age of 88. The obituary went into some detail on Paul’s hobbies – particularly Civil War history and “English change-ringing,” which until this moment I had never heard of, but it seemed it might be related to those slightly odd performances, in the Christmas season, where people make music by shaking various brass bells in different ways. Anyway, nothing in his obit said anything about running marathons or scuba diving or otherwise partaking in exercise; he was patently not a manual labor kind of guy; and I didn’t recall that he had anything to do with getting sweaty back in our law school years.

In an obituary written by Paul the Third (my classmate) for the American Spectator, and elsewhere, I saw that Paul Jr., his father, a Harvard Law graduate, had been founder and lead partner in a firm ranked by multiple sources as one of the best in the country. Paul Jr. had taken time out from becoming wealthy to spend 20 years as chairman of the board of a law school — not a high-paying position, relatively speaking, but a leadership position nonetheless, and an important public service. He had also spent years serving as president or trustee of at least a half-dozen other organizations, several of which were fairly significant. Before him, Paul Sr. (i.e., my classmate’s grandfather) was apparently involved in New York City politics back in the 1930s. Going further back, the New York Times article (1995) announcing my classmate’s wedding indicated that his great-grandfather was George Doubleday, chairman of Ingersoll Rand (an S&P 500 company worth $17 billion as of 2015), and his great-great-grandfather was Henry B. Hyde, who founded Equitable Life Assurance (present worth: $533 billion) in 1859.

Plainly, Paul came from old money. That much was clear when he invited the male students from our Contracts subgroup to dinner, and after-dinner drinks and cigars, at his parents’ Park Avenue penthouse. So I was nonplussed, now, to catch up with his life’s story. His obituary conveyed an implicit indication that he had failed to make partner at Brown Wood and, thereafter, had spent most of his career in a small firm in which he was not the lead partner, before progressing to his own solo practice. The obituary mentioned a few trustee roles, and spoke of his interest in Civil War history. Nothing against that, but to my eyes the candle of Paul’s life burned rather dimly next to those of his progenitors.

This was where I started to feel that maybe I had more in common with Paul than I had realized. My own dad, like Paul’s, was a World War II combat veteran; like Paul’s (albeit on a much humbler level) he came home, after the war, to join in the project of making postwar America a superpower. By comparison, it seemed that Paul and I were destined – indeed, we may have preferred; we may even have been unwittingly groomed – to labor in the shadows, in obscurity, with our fathers always at least a background mental presence, watching and disapproving of our intellectual (and other) priorities, and not really understanding how they could be passing the baton to a generation that, by the late 1960s, was no longer producing great young men to carry on in constructing the increasingly misguided American colossus.

In theory, after law school, I could have spent the next 35 years practicing law, as Paul did. I could have had the money he made as a long-time law firm partner — and now, as I see, I could have been preparing for an obituary that, like his, would contain not a word about what he actually did in law. All those years – and yet, in the estimation of his obit-writers, nothing came from it that was as important to him as his hobby of bell-ringing.

There, again, Paul and I had something in common. We had both studied ancient Greek, though he much more deeply than I; it always did seem that we both belonged more in academia than in the gritty world of professional legal practice. Yet, within a few years after graduation, our paths diverged. I recognized, pretty quickly, that I had no interest in law, now that I had a more informed sense of what it was, and I acted on that decision. Paul didn’t. I wonder, now, whether his superior parental (and grandparental) orientation to a legal career ultimately locked him in – whether, in effect, despite (or perhaps because of) all his money, he lacked my freedom. Is it possible that he finally switched to what may have been a part-time solo practice, in 2006, because then, at long last, his father, like mine, was just a few years away from dying, and no longer wielded the same psychological influence? Was Paul only then finally becoming free of the familial expectations of legal practice that chewed up most of his adult life?

I may never know. In writing such words, I didn’t mean to invent anything. Maybe I was remembering Paul wrong, or misconstruing what I was now learning about him. Maybe he did find his legal work fulfilling; maybe he was not tacitly relying on the family history of legal prominence to mask his own indifference or insecurity on the subject of legal career achievement. Maybe the person(s) who wrote his obituary simply failed to provide an accurate representation of his deep interest in and commitment to the legal profession, or maybe it was not customary to say anything, in an obituary, about the person’s career achievements. That did not seem to be true of his father’s obituaries, among others, but maybe there were other reasons for that.

At any rate, the obituary also carried one other message, or at least one more question: how could it be that, six months after his death, the funeral home’s online guest book could have only 20 entries? I mean, you get some almost by default. For instance, I knew a homeless man in Missouri, dying at roughly the same age, whose online funeral guestbook contained ten entries. In both cases, one assumes, there were many additional entries on the pages of the real, physical guest book on display during the funeral. But not everyone hears about, or can attend, the actual funeral. Surely, unlike that blue-collar, sometimes difficult homeless man, Paul had made many far-flung friends, over the years, starting with his classmates in college and continuing to our law school classmates and beyond. Surely, in all those years of Civil War battlefield visits and enactments, or whatever he did in that area, he had made friends who were now sorry to hear of his demise. Surely, at least, his friends and certain students in Kent CT, for whom he was on his way to ring bells at a graduation ceremony when stopped by his heart attack, would have been moved to say something nice on his behalf. But, for the most part, no, that didn’t seem to be the situation.

The answer, there, appeared to be that I was missing something, because it looked like his widow (or someone) converted his Facebook page to a memorialized page, and that page listed more than 700 Facebook friends. I didn’t go through that list, name by name, but I did use Ctrl-F to look for names of certain schools and individuals. I saw that his Friends list contained only a few names mentioning Columbia. I was rather surprised that not one of the four or five members of our Contracts group at law school whose names I sought in that list — including the one law school classmate who had actually made an entry in Paul’s online obituary — were included among his Facebook friends. The list did have at least a dozen names of people from Yale, and that was not surprising; he seemed to have enjoyed himself more in his undergraduate years. Many of the faces on that Facebook list were young. From my own experience, I supposed that some were using Paul’s Facebook friendship more as an opportunity for networking than for actual friendship.

I, personally, had not been notified of Paul’s demise, so (as with most deaths, it seems) there appeared to be no coordinated outreach to various lists of old acquaintances (e.g., former law firm employees, schoolmates) who might have wanted to offer condolences. The Facebook memorial page displayed no publicly viewable suggestion that people go to the funeral home website and enter their condolences in the guest book. (If I get around to notifying Paul’s widow of this post, possibly some of these things will change. I am describing, here, only what I encountered as of early December 2017.)

I might have been mistaken in expecting that Paul’s online funeral guestbook would have more entries. I saw that the obituaries from some of my other friends and family members likewise had only a few entries. But those tended to be older, before online obituaries were a big thing. Some of them may have been plagued, as with my own parents’ choice of funeral homes, by online incompetence — indeed, malice — in preventing people from adding entries, and then deleting my own entry when I complained. For the most part, however, it seemed that — as AdAge (2016) asserted — the online obituary business was booming nowadays.

It looked like Paul had implemented privacy controls on his Facebook page in 2012. For some reason, anyway, 2012 was the year of the most recent entries available to the public. Among the entries from that year, a brief glance quickly presented me with several that did remind me of him. One expressed his relief that the county legislature had not raised taxes on his wealthy suburb. Another, from the weekend of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting, said this: “In the midst of a disaster so horrible that I try to avoid news outlets (and, as most of my friends know, I was an up-close witness to 9/11), I had a wonderful weekend filled end-to-end with some of the best pleasures a person can enjoy.” On a related note — given the many pressing needs in this world — I was somewhat at a loss regarding his obituary’s suggestion that mourners donate in his name to a Civil War history organization. I mean, I think that suggestion did mesh with Paul’s priorities; it was just that those priorities seemed, again, to be out of touch with the lives of the commoners.

At some point, in the process of trying to figure out who Paul was and what he had become, it occurred to me that I, myself, had not been thinking that I should add my name to his online guest list. My first reaction was that I would struggle to sound like someone who should be seen there. What would I say? “Paul was an intelligent guy who did not seem interested in my friendship.” “I didn’t really know Paul, at all, but he could be funny sometimes.” “As I see what Paul made of his many opportunities to have a positive impact on people’s lives, I ponder his devotion to bell-ringing.” “Paul never said anything to make me feel uncomfortable with his wealth; we both just seemed to understand, from the outset, that of course I was his social inferior.” It appeared that I might be better advised just to skip it. But then, ultimately, I did come up with something: “I knew Paul as an urbane, witty individual, and as a kind of person unique among his law school classmates. I am glad to see that he did well for himself, in life and family.” That was true. I hoped it was OK.

Paul’s widow, Catherine, thanked me for that message. I sent her a reply email, giving her a link to this post. She replied with an email enumerating 15 points of clarification or disagreement. It seemed she was writing with an expectation of being quoted, because in one or two spots she said something like, “Don’t quote me on this.” So I will offer a few quotes, here, that I think she intended as quotes, and I will just summarize the general idea on other matters.

First, Catherine said some things that I was skeptical about. This blog is more oriented toward feelings than arguments, and I don’t want to make her the issue, so I won’t go into detail on that — but neither would it seem correct to revise the impressions expressed above, on those particular points. Based on the information I have encountered so far, most of the foregoing seems correct.

Other remarks from Catherine seemed sensible and informative. First, regarding Paul’s health, she said, generally, that his heart problems were due to heredity, and that he was very active. Still, as far as I can tell from his photo, it did seem that he had put on a fair amount of weight.

She provided interesting information about the bell-ringing:

His bell-ringing was English tower-ringing, not hand bells. Tower-ringing is very strenuous and athletic, involving ringing very heavy bells with thick ropes, and he did it for years. Bellringers across the U.S. and England rang memorial quarter-peals for him. They thought the world of him, and commented on his kindness and generosity to new ringers.

Catherine’s remarks also helped me to locate the Civil War Forum of Metropolitan New York, formed in 2009. As of January 2018, Paul was still listed there as VP of Programs, Past President, Counsel, and Webmaster. At least a dozen people were listed in other capacities. The website indicated that the forum met monthly to hear speakers, and went on one four-day trip each year to Civil War sites.

From there, I followed a link to another website, The Civil War Scholar, featuring a page by and about Paul’s interest in the Civil War, as well as an Articles and Reviews page where he evidently did not feel he should list his own work on the topic. He did not seem to have published academic work on the Civil War, but Catherine said he was working on a book, and there were signs that he had considerable knowledge of various details of the Civil War — as in, for instance, his (2013) contention that “Gen. John Fulton Reynolds and his commander, Gen. George Gordon Meade, fundamentally misunderstood each other during the opening stage of the battle at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. That misunderstanding nearly resulted in catastrophe for the Union Army.”

It was not clear that Paul, himself, had maintained the group’s Twitter feed, but it was still active at this writing. That may be the website that Catherine’s email referred to, when she said she had taken over responsibility for running the Forum’s website. I didn’t see any mention of Paul’s death in the Twitter feed, but that would not be surprising if he was the one maintaining it.

Catherine also directed me to a webpage presenting remarks by someone whom she described as “the deputy op-ed editor of the Wall Street Journal:

A father in our small homeschool co-op, Paul had repeatedly and generously taken the time to play chess with my eight-year-old son, Patrick, when no other partner was to be found.

He made ancient history come alive for a room full of thirteen-year-olds. Our Clara was mesmerized when he’d lapse into Greek, which he’d majored in at Yale, or draw ancient battle formations on the board, animatedly narrating the movements of Caesar’s legions.

My wife had lately been planning to drop Paul a note of thanks for all of it. Then, without warning, it was too late. It will forever be too late.

A brilliant and accomplished lawyer, Paul was beloved by the youngsters of the Colm Cille Club. He was never seen without a large book beneath his arm, to read for pleasure as he waited between classes. The kids delighted in his good nature and quirky ways. Instead of scolding them for their hallway antics, he’d offer a more elegant rebuke.

“I think that may be unwise,” he’d suggest. Or: “I don’t recommend that.” They never knew how lucky they were to have such a beautiful mind in their midst.

Paul wasn’t twenty-four, like Brett, but he was too young to go to his reward. His wonderful children and his loving wife are coping with grief of unimaginable dimensions. Their solace is their unshakeable Catholic faith—something that my young friends and I didn’t have to brace us years ago. Paul’s bags were packed.

Catherine clarified that they adopted not one, but two, children, and that “they were the joy of his life,” and said, “We were so very happy together. I cannot believe he is gone.” She also said,

The families in the co-op made a book of memories of Paul. Even the children wrote movingly about their year with him. He taught Latin and math to our daughter as well, and was at every Little League and CYO basketball game our son played. The Little League held a moving service of remembrance for him. They noted that he said something personal to every boy, after every game. . . .

The funeral parlor director was astounded at the number of people who showed up at the wake. The line stretched out of the funeral parlor, down the street, and up another street. I stood on my feet for over two hours to greet people. They were from all walks of life. The last group was our son’s Little League team, in their uniforms, with the coaches and parents, followed by our son’s chess coach, whom Paul helped to teach, for fun. . . .

I have a huge bag stuffed with personal notes and cards from friends and admirers of Paul. I’m still getting emails about him. There were tons of donations to the two Civil War charities we named in the obit.

I don’t think Catherine meant that there was a solid flow of people for two hours. I doubt that was the case. But no doubt Paul did have many mourners.

Catherine said, “I am sorry you felt Paul was a snob. He was a pure soul, but he was terribly shy.” Compared to some, maybe, but he wasn’t really. But I did believe he had potential to be a good guy, and I was pleased to hear that he executed well the patrician role into which life placed and maintained him.

Catherine’s email concluded with an offer to talk further on the phone. I sent a reply email expressing an interest in doing that. She didn’t reply. Maybe she decided that her email had said pretty much what she cared to say, or maybe I seemed too interested in specifics. Not sure. I sent another follow-up, a few months later, again unanswered. I got involved with other things, came back to this in January 2018, and decided to wrap it up in these terms at that point.

Bill

Paul was not the first of my law school classmates to die. There may have been others of whom I was unaware; but to my knowledge, among those with whom I had become at least somewhat acquainted, that distinction would go to Bill.

Bill was what you might call an understatedly remarkable individual. To me, he was the consummate accountant type. He looked bland. He sounded bland. He was affable but did not seem socially active. And yet he was actually kind of a character. He was the guy, memorialized in my book (p. 73), who stepped out of one of our first-year exams, when the rest of us were sweating blood, to call his broker and sell gold futures on which he had taken a very profitable position. Now that I was researching this post, I saw that Bill served for a time as the chief operating officer of the Detroit city transportation system, and then became a conservative radio talk show host, before being elected to the New York state assembly and serving as co-chair of the New York campaign committee for Donald Trump’s successful presidential bid in 2016. In addition, the Daily News (Lovett, 2016) noted that he “served as an election monitor with the International Republican Institute in Ukraine and Afghanistan.”

And then, on September 9, 2016, he shot himself. Wikipedia says, “He was due in court that day to face fraud charges related to his legal work,” involving alleged embezzlement of $1.8 million from a client (New York Times, 2016). A local newspaper in his home community upstate, the Democrat and Chronicle, did not seem enamored of him. In a February 2017 article, they said “a half-dozen legal actions are pending against Nojay’s estate . . . and most accuse him of fraud,” starting back in 2009. They spoke of an FBI investigation, connected with “a federal fraud charge that he had embezzled nearly $1 million from a long-time friend” – while preaching “fiscal constraint and moral rectitude from his political soapbox.”

It seems the people in Bill’s business life were as surprised by all this as I was. The Democrat and Chronicle quoted the owner of the radio station hosting Bill’s talk show: “All of this totally blindsided us. . . . We never saw any sign of it. We were like a small family. He’d come down here and laugh it up and yuk it up.” I listened to brief excerpts from his radio show. It was the same familiar voice. His positions were not mine, and sometimes he seemed a little sloppy on his facts. Nonetheless, he did appear to be expressing himself in terms that would sound reasonable to a person of similar viewpoint.

A year later, the Democrat and Chronicle reported that it was still not clear, and might never be clear, where all that money went, and whether there was any substance behind the impression that Bill might have covered up another person’s participation in his frauds. The available information seemed to suggest that, once he gave in to the temptation to tap the funds with which he had been entrusted, circa 2009, the temptation led to a larger pattern of embezzlement, as he came to appreciate the means to fund things he couldn’t afford otherwise. For instance, the Democrat and Chronicle reported that, in 2012, he sent $221,000 to a business in Pennsylvania in which he had a personal interest. Unfortunately, it sounded like that business did not do well. There was also a report that he had spent nearly $100,000 on one of his political campaigns. Other possible recipients would include his children (to whom he did reportedly give gifts) and the charities for which he was apparently a long-term supporter.

In shooting himself, Bill made himself an ironic poster child for gun control. He was an outspoken advocate against New York State’s Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act of 2013, passed in response to the Sandy Hook shooting. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence (2016, p. 3) indicated that two-thirds of U.S. gun deaths are suicides; that guns are the leading method of suicide; and that the vast majority of those suicides would fail if a method other than a gun were used. Bill’s suicide by gun seemed to underscore the Brady Center’s argument in favor of gun control laws like SAFE.

As with the few other suicides of people whom I have known, I felt that, had I been present, I might have been able to persuade Bill to slow down and see how things were going to develop. But the timing suggests that perhaps he held out until he felt there was no alternative. Evidently he feared that he would be taken into custody the next day, and would be found guilty, and would rather die than endure imprisonment. In this, it seems Bill may have been victimized, not only by his gun, but also by a failure to perceive his legal situation as just one more hassle in life. I could be mistaken, but one might guess that a prominent Republican politician, in a Republican part of the state, would have a decent chance of being sent to a relatively safe prison for a relatively short time. Bill had evidently not heard of politicians like the mayor of Union City, NJ who, a few years before I moved there, won re-election, post-conviction, as he was on his way to prison.

Bill’s obituary said, “He was a devoted son, a loving husband, and a wonderful father. His family was his life. . . . Friends are invited to bring a written memory or photo for the family’s Memory Book.” My contribution read, “I was one of Bill’s law school classmates. I knew him as a cheerful, pleasant man who was willing to take bold steps in pursuit of his convictions. I wish we had stayed in touch. I’m sorry he’s gone.” In contrast to Paul’s Civil War organization, Bill’s obit urged donations to two charities focused on disabilities and special needs.

Further Thoughts

This post speaks a bit about the lives and deaths, within the past year or so, of two white male law school classmates, very different from me and from each other. Starting with his change away from the Polish spelling (Nogaj) that he was born with, Bill Nojay used his Columbia University education and credentials to become a municipal administrator, upstate politician, and radio talk show host. Bill’s ambition was, plainly, to rise in the world, to proceed on multiple fronts, so as to make a highly visible difference on issues of concern to him. By contrast, Paul was old money, wearing his pedigree on his sleeve, continuing the family business (i.e., big-corporation capitalism), not lacking the intelligence, the credentials, or the connections necessary to become a big fish in Manhattan legal circles, and yet declining or failing to do so. My guess is that Bill would have been delighted to have the advantages and opportunities given to Paul at birth, while Paul would have found it frightening and uncomfortable — but ultimately, perhaps, liberating, and conducive to greater empathy for people facing disabilities or other hardships — if he had been compelled to make a go of it in Bill’s home-town circumstances.

As I say, these two men were the first to die, among the law school classmates with whom I was at least somewhat familiar. In that sense, they represent a sort of milestone, at this point, 35 years post-graduation. I have often wondered whether any of my classmates would die young, due perhaps to alcohol or cocaine or risk-taking or other dangers that lawyers have sometimes been known to indulge, or whether their innate caution would instead see them all withering away to dust in their nineties and beyond. I probably would not have guessed that heart attack (especially in a seemingly low-stress life) or suicide would be the first causes, but here we are.

In writing this piece, I find — as I have found with my parents, and with others — that retrospective stock-taking can foster a more detached or philosophical interpretation of who the person was, and why s/he did what s/he did. If I had had a conversation with Paul in the last year or two, I think it would still have been dominated, on my side and perhaps also on his, with the sorts of distractions mentioned earlier in this post, involving mannerisms and social status and such. Likewise, with Bill, I think I would have had the same superficial impression of still waters, just as in the early 1980s; now, as then, I probably would have completely missed how deep those waters might run. It seems that, to develop a more informed sense of these men — starting back then, when we were interacting — I would have benefited from access to a lifelong running commentary, provided by some informed but disinterested observer. Such a commentator might have prepared me for the possibilities, described above, that have belatedly and somewhat hazily reached me through third-party reporting.

I noticed the contrast between the restrained terms of Paul’s obituary and the more open admissions of Bill’s, in terms of their status as devoted fathers, loving spouses, and so forth. I supposed it was possible that Paul’s wife, or whoever wrote his obit, was sending a not-too-subtle message that he was a rather cold geek at home. As I have described, my own exposure to him would be compatible with that. But I decided that, most likely, this was just the stiff upper lip of the classic wealthy set, sticking to the facts in public and reserving grief, if any, for rare and very private display. One might just as well have suspected Bill’s wife of putting on a show of affection for a louse whose shenanigans had substantially wrecked her private world and her eventual retirement. In short, it was one thing for me to offer speculations based on the obituary’s lack of attention to Paul’s legal career; it was quite another to venture guesses on what may have been happening in these men’s home lives. I really didn’t have enough to go on, in that department (and in Paul’s case, as noted above, I would later see that some of the speculations I did venture were mistaken).

For me, personally, these men were not a part of my life. They were just acquaintances from a New York world that I had left behind decades ago. But this is not to say they were unimportant. I had lost friends, neighbors, relatives, and other acquaintances before this. Some I had known, or at least been exposed to, for significantly longer periods and/or in much more intense conditions. What was different about these two was that they were more like me. They were not farmers in rural Indiana, or spelunkers in Los Angeles, or people from an earlier generation of old geezers. I did still have a sort of excuse, protecting me from worrying too much about the implications of this demonstration that someone like me could die at this age: I had the belief that, of course, you put yourself at risk if you don’t exercise or, certainly, if you stick a gun in your mouth. There was still the natural impression that death can’t really happen to me, at least not anytime soon, because I wouldn’t make those kinds of mistake. But events like these were tending to erode that impression. Ultimately, something fatal happens to each of us, and often the fatal event is not what one might expect. Death was starting to look a bit more like a stalker who had figured out where I lived.

The other thing was that, because these men were more like me, I felt more able to make comparisons and draw conclusions of personal relevance. Of course, one can learn from people who are not like oneself, and can also learn from one’s peers at any age. It doesn’t take death to achieve that. But in these cases, death was indeed the belated provocateur. I obtained, from retrospective reports in the newspapers and such, a degree of investigative insight that I could not have obtained without them. More than with previous deaths, this time — due in part to the process of writing this post, perhaps — it began to feel like I was making significant additions to my personal stock of knowledge and belief, on matters of later life and eventual demise. I now had some meaningful new pieces to add to the puzzle of how it might all turn out.

I did wish Paul and Bill weren’t dead. It seemed very likely that their wives and families would prefer to have them back, and to me it seemed weird to think that they were permanently gone. I felt that, if we could somehow get them back for a week, I would have to think seriously about catching a flight to New York, in a last-ditch attempt to crack the shell and learn more about who they really were. I suppose this could lead to the suggestion that maybe I should just read more autobiographies. I always did wonder who read that stuff; it now occurred to me that maybe it was a taste one could acquire later in life, and perhaps with good reason.

Advertisements

Things to Do Before Killing Yourself

I’ve seen my share of movies involving life insurance fraud and so forth. In fact, I just saw one the other night: Double Indemnity. So I’m aware that sometimes people arrange the murders of insured people, disguise their own suicides, and otherwise take extreme measures to cash in, on behalf of themselves or their family members. Of course, we have also had our suicide bombers and, before them, our kamikaze pilots, not to mention a world sadly filled with terminal diseases, credible death threats, and other factors advancing a sense that the end is nigh.

I suspect that people who are about to die tend to be preoccupied with their imminent demise. If, however, a person should happen to lift his/her eyes to the horizon, and contemplate the good or bad that s/he could do before the Big Exit, there may be many things worth checking off the list. I thought about starting such a list, but then realized that many others have probably already thought of this. So I ran a Google search. And, you know, I was right.

The first example emerging in my search was a book by an author who calls himself Professor Xavier Cortez. That book, and other materials I encountered, suggested that there was a need for lists of good suggestions on things that one might try to take care of before killing oneself. In other words, before you kill yourself, please consider taking advantage of your special mindset to write a book or otherwise provide some helpful tips. When you’re no longer afraid of the punishments that people may dish out, you may be in a position to achieve things that others fear to try.

In a different vein, people who plan to kill themselves may naturally find their thoughts turning to the classic “bucket list” of things to do before you die — the fun or challenging things, like reading the 100 best books or running a marathon. Some of these, being dangerous, combine both the idea of having fun and the risk or likelihood of eventual death. In Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, for instance, one character — a lover of fine wine — slowly drinks himself to death, in his deceased neighbor’s wine cellar, shortly before the extinction of humanity. It’s been a while since I read it, but I vaguely recall that it seemed like a plan.

My Google search also turned up a Yahoo! Answers post, where someone asked suggestions for things that he should do before taking his life. One suggestion was that he should pray for God’s forgiveness for such a selfish act. This, I thought, was just the sort of reaction that one might expect from a judgmental, uninformed person who treats religion as something to hide behind. She didn’t ask whether, perchance, he was in extreme pain due to some horrific disease. For that matter, she didn’t explain how praying for forgiveness would help, if he hadn’t actually killed himself yet. Suicide isn’t specified in the Ten Commandments; but if it is a sin nonetheless, wouldn’t you have to commit it first in order to qualify for forgiveness? Otherwise, it seems that a good strategy for any sin would be to ask forgiveness first, and then proceed as planned.

Then again, maybe the lady was just afraid of death and/or suicide. In that case, I guess her reaction would be unhelpful but at least understandable.

Another answer to that guy’s question was that he should seek mental health treatment. Not a bad suggestion. Sometimes a bit of wise counsel or a simple little pill can make everything look different. If nothing else, they may buy some time to learn more about the last big decision you’ll ever make. It’s much easier to kill yourself than to unkill yourself. With that in mind, let us continue.

Advice to pray for forgiveness and seek mental health assistance goes into the larger category of precautions. The general point is, before killing yourself, you should get your ducks in a row. It makes sense to make a well-informed decision, based on an accurate understanding of your circumstances. Apparently it’s common for people to change their mind after they’ve jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and such. In this world, timing is everything. I definitely recommend changing your mind before jumping, not after.

There’s another aspect of getting your ducks in a row, going back to the first remarks in this post. If you’re killing yourself so your family can get your life insurance money, or are otherwise indulging a scheme that people will probably investigate very carefully — which they surely will, if any substantial amount of money is involved — bear in mind that the investigators probably have lots of experience at this sort of thing, and you probably don’t. You may not turn out to be worth more dead than alive. As one sage put it, “If you think nobody cares, try missing a few payments.”

On the subject of timing, you might want to work up a rule for yourself, one that gives you some time to review your options. I decided, years ago, to hold myself to a four-month rule. According to this rule, I would wait four months, after making a firm and final decision to kill myself, before actually going through with it. I just never saw the sense of killing myself if it wasn’t absolutely and beyond any doubt the right thing for me. I figure that four-month period will give me ample time, not only to sort out my affairs and review my decisions, but also to explore self-therapy options like those listed at the Whistling by Candlelight blog.

There may be other precautions that are advisable for your particular plans. They may involve lawyers, guns, and money. They may require further thought. For instance, if you leave your body behind, somebody is going to have to clean it up; someone is going to have to pay for its funeral. But if you don’t leave your body — if, say, you tie a rock to your foot and jump out of a boat in the ocean — there may not be a gravesite where people who loved you can come to visit and think. Point is, there are things to arrange.

Along with precautions, there may be any number of destructive things that a person could do before or while killing him/herself. This is the category for everything from the suicide bomber to the self-sacrificing soldier. I can’t claim to set out a simple rule, here, that would cover all of the various reasons for murder and mayhem that might involve the risk or certainty of one’s own death. In war and peace alike, there have been many assassinations and other actual and attempted felonies (e.g., plots to kill Hitler) that have sought to make the world a better place.

Like those items on the bucket list, murder and mayhem tend to involve danger. When you feel that you’ve got nothing to lose, you may be well positioned to do dangerous things of another type: you could volunteer in some place where sensible people don’t go — again, risking your life, but this time doing it for someone other than yourself. Serving in war zones or nuclear power plant meltdowns; becoming a police officer, teacher, or other public servant in the worst part of the city (or, if you like, becoming a recorder and witness of police misconduct) — the list goes on. Just for the record, volunteering need not be long-running or exotic. You can pick up the garbage on your street, make sure the homeless people in your town have food and shelter (or at least a blanket), volunteer to drive drunk people home from bars, and assist in treatment of people with contagious diseases. If you prefer, you can counsel people online from the comfort of your home. And you can pursue these and other kinds of volunteer work while also indulging some hedonism.

If you want to do something really dangerous, try telling the truth. Just go to work or school and be honest with people. That doesn’t mean overdoing the harsh, negative stuff. The truth is rarely black and white. In one of the most frightening things that a person can do, you might have to admit where you made real mistakes, where you were hurt or cared about someone or something. The point is, if you have deep, dark secrets that should be told, tell them. You can’t very well complain about the dishonesty or falseness of life if you keep on facilitating the worst of it to the bitter end. And don’t just write it down. That’s not necessarily admissible in court; it can be misconstrued; and what you write may leave out important things that you didn’t know — things that could come out in a face-to-face conversation. God forbid, you might learn something. Write it out as your background preparation, if you wish, but then talk about it with people. Some of them are likely to surprise you.

One kind of surprise that often does occur: miscalculation as to how others will respond to one’s suicide. While the metaphysical dimensions of the matter remain unknown, in social terms the decent thing to do would usually be to outlive one’s parents. Not always: as acknowledged in a “Survivors of Suicide Fact Sheet” produced by the American Association of Suicidology, suicide can bring relief to some who remain behind, “especially if the loved one had a mental disorder.” Of course, one’s departure can be convenient to others too, as discussed below. But with very limited military and law enforcement exceptions, society is understandably unwilling to let others decide whether a person should stick around. So don’t be buffaloed into a decision either way. For virtually any extremely difficult situation that humans have ever faced, there are some who have decided to kill themselves, and some who have decided not to. This is your decision. Take your time, learn what you need to learn, work through it carefully, and move on as you, in your sole discretion, deem appropriate.

It will probably take some effort to avoid mistaken assumptions, when it comes to how others will feel about someone’s suicide. It can be hard enough to find out how everyone in a group really feels about where to go for lunch; the question of how they will react to suicide is obviously much more complex. Key emotions experienced by suicide survivors, as reported by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, include not only shame (which may amount to a feeling of being disgraced) and self-blame but also confusion. I wouldn’t assume that everyone will get the message you may have intended. This seems like something to investigate, so as to reduce the risk of being completely wrong about others’ reactions. Note also that people just may not know how they will feel until it happens. They may surprise themselves. (A note on terminology: “suicide survivors” usually refers to the loved ones of a person who kills him/herself, whereas “suicide attempt survivor” can ambiguously refer to the attempter as well.)

On another level, contemplation of suicide can lead to decompensation. Personal deterioration, in other words. One blogger observes that there may be no reason to brush your teeth or answer the phone if you’re going to kill yourself anyway. This viewpoint may make sense to people who are sick of life’s grand farce or fakery, or who are too depressed to bother. Note: if you’re that depressed, you’re probably going to do a poor job of taking care of things before you kill yourself. In that case, you should probably get yourself some medication and some therapy and get your act together. If you do ultimately take your life, you can at least try to do a decent job of preparing for it.

I’ll close this brief look at the subject with a general observation. A lot of people kill themselves because their financial, legal, political, or other circumstances have become unbearable. My impression is that people who kill themselves tend not to feel deeply loved, important to others, and significant in the world at large.

In other words, there are probably people who would be happy to see you dead. As Mark Twain famously put it, “I did not attend his funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” When you kill yourself, you are giving some of the worst people in your life exactly what they want. Once you’re gone, they will eventually get whatever you had — your money, your spouse, your home. You will no longer be in their way. If they are so inclined, they will probably be able to make you out to be a complete loser. And the things that ruined you — including the economic, social, and political realities of your world — will just proceed merrily on their way.

In that sense, people who quietly kill themselves are removing an important tool for social change. If you can get beyond your own problems, consider that staying alive may be, in itself, a thumb in the eye for the things that have ruined you. Or if you’re determined to die, try to die like that Tunisian fruit seller who burned himself to death in protest against his government and, in so doing, started the Arab Spring revolutions. Self-immolations on courthouse and statehouse steps are likely to get attention.

It may not be necessary to go to that extreme to focus public awareness on the conditions, whatever they were, that led you to this point. You may find that political or other movements, online or out in the public, have already identified some of the reasons why things went wrong for you. You might be able to make a constructive difference, in your specific problems, by participating in that sort of enterprise.

Killing yourself is not the end of the world. It’s just the end of you. Before killing yourself, try to make the most of what you’ve got. When you reach the point of suicide, you’re in a special place, in your mind, and there are positive things that can come of that.

Good luck.

* * * * *

Notes

  1. I have since written a separate post, on the inordinately male nature of suicide.
  2. This post was previously located in my religion blog. There are some reader comments there.