Few of us can really understand a person with a suicidal mind and the associated organ, the brain. We can certainly empathize with their pain; their anguish; but to presume that we do so completely is an overstatement. Because a non-suicidal brain is simply wired differently. So, we never really get it.
As a recent survivor of suicide loss, I spent considerable time in the first year of my bereavement searching; exploring; grappling for answers to my question: Why did my husband die of suicide? He had it all: name, fame, adored by patients and students, a loving family that also included two adorable dogs, a peaceful home… It was a made-to-order life. Could anyone ask for more?
The recent deaths of celebrity fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Antony Bourdain brought to surface and public scrutiny the eternal suicide conundrum—they too had it all. Yet why did they call it quits?
Often, in reporting about suicide, the media goes overboard. Sensitivity and informed perspectives are often thrown to the winds. Instead sensationalism, insensitivity and lack of informed perspectives are the drivers of newsworthiness. Friends and relatives are no better. At my husband’s funeral, speculation was rife about why he chose to kill himself. There was a desperate desire to ‘fix’ the reason for the suicide. Was it due to the fact that the human mind desires to categorize, slot and fit life into neat boxes in our desire to explain even the inexplicable?
The reason I carp and cringe is that such speculations adversely impact and exacerbate the trauma being faced by survivors of suicide loss. In addition to the primary trauma of losing our loved one to a horrific death, we are subject to secondary trauma that is even worse than the primary trauma.
Suicide is a result of a convergence of multiple factors: personality, neuro chemistry and a host of bio psycho social factors. Even the seemingly apparent reason such as a relationship breakdown, financial crisis, poor performance in exams or mental health issues such as depression are just risk factors. The tipping point is often the result of a convergence of many such risk factors. It can never be attributed to that elusive single factor that can explain why our loved ones chose to take their own lives when well, they had it all. It will forever remain an eternal mystery.
In retrospect, I understand the tunnel vision experienced by people who are strongly suicidally ideated and complete suicide. Despite having it all, their brains, the decision-making organ is impaired. It tells them that life is not worth living because their “psyche ache” or psychological pain is “insurmountable.” They choose to die of suicide not because they want to die but because they want to end their pain. Their brains are like impaired limbs. Severely constrained and limited. (Yet equally brilliant in many aspects). And death, as they perceive it, is the best way to do so.
Dr. TR Murali… Kate Spade… Antony Bourdain… and every person in the 800,000 people who die of suicide every year. Every suicide is different. Like our finger prints. Like the stripes on a zebra. Or spots on a leopard. People who die of suicide are not mere statistics. They are persons first. And their families and close friends —survivors of suicide loss struggle to piece their shattered lives. How can we reach out to them with compassion and love?
Today a year after my husband’s death, I no longer obsess with the why? Because no matter how much I explore, I will never know why…
Almost a year back, as a freshly minted survivor of suicide loss, I struggled as I picked up the debris of my shattered life even as I attempted to rebuild it. Throughout my life journey, at every crisis in my life, I’ve turned to books/reading material for support and inspiration. This time too it was no different…
As I desultorily trawled the Net, I stumbled on a book No time to say goodbyeby Carla Fine, herself a survivor of suicide loss. I ordered the book at once and was delighted when it reached me in the shortest possible time!
The book was a lifeline to me in more ways than one. There were several commonalities I share(ed) with Carla Fine. The most obvious was that Carla’s late husband Dr. Harry Reiss too was a well known urologist with a successful practice in New York. Like me, Carla too was the first person to discover that her husband died of suicide. Carla’s book helped me realize the many complex and complicated aspects of grief associated with suicide loss. And that, despite different contexts of culture, as survivors of suicide loss, we were more similar than different! Written in a deeply personal, poignant and engaging style, No time to say goodbye offered me a glimmer of hope in the devastating darkness of my life… that it ISpossible to move through the loss with grace, dignity and courage…
I read the book in one long stretch from start to finish. It was unputdownable. I immediately reached out to Carla by email; least expecting to hear from her. To my delightful surprise, she responded almost instantly. Over the months, we stayed in touch.
Earlier this month, when I visited New York, I met with Carla Fine. It’s not often that one gets to meet an author. Not so incidentally, Carla Fine has a Master’s in Journalism from the prestigious Columbia School of Journalism, is the author of several books and a passionate advocate voicing the needs and concerns of survivors of suicide loss. Her father Dr. Benjamin Fine was the education editor of The New York Times. At Carla’s home, there is a wonderful B&W photograph of Dr. Fine interacting with the legendary Albert Einstein! Carla also has an abiding Indian connection. Her late sister Janet Fine, lived in Bombay for most of her life.
I spent a wonderful evening with Carla and her husband Allan, their two adorable doggies Jancy and Benji walking around Chelsea and capping it with an amazing dinner at an Italian vegan restaurant. Carla and Alan are to visit me in Madurai this September. Carla and I share a sisterhood—a sisterhood forged in the crucible of the pain of losing our spouses to suicide. I am touched that she considers me her “Indian sister.”
As she memorably writes in her other related book Touched by suicide loss, “Suicide is incredibly humbling. It makes you realize that no matter how much you love or care for other people, you cannot be their life support system, you cannot keep them going, you can’t will your spirit over to them. Our loved one’s death by suicide is not our choice, yet we who are left behind, must learn to live with its consequences and deal with its aftermath.”
The day my life changed forever.
The day my husband Dr. T.R. Murali well known urologist in Madurai, died of suicide. Until then, suicide—the S word—was something that happened to others. I had read about celebrity suicides in media coverage, a few friends whose family members had died of suicide, preferred not to talk about it; gloss over the death; hide it in the closet’ or attribute the death to “natural” causes.
Brilliant, bright and bold, Dr. Murali had studied in some of the most prestigious medical colleges in the country—JIPMER, Maulana Azad Medical College and AIIMS. Regarded as one of the best urologists in the country, Dr. Murali’s expertise in andrology, paediatric urology and renal transplantation (of which he had successfully performed more than 15,000) was legendary. He was unanimously acknowledged by his peers and students as a “phenomenal clinician and a gifted surgeon.”
Murali was the fulcrum of my life. I felt bereft and adrift like driftwood… tossed and turned already in the eddies, whirl pools and abyss of the turbulent ocean of grief. My transition to a survivor of suicide loss had just begun.
I am no stranger to stigma and discrimination as I work with some of the most stigmatized and marginalized communities. Yet as soon as I discovered Murali’s body and had to announce his death, I was overcome with a deep sense of shame and remorse. What would I tell my family and friends? Wont they judge me and Murali?
In those precious moments, before the world descended on me, when only Murali’s body and I were all alone at home, I made a conscious choice to SPEAK. I decided that Truth must be told; I had to SPEAK up; to talk about suicide; to create informed spaces for conversations on suicide…. Because somebody HAD to do it. And that somebody would be Me.
If I chose to remain silent about suicide, especially as I had been forever impacted by it, wouldn’t I also be contributing to the stigma, secrecy, shame and silence?
So, I decided to be the change I wished to see in the world…
The picturesque city of Amsterdam in the Netherlands has played an important role in my grief journey. Six months back when I arrived in the city in connection with a course in gender, I felt vulnerable; my grief still fragile and friable. Winter was just setting in casting a somber cloak over the city. It was winter in my life too; my life being denuded with grief and sorrow.
However, six months later when I was again in the city to complete the course, I discovered that I had indeed travelled far in my journey… I had just completed Murali’s first year ceremony and flew out of the country that same evening.
When I arrived last week in Amsterdam, it was spring in this European metropolis. The sun was lambent, gentle and soothing, the cherry blossom, the apple blossom and the fabled tulips were in bloom… there was spring everywhere… whispers of hope in the air…
Indeed, it was a metaphor for a ‘spring’ in my life too. I completed the course and a moment of great personal pride and satisfaction for me was to be commended by the course directors Dr. Maitrayee Mukhopadhyay and Dr. Franz Wong, both fine professionals and finer human beings.
I write this blog just minutes before I say good bye to this city which will forever be special for me. During the one week I spent here, I’ve wandered around the streets, sat by the sparking canals, lost in reflection…. Of the year that has gone by… the challenges… the highs and lows… and of the ways I’ve been forever transformed by grief. I’ve spent a lot of time connecting with myself; listening to my dreams, my aspirations, my sorrows, and my joys…
When life throws challenges at you, it also sends people who seem to appear in your life out of nowhere. One such person is Maitrayee. She made it possible for me to complete the course by giving me an extra three days (Which I had missed due to Murali’s ceremony) and personally took me through the course syllabus. I shall forever cherish her sisterhood, the warmth of her friendship and the grace of her presence.
In two days, SPEAK will be launched. This time last year, I had no clue that I was on the brink of a life changing event.
Thank you, Amsterdam, for restoring a sense of perspective into my life; for helping me come full circle. Despite life’s’ challenges, trials and struggles, it still IS a beautiful world!
Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a feminist and a gender and diversity professional. She is an author who also provides technical support in communications for the social sector. When she is not working, she heads off to the forests with her camera. Currently, she has a magnificent obsession with photographing leopards!