Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Should I Set the Record Straight About a Suicide?

October 25, 2015 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Should I Set the Record Straight About a Suicide?


I am in the military and have been deployed a number of times. Recently, a friend with whom I served in Iraq took his own life and that of his wife. The news is devastating. Since I hadn’t spoken to him in years, I have been trying to figure out what happened through news articles and friends. I have been angered to see the loose connections that the media (and Internet comments) are making between this tragedy and his service and deployment. While he was deployed, he never saw any action, never fired his weapon; I was with him on every convoy. Is it ethical to make this information public to help move the conversation forward on what caused this, or should I remain silent, as I can’t know if this experience helped cause this tragedy? Could the time he spent during his deployment contemplating the possibilities and preparing for what he might have to do have done just as much damage as actually doing it? Name Withheld

My response: You ask if a certain plan is ethical. Different people with different values will give different answers.

You’re angered by not knowing. Then you want to share information that says… what? Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see how the information you described clarifies his motivations or behavior, all the more because you haven’t spoken to him in years. Unless I missed something, you don’t know how relevant your information is or not. Maybe it factored heavily. Maybe it didn’t. Only he knew.

Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see reasons not to share your information, but I also don’t see how it will improve the situation for anyone.

The New York Times response:

I am so sorry about your former comrade in arms and his wife. The fact that you spent so much time together in the service means you have better ideas than most about what really happened. It’s quite plausible, as you suggest, that psychological harm can come simply from anticipating life-or-death decisions; it’s perfectly possible, too, that his deployment had little to do with this tragedy. Above all, it’s unfortunate that people who don’t know much about his life have pounced on the story to air their own theories or agendas. Your desire to set the record straight is commendable. (I’m assuming it doesn’t violate the terms of your continuing service.)

The news media and the online commentariat seem to be in the grips of a story template — that of the combat-traumatized veteran who explodes. You rightly want to challenge the cliché. This man might have had a previous susceptibility, a hidden fault line in his psyche, and we can wonder whether the Army could do more to identify and treat mental illness. We can also wonder, alas, how much we can do to forestall such events. Complicating the easy conclusions would be a useful thing to do.

So you should feel free to weigh in. But you shouldn’t feel obliged to. Because it’s so hard to figure out what led to what, your contribution may not make a real difference to the conversation. That’s no reason not to try to add nuance to an oversimplified narrative. It’s hard, however, to drive out false assumptions with real uncertainties — to replace simplicities with complexities. This may be a fight that can’t be won.

My mother and I were very close. I moved her to a facility near me that could provide her with some support (meals, housecleaning) so that she could live with less stress because of a serious, irreparable heart condition. Years later she took me into her confidence, saying she could no longer tolerate the loss of focus, loss of memory, inability to think creatively and extreme fatigue her condition burdened her with. She felt it was better to die than to go on so impaired and had amassed enough pills to go peacefully in her sleep. I routinely called her every morning to wake her and to make sure she was still alive. She requested this because she said she did not want her body to lie in decay for days after her death. I regularly argued for the value of her life with her and was hopeful that she was just seeking solace. She wasn’t. She put herself into a coma and passed away a few days later.

My ethics question has to do with the knowledge of her death. She has a grandson and a step-granddaughter who would be crushed to discover she had taken her own life. My nephew worshiped her and is very fragile emotionally.

I know that suicide has a deep impact on families and can trigger copycat behavior years later. I do not want to put my family at risk, nor do I wish to destroy their memory of her. But the burden of this knowledge weighs heavily on me, and I feel a deep sadness and sense of guilt that I could not keep her from ending her own life prematurely. Name Withheld

My response: I see two issues. First, you feel sad and guilty. Second, if you share the information making you feel sad and guilty, you believe you’ll make others feel bad.

Regarding your feelings, you aren’t a slave to your current ones. You can change your emotional response to things. They result from your environments, beliefs, and behaviors. If you change them, you’ll change your feelings.

Maybe I said that bluntly about someone’s deceased mother, but my point is that you don’t have to entangle others into your emotions. I would argue that it’s holding you back from healing by absolving yourself of responsibility for your emotions. Most of us lose loved ones, have our hearts broken, and so on. Through various ways we change our feelings from loss back to happiness. Some change you can’t rush, but the more you take responsibility the more you can change, which can be consistent with honoring your memory of her.

Regarding others’ feelings, I’ve never found taking responsibility for others’ emotions helpful to myself or others. If they are adults, I consider them responsible for their emotions. You can feel how you want. I’m saying my belief that has worked for me.

You are still responsible for your behavior, at least in my view. What you say, if anything, seems no more important than how you say it. Acting with compassion, empathy, and sensitivity to them seems most important to me.

At root, the issue doesn’t seem to me an issue of abstract ethics and labeling—none of the questions to this column do—but one of considering the results of your actions on yourself and others and what options you have, then acting on them with consideration.

The New York Times response:

I admire the way you handled the situation while your mother was alive, respecting her right to take this decision but continuing to make the case for her not doing so. It’s understandable that you’re saddened by your failure to persuade her; feeling guilty, though, is justified only if you did something wrong, and, given that she was mentally competent, there’s no reason to think you did. Now you face a further question about respecting her decisions. If you’re sure she didn’t want you to tell the rest of the family what really happened, this should weigh strongly with you. So should the fact that your family would be disturbed by the truth.

Yet there are considerations on the other sides of both these issues. Your mother may have spoken to you in confidence because she feared the family would interfere if you told them while she was alive. That may have given her some basis for denying them the information then. Still, the truth about how she died is an important truth about her life, and your family would be entitled to be upset if they discovered you had kept it from them now. Weighing these issues alone, I’d say you should figure out a way to tell them.

But you also raise worries about the effects of telling them. The literature on the impact of suicide is complicated, and it’s hard to find studies that address what the likely effects of discovering what happened might be. I’ve seen one study suggesting that euthanasia — when the death is chosen as a response to suffering — is less traumatic for the family than death from natural causes. Yet this may have to do with the fact that, with euthanasia, the family often has a chance to say goodbye. In your case, that didn’t happen.

Life isn’t just about happy and unhappy experiences, though. It’s also about facing up to and accepting the truth. I don’t know enough about your nephew’s mental condition to suggest what you might safely tell him. For the others, I’ll venture that the value of understanding what really happened outweighs the immediate pain this knowledge will bring. The decision you and your mother made to keep them out of the loop earlier may itself put a strain on family relations for a while. Still, while we’re thinking about consequences, consider this: Someday, other members of your family may face a situation like the one you faced with your mother. Maybe, with this knowledge, they’ll handle it as well as you did.

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