The Chronicle today has an article about “The Bridge”, a movie about suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge. The film documents six of the twenty four known suicides from the bridge which occurred in 2004, part of a project which included videotaping the bridge continuously for a year. (There was a great deal of dispute about the taping because when the filmmaker originally applied for permits he said it was for a “historical project,” not that he was intending to examine suicides from the bridge.) Unlike a National Geographic film crew, however, the filmmaker and his crew reported to 911 any suspicious behaviour, suicide attempts, or suicides–they were not lurking, macabre, under the bridge waiting gleefully for someone to die.

I’d like to see the film, because I’ve heard good things about it. But I’d like people who haven’t experienced suicide in their lives to see it as well, because they might take something from it.

I realized yesterday when I was in a conversation with several survivors of suicide victims that there are fundamental differences between us and other people in society. There are things that I understand on a visceral level that someone who has not been touched by suicide can’t comprehend. It’s been the cause of a lot of argument in my life lately, being told by the ignorant that suicides are “selfish” and that “there’s always something left to live for,” which is not really something that I’m interested in hearing right now. I’ve honestly reached the point where I wish people who didn’t understand would just shut up, because they certainly aren’t helping. At one point in my life, I am ashamed to admit, I also held those shortsighted and unenlightened views, but at least I had the decency not to shove them in the faces of people in mourning.

Perhaps the most clear difference is that people who have not had suicide in their lives don’t seem to understand a fundamental precept: life is voluntary. I’m in the process of re-reading Stranger in a Strange Land right now, and it’s one of the crucial themes of the book, that the principal characters understand when it’s time to discorporate and do so, that it’s actually a sort of embarrassment to discorporate involuntarily. Every death does have a meaning, is what Heinlein is saying, including your own. You do have the autonomy to choose the date and place of your death, should you so choose–and why shouldn’t you, because your life is your own. Your life does not belong to anyone, or any society–it is something you can use as you wish to. And while your survivors have the right to be saddened by your choice, and to grieve for you, ultimately it is the hope that they would be happy for you, that they will not cling to you, refusing to set you free. For people who haven’t experienced a suicide, this is a difficult concept to grasp, and it’s one that spans a lot of aspects of life.

For example, I was having a conversation with someone recently in which I declaimed that if I was in a persistent vegetative state, brain dead, or in a coma from which I showed no signs of reviving, I would want life support withdrawn, immediately. I would appreciate some measures aimed at my comfort such as water and analgesia, but I would like to die rather than exist in that state. And the person I was talking to said “yeah well maybe after a year or so.” This shows what to me is an uncommonly optimistic grip on life. A refusal to face facts, even. Hey man, death happens. So just..let go.

Or what about the case of euthanasia, something the United States still refuses to come to terms with? It saddens me that my animals can die a death with dignity, if the time comes, and I can’t. No, if I want to be euthanized I’m going to have to swing by the store and pick up a rifle. I can’t even have someone shoot me if I’m incapacitated, because that would be murder. Even if I have clearly expressed wishes regarding the subject.

Americans fear death, on a deep level, and the fear in which they hold death clearly impacts their views on suicide. Most Western cultures also are afraid of death, though at least they aren’t quite as phobic as we are. But in other parts of the world, like some Eastern cultures, death is embraced as what it is: yet another adventure. The first step on an untrodden path–survivors may be saddened by the death of a loved one but they are ready and willing to let go, understanding that the spirit will never be free otherwise. We should come face to face with death and acknowledge it, like the characters in The Amber Spyglass who spend their lives accompanied by their deaths. Embrace it, rather than turning way.

I know on some level that the spirits of my dead are with me, and while I’m not ready to join them yet, I look forward to seeing them at the end of my life. I am proud of and happy for all of them for the choices they made in life, and about their lives, however they may have died.

Honor the dead, don’t defame them.