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.