On death as choice

In our parish during Lent, we are holding four discussion evenings on themes of death, resurrection, life after / beyond death. Topics we rarely engage in seriously, for they are big, and our ideas tap into deeply held beliefs, and it makes us vulnerable to expose them and bring them into conflict (however friendly and respectful) with the different ideas of others.

This week, it was my turn to facilitate the discussion. A few of our congregation couldn't be there, and have asked for notes. Friends further afield are also interested. So here is roughly what I said.

Lent discussion: choosing life rather than death. Surviving depression and suicide
Claim this as a safe space, in which we will only share as we feel comfortable, will listen attentively, respect each other, and not tell anyone else’s story without permission.

Last week, Ockert said that we love facts, but the one fact that is more certain than all is the one we do not talk about: we will die. That is a fact.

This evening, we’re going to consider whether, or when, death can be a choice. Why don’t we start with the ideas and questions we are each bringing to the room. Take five minutes to discuss on your tables – can death be a choice?

my ideas

– protecting another

– the choice may be to accept death

– euthanasia – choosing death, or how to die?

– suicide – is choosing death

A personal story might speak truly to these issues and questions. As Ockert and I talked about this series, it occurred to me that such a story might add something helpful to our series. The only story I can tell is my own, and it’s suicide I’m going to talk about, since I know more about it than euthanasia from my experience.

I’ll use poetry a bit to tell this story, because poetry can speak about mysterious and profound experiences in a way that ordinary language sometimes cannot.

This is my story. I am going to tell it openly and honestly, as I have in public settings such as my blog, and my poetry.

You are welcome to ask me anything about my experience. I will be honest about what I can and cannot say, share, answer. Is that ok?

I don’t tell this story to evoke your pity. I am well, I am resilient, I am ok. Yes? I tell this story because the health of our communities depends on those of us who can talk about our experiences of depression and suicide doing just that. We will reduce stigma, and promote greater understanding, and in that way help nurture greater health for those who live these experiences.

I descended into an experience of major depression after high school, five years of isolating back injuries, stress and pressure of year 12, etc. Realised when I was studying for first year psychology exams at uni that the symptoms of major depression were visible in myself.

At first, I kind of pulled myself out of the funk I was in, acknowledged it, and began to talk with friends and family at bit about it.

It got worse.

Then it got really bad, and I started turning into the driveway, switching off the car’s ignition, and sitting there a moment or two a little surprised that I was sitting there, because I had this recurring thought about not turning a particular corner on the way home, and instead driving straight into the tree on the corner.

Poem: 'On not hitting a tree' 

After “Five Thousand Acre Paddock”, Philip Hodgins 1.
 There was only one
tree on the corner and I
drove straight past it.
 Flowers mark the tree
where the car ended
up. I think to myself
that could have been me
 only I would have done it

The final straw of a less than desired essay grade tipped the whole cart over and I sat in the kitchen of the house where I boarded with an older friend from church, alone, contemplating which way I would choose to end my life.

Poem – ‘sinking’ 

I sank to my chair
I stared at the telephone
the bottle of wine
the car keys

I took up the phone
I put it down
I dialled no number

I took it up
I put it down
again and again

wanting to ask
made it no easier to call

I took up the bottle
put it to my lips
I swallowed no wine

I took it up
I put it down
again and again

wanting to forget
made it no easier to drown

I took up my keys
drove holes in the table
I went nowhere

I took them up
I put them down
again and again

wanting to crash
made it no easier to burn

away from the car keys
the bottle of wine
the telephone
I sank into my bed

pause for conversation 

Living had become too painful. For me, depression is a physical ache, with enourmous fatigue, emotional vacuum or overload, and often nausea or a general feeling of being unwell. My thinking is foggy, my appetite is all over the place, and I don’t get any enjoyment from anything. It affects my whole being, so that I hurt constantly, and in many different ways.

Living had become so painful that the only way I could see to stop the pain was to stop living.

That evening when I realised my housemate would be home soon, I finally shook whatever paralysis had come over me, and crawled into bed, where I cried myself to sleep, in my despair at my inability to actually end my life.

I woke the next morning with the thought that I seemed to have chosen to live, so how was I going to manage ? I made decisions to talk to the GP, tell my mum what was happening … slowly, ever so gradually, I began to climb out of that very deep dark hole.

Before we consider the choice to live, I want to pause with the choice to die, and consider where in the Bible, characters have chosen or longed for death. 

Samuel (1 Sem 31:4) and Ahithophel (2 Sam 17:23) seem to choose death out of some sort of sense of honour in war; Samuel to avoid the dishonour of being killed by his enemy, falls on his sword, and Ahitophel after the dishonour of David's escape, hangs himself. Interestingly, Ahithophel is buried in the tomb of his father, unlike the long Christian practice of unmarked graves and no proper funeral for those who died by suicide. 

Judas is the only suicide in the New Testament, regret a strong element to his choice, and perhaps also a sense of honour? Interestingly, there are two different accounts, one in which he went away and hanged himself (Matt 27:5), and the other in which he gutted himself in a field then named 'field of blood' (Acts 1:18). 

Job longs for death, as does Elijah (1 Kings 19:4), Tobit (3:6), and Jonah (4:8), but all of them leave the decision for whether they live or die in the hands of God. 

For the writer of Ecclesiastes, the suffering of the world, full of evil, is so great to bear, that it would be better for those who live and have experienced it to have never been born, rather than live this awful life. 

Paul has mixed feelings about death, almost longing for it because it will bring him closer to Christ (Philemon 1:23). 

What I didn't find, and I haven't done a comprehensive study, is any condemnation of those who wish for or even choose, death. It seems a very human response to the immense suffering we experience. 

[We did talk about Jesus and whether he chooses death, or life; a life and a way of life that seemed to be leading him towards execution. We wondered, though, whether his choice was for life, life that transcends this earthly life] 

One of the ways I thought about it later, visualising the experience, was that at the bottom of that hole, I had sat with my hand on a trap door escape, thinking I was alone. But I realised I was not alone, for there was one I had not shut out – God. I occasionally forget God is here, in some part of my conscious, distracted knowing; but in my deepest core being and knowing, God is, always, and I don’t appear to be able, or want, to let that go.

And for me, as I reflected on my decision to live, that seems to be why and how I chose life rather than death that night in my friend’s kitchen. Because I would not choose to let go of God, to be where God is not.

And here, death means more than simply the end of this earthly way of being. For me, life is synonymous with God, and death synonymous with turning away from God. I don’t think God abandons those who take their own life, for whatever reason. I do think that for me, the choice to pull on that escape hatch felt like a choice to leave God, who was there in the darkness with me. Examining my choice to live helped me to turn back towards the light that was there all along. And that gave me enough hope to take my hand off the trap door, and begin to find a way to embrace life more fully again.

I can continue to choose life, continue to experience wellness even in the midst of living with depression, even when it gets very dark indeed, which I’m afraid it has once or twice since then.


A long way from Venice, Antonio & Shylock, an attacker seeks his prey

With stealth, Darkness approaches
out of the radiant day.
He is your foe in a tightrope war,
seeking another fray.
You’ve beaten him before,
you know how to win,
but this war is never over,
he will reappear again.
You cannot jump, you cannot fall,
into the unbounded chasm below,
for that way is to lose.

You have no choice, you must fight,
if you want your chance at life,
and you know what you must do.
From the shadows he will strike,
anticipate his move;
You must prepare your bosome for his knife.

When we make a choice to die, it is never in a vacuum

Blue, Koala? [Listen here] [Buy the book here]

Something that has been important for me is that even though I have family and friends close enough to hold light when I cannot, and they are integral to my living, and living well, I do not make the choice to live for them. What a burden that would be for them and for me. I chose, and continue to choose, life – for the sake of life, and for myself. These days it is less a choice between life and death, and more a choosing to live well, to embrace life’s fullness and richness, and to nurture wellbeing for me and the communities in which I dwell.

I ran out of time to read this final poem, but people had it on their hand outs. 

tenuous wholeness

beneath a sepia sky
of rainclouds reflecting
streetlights my cheeks are wet,
not by rain,but by the profound
discovery of wholeness, 
however tenuous, 
painted against a black 

scars an etching of regret, 
edges faded and worn, 
colour stretched and yet –
piercing through to the heart
eyes that shine despite it all
for a precious, 
tenuous moment

All poems included here are (c) Sarah Agnew, and are included in On Wisdom's Wings (Ginninderra Press, 2013), available for purchase from me for $25.


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