On Suicide Being a “Cowardly Act”

Following is my opinion and my opinion alone and is not based on any scientific study or thesis, just my own individual observations over the years. So don’t go off on me and tell me I’m wrong – I may very well be. But this explanation fits based on what I know and represents one of many scenarios. There. Now this essay has been sufficiently disclaimed.

It’s not about cowardice. It’s about relief.

I could never defend suicide as a rational, reasonable solution to anything. No reasonable mind could possibly draw that conclusion, so don’t think for a second that I condone suicide as a remedy for what ails the suffering mind. I do not. But I do understand it.

Committing suicide, in my opinion, has more in common with curing a headache than it does with cowardice.

When your head hurts, you seek relief by grabbing a bottle of ibuprofen or aspirin or something. The goal: to make the hurt go away.

Suicide is similar in that killing one’s self becomes the only relief available. Unfortunately as we all know, the consequences are far direr than grabbing 800 milligrams of ibuprofen and taking a nap.

It’s all about relief. It’s all about making it stop.

When one is in the depths of depression, sleep becomes a blessed relief from the past, the present and the future – all of which during the waking state appear hopeless. Only in sleep is there a blessed unconsciousness. Only in dreams are there precious few moments free of the hopelessness of the waking state. That eight hours becomes the focus of everything else one does during the waking state: “I have to go to work so I can get back to sleep and not hurt for awhile.” Or: “I need to hurry up and finish dinner and get everything settled for the evening before that moment when the real, oppressive, and horrible existence fades from view into the darkness of sleep and the freedom of dreams.” These are the things that go through one’s mind as the drudgery and the misery of a hopeless existence weigh heavily upon each and every day.

Then sleep. Blessed sleep. The relief of unconsciousness and of dreams. Even the unconsciousness brings relief.  Especially the unconsciousness.

And that’s where the problem comes.

Once the unconsciousness of sleep and the perceived unconsciousness of death become equivocated, the rational barriers between living and dying break down. The attractiveness of that relief that is only temporarily found in sleep spills over to that which is perceived to be in death.

You see where I’m going with this.

It’s not about being a coward. It’s about needing the hurt to stop. Unfortunately, there’s no medicine which can mitigate that kind of hurt. And it’s tough to see a rational way out for such a visceral experience.

Regardless of how you feel about it, Robin Williams and others who commit suicide every day aren’t cowards. They just want the hurt to stop.

So please stop accusing those who commit suicide or attempt it of cowardice. “Tough love” doesn’t work here.  It’s not helpful to anyone least of all them. Instead, consider empathy, compassion and offers of help and comfort. There are other ways to make the hurt stop and it starts with all of us.




On Suicide Being a “Cowardly Act” — 10 Comments

  1. Very well said. I’ll admit I’ve often referred to suicide as a cowardly act and your essay does make me reflect that perhaps cowardly is the wrong adjective. Having recently had a family member choose suicide as the solution to PTSD I think your analysis of the thought process may be right on the mark. It is perceived by the individual as the best and lasting solution to their problem. I do believe that it might be said that they are taking the easy cheap solution without considering the consequences or, for that matter, the mess they will leave for loved ones. So you are right cowardly is probably the wrong adjective and there may not really be a right one. My thoughts and prayers go out to the Williams family because unlike my own, they get to deal with Robin’s actions in the public and often hurtful forum. Once again well said Dan.

    • Ben – First off, I am sorry for your loss and I can’t imagine how it feels to lose someone you care about to suicide. You have my condolences. While you and I may consider it the “easy cheap solution” the person considering suicide isn’t thinking rationally about the choices available. They just know that they hurt and they need it to stop. And that’s just about all they can cognitively accomplish. It’s an awful thing to be so paralyzed that from multiple choices, only one can be perceived.

  2. Well said! I’ve always thought that if someone gets to the point where they think suicide is their only option, knowing how finite it is, then they must be in a terribly bad place that. I cannot imagine what they are going through to think it’s the only option.

  3. You’ve hit the nail on the head. Suicide isn’t a cowardly exit. It actually takes a tremendous amount of courage to end your life. Even at our darkest moments we can be afraid of the pain, the unknown, the right or wrong of our choice. And, sometimes it is a well calculated choice. Sometimes a person knows that there are options, meds, counseling, time. They may consider each of those things. Sadly, sometimes they know that their card is up, its their time. And, in a life full of chaos, maybe its the one thing that they feel they can control. The time of their demise, their exit.

  4. I’ve wondered if referring to suicide as “selfish” or “cowardice” was a way of preventing people from taking their own lives back in the day when we knew even less about how to help people with their mental health. Maybe this was used as a form of peer pressure to prevent suicide since they really didn’t know what else to do. My grandmother committed suicide when I was six. Her children are still very angry with her 40 years later. Yes, 40 years, this year. They think she was extremely selfish because of the suicide. I think they’re very selfish for not even trying to understand how she must have felt and how desperate she was to do it. I’ve tried to explain, “She didn’t do it TO you. She did it to herself because she wasn’t thinking straight.” They don’t understand what I’m saying. I don’t think they even hear me. They’re set in their ways. They were taught that suicide is selfish and can’t think of it any other way.

  5. Tracy Newman – I meant to acknowledge your comment and thank you for posting it. I’m not sure I ever really grasped how many people suicide has touched among my friends and colleagues. I’ve learned a lot from this and other dialogues about suicide that have popped up online since Williams’s death. It’s been an eye opener.

  6. Well said! Though I’m not sure why you add to your disclaimer that you could never say it’s a rational or logical act. When all hope is gone, why wouldn’t it be rational? In a world straining under the weight of over 7 BILLION people, if you don’t want to be here, it seems perfectly logical to free up resources for someone who does.

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