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20100903-when-we-are-not-enoughI sat down today with the intention of writing about something uplifting. This morning it was cool, so I went for a long walk with my son up to the campus of the college where I teach. Along the way, we saw families of deer, the college grounds crew weed-whacking around the foundations of the buildings, students walking groggily to their first classes of the semester. After a long sweltering summer, fall is creeping in.

However, it was difficult for me to be present, focused on the beauty around me. The order of a new school year, which usually reassures and excites me, was overshadowed by news of a local suicide.

Over the past three years I’ve witnessed the pain and confusion suicide can cause. In one case, it was a colleague and in another it was my wife’s best friend. Even on a morning as beautiful as this, their deaths were once again fresh in my mind and weighing heavily on me. But my intention is not to dwell on my experience here. Nor am I interested in a postmodern critique of how suicide is often portrayed in the media.

What weighs on me today is the decision to take one’s life.

To say that one “decides” implies that it is not a hasty act; one contemplates it over a period of time, perhaps coming close on a number of occasions, sometimes even making unsuccessful, half-hearted attempts. It seems that we use the term “decision” because we would like to extend dignity to those who are so chronically or terminally ill, mentally or physically, that the pain cannot be borne any longer.

In both of the situations I’ve been witness to, there was a long and a painful search for a scapegoat—that ancient ritual of finding an object of transference, some animal (often a goat) or person (a cripple or beggar) that we can load with our guilt and then banish or destroy.

But the problem with scapegoating is that while in the short term it might satisfy our thirst for answers—for justice—in the long run it is insufficient and unsatisfying. For a time the guilt is assuaged, the fear and anxiety that we have passes, but only for a time.

In cases of suicide, the search for a scapegoat covers our own nagging, painful thoughts: Could I have done something more? Should I have told her more often that I loved her or cared about her? Should I have visited more often, or asked how she was feeling?

When my wife’s friend died, we drove all day and all night to be with her family and friends. We went to a memorial service that had all the marks of being hastily put together by people who did not know her as deeply and intimately as my wife felt she did. I watched as Jess cringed and hid her face, eventually leaving the room.

In the hours, weeks and months following, she talked endlessly with her friend’s boyfriend and mother about how this could have happened, and who was responsible. Her boss, who was often inappropriate and creepy? The new friend she’d made who took her out drinking too many nights after work? In our darkest moments, wrestling with loss and failure, we slide into old, perhaps ancient and atavistic, ways of thinking. We the living, begin to believe, if only briefly, in monsters and demons—what else could be behind such an abomination, such an unconscionable thought as taking one’s own life?

But in the end, for Jess, there was only the stark reality of some unknowable and unshareable pain and sadness at the core of her friend’s life that could not be quenched by medications or chased away by encouraging words.

We can all recognize and understand the relief of pain and suffering to be a fundamental “good,” no matter the victim. But those who loved them will carry the burden of their deaths for the rest of their lives. They wonder, even on days like today, full of the promise and anticipation of a new season, how they draw breath and find it good, perhaps even beautiful, despite the unkindness, and some might say, the brutishness, of life.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: David Griffith

Dave Griffith is the author of Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America. His essays and reviews have appeared in Image, The Normal School, Creative Nonfiction, The LA Review of Books, Killing the Buddha, Offline, and the Paris Review Daily, among others. He lives in Michigan with his wife, the writer Jessica Mesman Griffith, where he directs the creative writing program at Interlochen Center for the Arts. He recently finished a book manuscript titled Pyramid Scheme: Making Art and Being Broke in America.

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