Thursday, January 28, 2021

"It's hard to be a human": Reflections on Tommy Raskin

Maybe you heard about the loving and honest tribute that Congressman Jamie Raskin and Sarah Bloom Raskin wrote about their remarkable son Tommy, who died by suicide on December 31, 2020, at age 25. Like my son Noah, Tommy had so much to live for. Both young men were animal lovers with big hearts, quick wits, big extended families and friend circles, many passions and talents and opportunities. Like so many young people lost to suicide, Noah and Tommy were sensitive souls who felt things deeply; Tommy famously remarked in response to gossip, “Excuse me, but it’s hard to be a human.” Too hard, it seems, with the burden of depression, which Tommy’s parents called “relentless torture in the brain.” They wrote that “despite very fine doctors and a loving family and friendship network of hundreds who adored him beyond words and whom he adored too, the pain became overwhelming and unyielding and unbearable at last for our dear boy, this young man of surpassing promise to our broken world.”

I’m grateful to the Raskins for raising this wonderful person and for sharing this important message about suicide with the public—that suicide can happen even with many guardrails in place. I’m also floored that the family had the space in their grieving hearts to note that on the same day Tommy died, so, too, did thousands of people with COVID.

Unlike Noah and most people who take their lives, Tommy left a note for his family. It begins, “Please forgive me. My illness won today.” This brings me to tears each time I read it—that someone so full of life could be vanquished. Also that Tommy was clear-eyed enough in his moment of crisis to see and express what was happening and compassionate enough to reach out to those he loved. He understood that he had a mental illness—something our son could never fully admit or address—and apparently spent his twenties trying to cope with it while living his accomplished life.

I’m struck by the word today as in “my illness won today.” Tommy reached a day when, understandably, he could no longer rise to the fight. I can’t know what he or Noah or others who took their lives were thinking and feeling in that tragic moment or what directly preceded it. But I often agonize about the randomness of the day when a suicide takes place. What if something had happened to give these young people the strength to hold on for one more day or one more hour, which may not have felt so dire? I’m reminded of the plea made by Jennifer Hecht and the suicide prevention movement to “stay” for the sake of those you love who love you and for the sake of your future self. Of course, what if people in distress have already been holding on for lots of days, over and over, and simply can’t bear the pain any longer? It hurts me to think of the days my son may have been on the verge of leaving this life and I didn’t know—the missed opportunities to hear him out and surround him with love and care. To affirm that yes, “it’s hard to be a human.”

How I wish that Noah could have held on long enough to recover the “thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient,” like the elderly pastor in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.

To my fellow survivors: How do you respond to public accounts of individual suicides in the media? What note was left for you – or do you wish had been left for you--by your loved one? If there was no note, it may help to compose one yourself. 


  1. Thank you again Susan, bless you. Gareth left a note which I’ve not had the courage to read 10 months on.. I know what it said as my youngest son shared the contents, it said he loved us but couldn’t take the pain anymore and left money to friends’ children and his house to his brother via his father and I. It hurts because he was still thinking of others but also because he had obviously considered it and never called me. I knew he struggled, I knew he had suicidal ideation and I tried to get him to seek help. I thought only yesterday how he may not have wanted to spend his life either in therapy or on medication as his experience of antidepressants had not been a positive one. Reading Tommy’s story was sad and I think how many stories I’ve read recently and as an avid reader how many stories contain incidences of suicide whether fiction or non fiction. Gareth was loved, he knew he had people to confide in, he never had to put on a brave face and sometimes it was challenging but we can never get inside the inner thoughts and despair of another no matter how much we think we know and love someone. We walk the road of hope and compassion and accept the moments of peace as they come but it’s a hard and tortuous path, thank you for holding our hand and guiding us where you have been dear Susan. With love Roslyn

  2. My David would say occasionally, whenever I kept asking what's wrong: "the pain, the unbearable pain..." His younger sister to whom he was everything in our extended family, a brother, a friend,a teacher,a partner in crime,a confidant, two days after he was gone, composed a song for him, saying, among others,
    "my David, now you'll never cry again"
    And whenever I am in my bad days , Ι like to sing:
    εκει που παω δεν περνα
    το δακρυ και ο πόνος,
    τα βάσανα και οι καημοί
    εδώ θα μείνουν στη ζωή
    κι εγώ θα φύγω μόνος.
    In the place that I 'm going
    there's no room for sorrow and tears.
    Suffering and pain
    here will remain,
    and all alone I shall go.
    Thank you Susan, Roslyn, my love to both of you.

  3. That’s beautiful, Vassiliki I’m sorry we need to share this road. With love to you

  4. To Rozzy and Vassiliki, Thank you both for being there to so attentively listen to the messages on this blog and add your own stories. We are truly not alone as we walk this terrible path.

  5. Our loss is too fresh to say much right now except thank you to Susan for her book, for her blog and for sharing her perspective on Tommy's story. Our 24 year old son Kyle died by suicide on December 26th, just 5 days before Tommy. When we heard the news of Tommy's death, we were shocked at the parallels to our son's life: both intelligent, kind, sensitive souls with huge support systems and so much to live for. Reading about Tommy helped us begin our journey to try and understand and also to not feel so alone. Thank you also to Rozzy and Vassiliki for sharing your thoughts and your love for your sons.

  6. To Kyle's parents: My condolences on the loss of your beloved son Kyle. Your grief and shock are so fresh, I can imagine it's hard to say much at the moment. All the best as you move through this very difficult time.
    In shared sorrow, Susan