An Empath’s Response To Suicide
When the first headlines about Chris Cornell started to appear on my Facebook feed, I thought maybe he’d died of a health-related issue. He must have collapsed from the pressures of being on the road, I’d reasoned. Musicians get overworked all the time. White males, especially, are prone to heart issues. By the end of the night, though, the headlines were weightier, sadder and more reflective. Cornell had actually taken his own life.
I remember learning in grammar school that suicide was “selfish.” Though I didn’t know it, my empathy feelers were already raised. Like most dogma handed to us from our Catholic school teachers, this explanation of “selfishness” didn’t sit right with me. Apparently, it was some sort of slap in the face to the God who’d made us that we would throw away this precious gift he’d given us. Like he cared, I thought. There’s war and famine and babies dying in their cribs, and He has time to be sad about this one life that didn’t make it? Come ON.
That’s not what suicide was, I thought. It was something far more complex. Couldn’t the teacher see this? Couldn’t anyone see that it took an enormous out-of-body experience to end your life? Couldn’t anyone see that it was not a choice any more than drinking or injecting yourself to death was?
I wasn’t especially precocious. I wasn’t a young philosopher. Born into a family who was damaged in many ways, I lived with that damage hovering at the periphery of my childhood, and so I understood, if only marginally, the need to slip away from this life. I was aware of it like it was a fifth sibling. But I didn’t have language for it in the way that no kid has language for things like “verbal abuse” and “lower middle class” and “dry drunk.” Still, it was there. I could sense it every minute of the day. I’d never considered killing myself, but that was because I was terrified of guns and needles. Then again, I didn’t suffer the way others did. I felt everything, but was also too full of adrenaline, too in the midst of living like a cornered animal, to do anything about it. I could weigh things on an imagined scale in my mind, so I felt I still had options: If I die, I’ll miss out on ____ vs. I just can’t go on anymore. Killing myself would be better. The missing out always won.
I’ve been an empath for as long as I’ve been alive. I didn’t have a word for that—the experience of being knocked down constantly by other people’s emotions— either, when I was younger. I was shocked and let down when I began figuring out, maybe in my late teens, that not everyone felt everything in the room at once. The closest approximation of my reaction to the world was a pharmaceutical commercial for ADD I’d seen: it featured channels changing in rapid succession on a TV. This was supposed to be the ADD sufferer’s brain. YES, I thought. That’s what my brain is like: unable to focus on anyone or anything, least of all me. It was a constant slideshow of everyone else in the room, and was distracting at best, leveling at worst.
Which is why, when my dad came home from running an errand one day, and he approached me on the staircase and told me Kurt Cobain had killed himself, my initial response wasn’t HOW DARE HE, nor was it anger or a condemnation of anything. It was empathy. I could feel the scales had stopped working in Cobain’s head. He’d had to travel to a place beyond our understanding of desperation to do what he did. All I could allow myself to feel was loss. Though the violence of his ending startled me, it also left me hollow. I let that be. I felt no need to fill myself up with analysis or critique.
There was talk afterward in the music community about the hubris it took to think of yourself as “fully formed” and therefore cliché by your early twenties, like Cobain might have. And, sure, lyrically, he seemed to have achieved some sort of next-level ascendancy to my young ears, but the primal-ness of Cobain’s wails? You didn’t need to hear much more than that to understand he’d been in pain.
As the smart kid who was constantly being hung with the mantle of great expectations, but who was paralyzed by a fear of failure, I understood that pressure to be more than I currently was. I felt like I knew this piece of Cobain. I didn’t have a right to tell him to stay in a world he felt oppressed by any more than I had the right to demand more work, more brilliance from any artist. If I’d really believed in the unrelenting upward trajectory of success, I would have had to become one myself. That prospect, along with everything else I could feel out there in the great big world, scared the living hell out of me.
It was later that I found out about the chronic stomach issues he suffered, and much, much, later, that, through fortune or fate, I drove through the town of Aberdeen, covered in clouds, and with signs on the freeway off-ramp that forbade panhandling, and I understood a little more about his pain. I “got” Cobain all over again with that drive. Back east, I wore flannel as a fashion statement. He wore it because it was cold and miserable where he lived. Damn. Everything had a reason. Some things are practical choices, like flannel. Some things we will never, ever understand. Who the hell are we to judge?
My friend, a fellow empath, wrote me last night: “People. Please stop killing yourselves. Please. Despite the political crisis and the eco crisis and many other crises…the spiritual crises of the human race is the one I worry most about. As an empath, I am acutely aware of the crises and it’s overwhelming, because I can actually *feel* it.”
Me too, friend.
When Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman committed suicide, we had a huge national discussion about mental illness. We used terms like So Much Talent and Unrealized Potential, which was a veiled way of saying something else: waste. We turned our attention to The Family. The Survivors. We posted suicide prevention hotline numbers to our Facebook feeds and told everyone we were available to talk. We needed to correct, to bring everything to center rather than just sit in that dark sadness and let it wash over us. There could be no further waste.
For the past few days, I’ve been wrestling with how to write about Cornell’s passing without going right to solutions-centered language and speaking in terms of nostalgia and talent gone before its time. Empathy has always been my way in to a room already crowded with opinion and dissection. Maybe I could offer more than my earnestness in identifying with the deceased’s pain. Maybe I could offer my quietude, my willingness to sit in that dark sadness.
And then my friend Tina wrote something on her Facebook page, and something heavy gave way: She said she’d “fallen down and lay in the road for almost a year and a half, writer-wise.” Something in her had just woken up, though, and she was ready to ask her community what it needed. What could she give that would be of most service? More writing? More humor? More hugs? It wasn’t Cornell’s death that spawned this re-awakening. It just so happened to come on the tails of it. What I take away is related to his death, though: we all have something to give, but we can’t expect everyone to give at the same time. Sometimes we’re rarin’ to go. Sometimes we have to lie in the road for a spell. Sometimes we can’t crawl out from whatever weighs us down. In any manifestation, it is not selfishness that keeps us from one another, but something far heavier and deserving of our contemplation and forgiveness.