When I retired as a humanist celebrant I thought I'd stop writing this blog, but my fascination with all things death-related prompted more posts. They're just written from a slightly different perspective, that's all. Oh, and I still do the odd one, by special request.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Selfish suicides

Much has been written about, and speculated about, the mental state of Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings co-pilot who deliberately crashed his plane full of passengers. He'd apparently researched suicide methods and had written about his wish to be remembered for the dramatic nature of his death. This reminded me of the words of the American trans-gender teenager Leela Alcorn, who wrote in her blog, "My death needs to mean something." She walked into traffic and was killed by a random motorist. She presumably meant that her death should attract attention to the bullying that she and others like her had suffered, and to a large extent it did, but it was also significant because she didn't appear to have considered its effect on the man who killed her. If he had swerved to avoid her and caused a pile-up, other people may have been killed too. In a previous post about suicides, there's a link to a news report from America in which a would-be suicide drove his car into a school bus; on that occasion, no one was seriously hurt.

The Lubitz story has attracted a lot of attention because he killed 149 people by his action, resulting in irrelevant reports about his pregnant girlfriend and other trivia, as well as calls for more care about the selection of flight crew. In hindsight, it seems absurd that airlines should have introduced reinforced doors to the flight deck that can't be opened from the outside in response to the 9/11 terrorist attack, without considering the potential for just such a tragedy as the Lubitz one, which left the pilot helplessly hacking at an impenetrable door with an axe. The odds against such an event happening again are enormous, and flying is still far safer than travelling by car, but this is little comfort to the thousands with a fear of flying.

The point of this post is that the Lubitz case is especially remarkable because of the scale of the deaths, people he didn't know or care about, but there are many other cases of suicide that put innocent people at risk of death or of trauma that affects their mental health, in some cases even leading to their suicides. As I've written before, suicides are notoriously oblivious to the effect that their death, and the methods that they choose, will have on other people. Taking an overdose of a prescribed drug may seem relatively less likely to cause harm to others, apart from the grief that friends and relatives may suffer, but it's not necessarily that simple. I once did a funeral for a woman who took an overdose of Paracetamol, not realising that it can cause a slow death if not caught in time - the stomach must be pumped quickly. By the time she began to regret her action, a day or two after she'd taken the tablets, and walked into the local A & E, the damage was done. All her family could do was watch her die over the following couple of weeks.

Mental illness drives people inward, preoccupied by their own feelings and fears. I've been criticised for describing some suicides as "selfish", which has been called judgemental, but the dictionary defines selfish as "lacking consideration for other people," which is a statement of fact. What could be more selfish than wishing to be remembered for the manner of your death, rather than how many people you killed in the process? The only answer that I can think of to such a problem is to be alert to the state of mind of those close to you, and seek help if it alarms you. The Lubitzs of this world must be scrutinised even more closely, since they're so dangerous. Better by far that they should be restrained, physically or chemically, than that they should be free to live out their lethal fantasies.


Charles Cowling said...

I've also been brooding on suicides' lack of awareness, often, of the impact of their actions on others. Lubitz is unusual in his desire to take others with him. Lots of people walk in front of trains without, it seems, a thought for the trauma their action will cause to the driver - and the undertaker; it can take ages to find the head. We can all at least begin to understand the self-absorption of despair and the vengefulness of anger. But it can be difficult to find forgiveness for an action which victimises innocent others, even if not deliberately so. Suicide can give an appearance of selfishness. For my own part, I have long learned to distrust my own reflexive emotions about lots of things. So I just don't know what to think about this.

Margaret Nelson said...

Years ago, while officiating at the funeral of a suicide, I rode in a funeral car with a young man who'd joined the firm after leaving school. He seemed very young and I asked him how he came to choose the profession. He had a relative in the business, apparently, who helped him get the job and since some of his friends were struggling to find employment, he seized the opportunity. Did he like it? I asked. Most of the time, he replied, but not wandering along a railway line, looking for body parts. A recent report has shown a big increase in the number of fatalities along the line from Norwich to London. I think that every time a train is delayed by a suicide and it's reported in the media, someone, somewhere, will think, "Maybe that's what I'll do." If you look at my post about Leela Alcorn (see link above), there's a report on the partnership between The Samaritans and Network Rail, to deal with the effect on rail staff.