Amid such heartbreak, many survivors also agonize about why their loved one did not leave a suicide note. Melinda McDonald, a blogger who lost her husband to suicide, wrote about this agony in a deeply moving blog post:
I have struggled off and on with the fact that my husband did not leave me a suicide note.
I am once again struggling with this. I have been for weeks now.
Through talking to other suicide widows, I know that the suicide note doesn’t always bring comfort. It often times places blame, doesn’t make any sense, or just flat out, doesn’t bring ENOUGH love and affection to such a horrible situation.
But there are times like now, that I wish I could pull out the note, and read it. Maybe to be reminded of what a dire state my husband was in. That death was his only option. Or just to see “I love you” one more time.
The Uncommonness of Suicide Notes
Thanks to movies and TV shows, many people believe that suicide notes are common, and that such notes provide answers to tormenting questions. The real world is quite different. Only 15 to 38% of people who die by suicide leave a note, according to results of 5 studies published in the last 10 or so years.
For survivors of the other 62% to 85% of suicides, the expectation of finding a note can lead to more pain. Another blogger who lost her partner to suicide wrote in a blog post:
“I searched for a suicide note , not recently but back when I thought there might have been a note left for me. In the days he was missing, and intermittently after he was found, I vigorously ransacked Mottsu’s belongings. I turned everything inside out and upside down, looking for a last communication. No note was ever uncovered.
“I did worry I might have overlooked a final message of…. of what? The phenomena of a suicide note is perplexing. It is almost the expected protocol that someone who leaves unexpectedly, and without explanation, should leave behind a helpful note.”
What Suicide Notes Do and Do Not Say
It is natural to yearn for a suicide note in the absence of one. You may wish you had a window into your loved one’s mind in his or her final hours, perhaps even minutes, of life.
In the first blog post that I quoted above, the writer Melinda McDonald did ultimately remember a note that her husband had written her – not before his suicide, but before his first suicide attempt. Rediscovering this note brought her great solace.
But many times, a note leaves people aching for more. This is because suicide notes seldom contain dramatic answers to painful questions.
The most common theme in suicide notes, according to one study, is instructions. These instructions concern financial affairs, funeral arrangements, people to be notified about the death, and even trivial matters like cancelling the newspaper subscription.
The mundane instructions found in suicide notes prompted a psychologist, Roy Baumeister, Ph.D to state in an interview:
“Instead of explaining why they are in a suicidal state, most [notes] relate to feeding the dog and taking care of the plants.”
When notes do go beyond mere instructions, the most common emotional themes include depression, guilt, shame, hurt, and anger, according to another study.
It can be hard to make sense of the depression and other painful emotions that the suicidal person endured, let alone understand how those emotions could demolish all desire for survival. For this reason, suicide notes that describe the person’s emotional state may become the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a puzzle: whatever answers that suicide notes provide may lead to yet more questions.
Only rarely, if ever, can words on paper make the illogic of suicide logical.
© Copyright 2014 Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, All Rights Reserved. Written for www.speakingofsuicide.com
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