I found out that my brother had committed suicide from my mother. It was hard, particularly when I saw how devastated and small she looked sitting on the living room couch, as if the life had been siphoned from her in one inhuman pull.
But the way that I found out was nothing compared to the way she’d learned of his death about an hour before: a telephone call from a kind but anonymous police officer who’d investigated the death. There was no gentle preparation from a family member, no call from a priest or nun, nothing but the cold news that her middle child had died by his own hand in his adopted hometown in Massachusetts.
It wasn’t until weeks later that we both discovered that this wasn’t Jon’s first attempt, and that other people knew of this and hadn’t done anything to get him help. His supposedly close-knit circle of friends had taken a hands-off approach, either out of fear, not wanting to intrude on some bizarre conception of privacy, or because they didn’t really care. If only they’d called us, I would repeat over and over again in my mind, maybe we could have done something. Probably not, given what I now know about suicide.
I suppose the idea that “I am my brother’s keeper” was so deeply implanted in my psyche by the good Mercy nuns over a decade that I have a hard time accepting the fact that the human default position is usually indifference. There are glorious exceptions to that rule, but far too many of us prefer to hide our heads in our own comfortable sandboxes and not see the pain in eyes or voices that don’t belong to us.
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When I learned that Jon’s so-called “friends” hadn’t bothered to tell us what was going on, or even to get him help, I was angry. In fact, I blamed them for his death.
That was the irrationality of anguish working, because of course they did not kill him. They just looked away as he did it to himself.
Then I heard about the case coming out of Massachusetts, where a young woman named Michelle Carter has been charged with manslaughter for encouraging her friend to commit suicide. Yes, you read that correctly. Carter actively helped her troubled classmate to take his own life, and is now being charged as a juvenile offender.
Some might say that this is a ridiculous extension of the criminal laws to an act that is, at most, the sign of a depraved young sociopath. They would argue that lacking a soul and a conscience and being as morally bankrupt as an Islamic State militant is still not a crime. To hold otherwise, they’d say, is to open a Pandora’s Box of unintended consequences.
And I would answer: Not so fast. Perhaps our sense of what constitutes a crime is narrow and stingy, one that makes defense attorneys smile with thoughts of easy acquittals and victims wonder how justice became a fantasy. While I am not a criminal attorney, as my grades in this law school discipline predicted, I could also see how coaxing a mentally vulnerable person to kill himself crosses the line between improper and illegal.
After all, if we have laws that protect incompetent or incapacitated people from being exploited in civil matters, and if we can increase the sentences where children or the mentally ill are victims of crime, why can’t we recognize that encouraging a troubled soul to “just end it” is a despicable form of assault?
Anyone who is so desperate to exit this life because there is no surcease of sorrow, as the poets say, is not in full possession of his faculties. The whole “death with dignity” philosophy that says people should have the right to determine when they say goodbye is a sad statement on how we put autonomy above human compassion.
This is not a legal treatise. It’s highly likely that the case against that callous creature will be dismissed because Massachusetts doesn’t make it a crime to assist someone in committing suicide. But in my opinion it should, especially when that life could be saved if despair were met with compassion and not a “Yeah, do it!”
My friend Claudia tells me that in the Jewish legal system, there is a Torah commandment that translates as “You shall not stand by your brother’s blood.” She says this means that if someone is in danger and you are able to save them, it is a crime not to.
In memory of my brother, and of all those who struggle toward the light, I agree.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.