Remember MASH? The iconic television show about the Korean War that ran longer than the actual war lasted? So much of that show was memorable. From the wistful and compassionate way stories about battle and medicine were told, to the talented cast that brought humor and pathos to the realities of war, the show was a powerful reminder that the glory of war can be easily overshadowed by its horrors.
One of the things I remember most acutely was the theme song. If, like me, you were a fan, you can probably hear the instrumental opening refrain and see the planes flying into the 8063rd Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, while staff ran into action to help the wounded.
The name of that song was “Suicide Is Painless.”
I have not personally found that to be the case.
A friend of mine took his own life this year. I won’t pretend that we were best friends or that I was more affected by his final act than other friends were, but his death really made me think … and I hate when that happens!
As we were both members of the same faith community, I was not alone in my shock and grief. Our whole congregation, along with his family, were horrified when news of his death reached us. I immediately thought back to several weeks earlier when he had presented me with a bag of trinkets and costume jewelry from his extensive collection of cool kitschy items. Since he was so generous, the gesture didn’t sound any alarms, even though people who are suicidal often start to give away their possessions before the act.
He had been absent a little more often than usual from activities that we had enjoyed together, but again, that was easy to explain as “life gets busy.”
When we heard the news, everyone’s first reaction was one of disbelief and confusion. Why? Why did this happen?
Our friend left behind an explanation of sorts, though. In addition to letters to family, friends and church members thanking them for their years of love and support, he also left assurances that he had done his very best to hide his intentions, and instructions not to blame ourselves for not knowing.
He spoke of numerous health and dental issues that had made his life miserable and his day-to-day existence painful and exhausting. He talked about seeing in himself signs of early onset dementia. His frequent illnesses were causing him to miss work, and he feared losing his job and health insurance. A simple broken bone the year before had already put him in such a deep financial hole that he could not see a way out. The idea of being unemployed AND sick was a burden he could think of no way to overcome. A single guy with only elderly family members, he had no one he could rely on to help him to cope with this extraordinary pain.
What a tragedy that in the richest country in the world, money was what defined the parameters of his options.
When my friend could not access health care which would bring him comfort, relief from pain and dignity, he took what he assumed was the only option available to him: he bought a gun. His letter explained how easy that was.
Who among us can say what we would do when faced with dementia, pain and increasing debilitating illness? I wish I could say that his loving friends could have fixed this problem, but I can’t.
As much as I miss him, I can’t say that I blame him for making the decision that he did. My biggest heartache is to think of how alone he must have felt when trying to shield us all from his sorrow. I miss his wit and gentle kindness and I will use his story to remind myself to be kind, because we never know what goes on in someone else’s reality.
Suicide is painless? Not during the Korean War. Not ever.
Patti Fitchett is a funeral director and a funeral and memorial service officiant. Check out her page, Grief Blossoms, on Facebook. Patti has recently been named by the Racine Arts Council to be their Writer-in-Residence. At their office in Racine, Patti will be holding workshops on writing obituaries, writing eulogies and crafting meaningful rituals. Read her weekly blog every Friday at racineartscouncil.wordpress.com. She can be reached at email@example.com