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The tragedy of suicide

We lost someone we loved this week.

The friendship between Thomas and my husband, Don, stretched back to their high school days, when they were as close as brothers. Thomas was Don’s best man at our wedding 22 years ago. On Tuesday afternoon, Thomas put a gun to his head and ended his life.

He had a hard existence, though everyone who knew him admitted that many of his problems were his own fault. Thomas had a talent for making poor decisions and bad choices. These decisions and choices led to a failed marriage, a struggling business, some major health issues and many other difficulties. At age 55, he was unemployed and (barely) supporting his divorced daughter and three small grandsons, who were living with him. We used to describe him as having a perpetual black cloud over his head that rained bad luck upon him, because it seemed nothing ever good happened to Thomas.

Yet he had charm. He inspired loyalty and love in many people, including my husband and myself. Now we live three states and over 1,500 miles away, but about twice a year he and Don would connect on the phone and talk for hours. And if I should happen to answer the phone first, Thomas and I would talk for at least an hour before I’d hand the phone to Don.

He was that kind of guy. He loved to hear about everyone’s lives. He loved to talk about his own life (usually consisting of a litany of new woes, which he would relate with cheerful candor). The black cloud that hovered over his head did not include clinical depression – Thomas seemed cheerful under the most adverse of circumstances. He took a certain perverse pride in his bad luck.

Thomas was an extraordinarily talented woodworker and owned his own high-quality cabinet business. For a wedding gift, he gave Don and me a large dome-lidded solid oak chest, which rests in a place of honor in our home. Thomas and my husband shared a deep love for woodworking – a skill they honed together as teenagers – and each man made his living through his expertise. But while our home woodcraft business has (so far) remained flexible and adaptable in this harsh economy, the downturn in the housing market spelled the beginning of the end for Thomas’s cabinet shop. With fewer high-end homes being built, no one wanted Thomas’s solid hardwood craftsmanship. As a result, his income plummeted to practically nothing.

Over the years and over the phone, we counseled Thomas on how he might find work. He might leave his tiny California foothills community and get a job in a larger city, working for an industrial cabinet shop. He might go to North Dakota and find work among the oil boom. He might go back to school. He might lower his standards and make cheaper cabinets.

Yet Thomas either could not or would not take any steps to improve his circumstances. He had become one of those individuals who was comfortable in misery, who realized that life at the bottom meant no rewards – but also no risks.

You see, Thomas was smart. Very smart. Perhaps too smart. Smart people can look ahead and gauge their prospects, and I think Thomas didn’t like what he saw. He knew he had no money, limited skills and a comfortable relationship with failure. I suppose there are as many reasons to commit suicide as there are suicide victims, and who can guess the complicated tangle of logic that pushes someone over the edge? In Thomas’s case, I think the final straw was the loss of his house due to foreclosure. Maybe he felt that ending his life was the best solution for those around him. Maybe he felt he was doing his friends and adult children a “favor” by removing himself from the equation. Maybe maybe maybe. We’ll never know.

But suicide is never a “favor” for those connected to the victim. Thomas’ daughter is the one who found her father’s body in God-only-knows what condition. The children were with her, though I think she managed to shield them before they saw much. Did it occur to Thomas that whoever found him would be traumatized for life? I don’t know.

I was gone most of the day on Tuesday. As news of Thomas’ death rippled through a wider and wider circle of friends, it reached my husband by early afternoon. Don said the moment his old friend Luke called, he knew what happened – even before being told. Later that evening when I got home and Don told me, I clapped my hand to my mouth in horror and wheeled away. Thomas. Not Thomas. Not him.

Suicide victims often leave behind just as much anger as grief. Last year a man in our church attended the funeral of his nephew, who committed suicide after his girlfriend left him and married another man. But when I offered my condolences, I found he wasn’t sad. He was furious. “Everyone has disappointments in life,” he snapped, surprising me with his vehemence. “I got dumped numerous times when I was a young man. But look what came of it – I have a beautiful wife and two wonderful sons. If my nephew had waited, things would have gotten better. He would have met a woman better than the girlfriend who dumped him, and had a happy life. But now he has nothing.”

This man was still in shock from the death of his nephew. Now I understand the feeling.

I have no training in psychology or theology. I can’t come up with elegant or sophisticated explanations for why someone would take his own life. Don and I are simply bewildered and grieving friends, groping in the dark to understand why Thomas did this, wondering if we could have done something to prevent it, wondering how his daughter and grandsons will handle things.

Never again will I answer the phone and hear Thomas’s gravelly voice, asking all about life on our small farm three states away. Never again will we be cheerfully regaled with tales of the latest string of woes to beset him.

Rest in peace, Thomas – the peace you didn’t find in this life. May God have mercy on your soul.