Suicide notes often seem like parodies of the postcards sent home from the Grand Canyon, the catacombs of the pyramids—essentially pro forma, not at all reflecting the grandeur of the scene being described or the depth of human emotion that one might expect to be engendered by the situation.

Ed Shneidman

Suicide note: the image evokes a mixed bag of emotions; anger, horror, despair, morbid curiosity. Throughout the last couple of centuries, suicide notes have almost been, to a certain degree, romanticized. Point in fact, the recent publication of a collection of suicide notes compiled by Marc Etkind: To Be or Not To Be. It is also wrongly assumed that suicide notes give us an accurate snapshot of the troubled mind, opening up a channel of understanding into this very private act. They generally do nothing of the sort.

In fact, a note accompanying a suicide is an exception and, by no means, the rule. Statistics show that only about one in four suicides leave behind any last words. There are two possible reasons for this. First, nearly half of all suicides are impetuous acts, committed within 10 minutes of the origin of the ideation of death. Second, since 90-95% of all suicide are preceded by mental illness (usually some form of mood disorder), it is likely that the ability to write parting words might simply have been absent.

Written 4000 years ago by an anonymous Egyptian, the following is an except from what some experts believe to be the first recorded suicide note:

Death is before me today
As the odour of myrrh,
As when one sitteth under the sail on a windy day.

Death is before me today
As the odour of lotus flowers,
As when one sitteth on the shore of drunkenness.

Death is before me today,
As a man longs to see his house
When he has spent years in captivity.

The poem, written on papyrus and now kept at the Berlin Museum, is thought to be the product of a deeply depressed and perhaps psychotic mind, according to Chris Thomas, a British psychiatrist.

Occasionally, a suicide note is written in blood. Jules Pascin, wrote “Lucy, pardonnez-moi” in his own blood before hanging himself. Russian poet Sergei Esenin wrote an entire poem in his own blood the day before he hanged himself at the age of 30.

Goodbye, my friend, goodbye.
My dear, you are in my heart.
Predestined separation
Promises a future meeting.

Goodbye, my friend, without handshake and words,
Do not grieve and sadden your brow,--
In this life there’s nothing new in dying,
But nor, of course, is living any newer.

Suicide notes vary greatly in length. Paul Celan simply underlined a sentence from the biography of HölderlinSometimes this genius goes dark and sinks down into the bitter well of his heart--before drowning himself. Cesare Pavese, on the other hand, left voluminous diaries of his suffering in the last year of his life. Most notes, however, average the length of a normal paragraph, 120-160 words.

Rarely do suicide notes give any reason for seeking death other than vague and non descriptive I could not bear it any longer, I am tired of living, or There is no point in going on. Most notes are apologetic and frequently attempt to relieve family members and friends of any blame for the act. As well, many notes leave detailed descriptions on what is to be done with body as well as other financial and familial matters.

Suicide notes in general have a concrete, stereotypic quality to them. In a series of studies, genuine suicide notes were compared with simulated ones. The latter were written by individuals (matched for age, gender, and socio-economic status) who had been asked to write them as if they were planning to commit suicide. The genuine suicide notes were much more specific about giving directives concerning property distribution and insurance policies; more concerned about the pain and suffering they knew would be caused by their acts; more neutral in tone, although also more likely to express psychological pain; and more likely to use the word love in their texts. The simulated notes, on the other hand, have greater detail about the circumstances and thoughts leading up to the (imagined) suicide; more often mentioned the act of suicide itself; and more often used euphemistic phrases for death and suicide.

In the case of drownings and drug overdoses, a suicide note proves that death was not accidental. However, the authenticity of suicide notes is sometimes questioned. It has been, and at some length, argued that Kurt Cobain’s departing words were actually a letter explaining his departure from his band with a few sentences scrawled in by his murderer and not in fact, a suicide letter at all. Perhaps we will never know the truth.

My only hope, is that you never have to read one.

Source: Night Falls Fast by Kay Redfield Jamison

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