The mythology of last words

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
April 30, 2013 /

Click here to view original /

Culturally we have a bit of a preoccupation with last words. As though if a person knew that those were the very last they’d write or utter, that they’d be saturated with truth and wisdom and gravitas.

Perhaps we expect this even more so of a suicide note. As though the process of planning to end one’s life must have also involved extensive deliberation about final words.

Yeah, I’m not so sure. A suicide note is not the first place I’d look for rational thinking, of sense, of divine clarity.

Over the weekend, the papers reported that one of Jacintha Saldanha’s suicide notes anointed the Australian pranksters with all the blame. Saldanha suggested their punishment should be paying off her mortgage.

Judge, jury and executioner.

Whenever something bad happens – a school shooting, a bombed marathon, an untimely death – it is, of course, human instinct to ask why. Not merely to get our heads around a gut-wrenching situation, but because, ideally, we’d like to prevent it happening again. We grasp for some kind of – any kind of – teachable moment.

For a woman – a wife, a mother – who wasn’t gravely ill, who has gainful employment and who’s got a husband and children that love her, to take her own life seems unjust, senseless. So we look for palatable answers. We put ourselves in Saldanha’s shoes – armed with our fabricated understanding of the goings on in her head – and look for clues, final straws and temporal trigger events.

Instinctive, perhaps, but a ridiculously fraught and foolhardy exercise.

One of the many reasons that suicides are routinely so excruciating for those left behind is that they spark some very big and painful questions: Why? What signs did I miss? What more could I have done?

Assuming, however, that the existence of a suicide note – or three – somehow gives answers to these questions and can help exonerate those who didn’t foresee the tragedy is delusional.

People don’t kill themselves because of one thing. This is not the way it works.

Instead of looking at last words and thinking they hold answers, I’d suggest we look at them – words written at the most painful moment in a life – as evidence of pain and desperation and psychological chaos. And then evaluate them accordingly.

Should we need a clue to just how desperate Saldanha was, I’d point to the very It’s a Wonderful Life mention of her mortgage. Offering up a blood money exchange doesn’t seem sane, doesn’t seem well thought out; rather, it sounds simply – sadly – like a wife, a mother, frantically negotiating on behalf of a family she won’t be able to help any more. Who is clutching at any opportunity of good to come from her anguish.

In the aftermath of a suicide we want those last exchanges – those last words – to answer our questions. And we put enormous faith in them because they’re all we have left. Paucity of information, however, should not cloud our judgment.

Sometimes we won’t know why, we won’t have any answers and won’t be able to throw one – or two – folks on the fire and think we can safeguard ourselves from pain in the future. It doesn’t work like that.

© Lauren Rosewarne