Dear Virginia, My friends and I are so upset because a lovely mutual friend, a committed Christian, who has been suffering from depression all her life, committed suicide three months ago by piping exhaust fumes into her car. We'd all tried to help her, and thought she was happier on a new antidepressant – but she never told us how she felt. She left no will, so a friend who lent her £5,000 will never get it back from her estate. And her 90-year-old mother is devastated. How could she have done this to us all? Yours sincerely, Patrice
There used to be a theory that suicide was an act of aggression, turned in on oneself. Rather than lash out at all your loathsome friends and family, your past and your future, you turned everything inwards and wounded yourself in the worst way. And it's an idea that's lingered far too long.
Suicide is an act of aggression, of course. But it is not aggression against friends and family, nor, indeed, situations. It is not even an act of aggression towards oneself. Not a bit of it. It is, rather, an act of aggression against the unbearable, agonising pain and torment that one finds oneself in when one is truly depressed.
Imagine, Patrice, that you were on a bridge above a river, while your feet were being eaten by rats, your mouth had been filled with burning coals and stitched up, your head had been set aflame, and your arms were being ripped off by monsters. Would you think: "Hmm – before I consider putting myself out of this pain, I really should sort out my will. Oh, golly, forgot to make any plans about the cat. And lord, silly me, really should make sure my old mum understands the situation completely before I go."
Of course you wouldn't. You would climb over the parapet and plunge into the water, not thinking about your life, just longing to end the agony.
You may argue that your friend didn't kill herself on impulse. But although, in the months before, she'd have thought deeply about how she'd kill herself if she felt like it, and even worked it out technically (when I was depressed I wrote dozens of suicide notes and pill-counted long before I got around to doing anything about suicide, which in fact I never got around to in the end), the moment she decided to take her own life, it was a moment of impulse.
It could, of course, be that there was a slightly different twist. Depression, in its mind-bending way, had told her that actually she'd be doing you all a favour by getting out of your way. She might have seen this as an act of selflessness. And while you wring your hands wishing she'd asked for help, maybe she was certain no help was available. When you are depressed, the only thing that seems utterly clear is that the way you are now seeing the world is the true and right way. There is no hope. You're doomed. It's blazingly clear that life is terrible and pointless. Every other feeling you may have had in your life was just a sham, an illusion.
As for asking for help, maybe in her case no amount of pills or sympathy could have helped. She clearly had tried hard enough to find some kind of peace. Maybe she was right and, for her, there was nothing that could be done.
Your best bet now, Patrice, is to console this woman's mother, do your best to help your friend get her money from the estate – with witnesses and bank records, it might be possible – and rather than moan about an imaginary hurt, be reassured and calm, happy that your friend is finally out of her terrible pain, a pain that you cannot even imagine. Be grateful, too, that you cannot.
You couldn't have helped
What a sad letter. My advice to Patrice is not to take it personally. When you suffer from depression, you don't think about the pain your suicide will cause others. You think they will be better off without you. Patrice's friend didn't confide in her, not because she didn't trust her, but because you often feel guilty for being depressed and don't want to bother anyone else with your troubles.
Two years ago, when our son's disability was confirmed, I plunged into deep depression. The idea of suicide was on my mind every day, as I didn't know how I was going to cope. Also, I felt responsible. It was hell. Eventually, thanks to counselling, I started to look at my life from a different perspective. There is probably nothing you could have done to prevent your friend's suicide. Accept it.
name and address supplied
Shame on you
So you and your friends are so upset because a friend has committed suicide. How could she have done this to you all?
You should be ashamed of yourselves. Instead of feeling grief, you feel aggrieved. Instead of reflecting with sadness on your friend's despair, you feel anger. Have you any idea what deep depression is like; the black isolation, the loss of feeling of involvement in life? Can you imagine someone might see death as the only way out? No, I thought not.
Jonathan Phillips, Norwich
It was the critical phase
We "thought she was happier on a new antidepressant". My heart sinks every time I hear this. It is in the nature of recovery from depressive illness to pass through a phase in which there is a greater risk of suicide. This phase may be marked by increased activity and interest levels which lead friends and relatives to believe that all is now well.
It is as if the sufferer is poised between two worlds: the nightmare of depression, and the world of possibility. Unfortunately, they are not yet well enough to believe in the world of possibility – a feeling that can result in profound psychic pain. This pain, coupled with increased energy levels and self-will, may provide the impetus for self-harm.
Sadly, information about this phase rarely reaches the friends and relatives of sufferers. There was, therefore, very little you could have done. If you'd had access to the medical information and support, she could still have been with you.
Kim Green, Bath
She was very unwell
Do not think badly of your friend. Depression is a misunderstood illness. She could "do it" to you all because she was seriously unwell. It was not because of you or your friends or anyone else. It's her mother who will feel most pain. You should see she has family and friends to support her. You could write her a group letter saying how much you liked her daughter and how you share her grief. Hand-deliver it – and please give the chocolates to her when you visit.
James, by email