The most common question asked following a suicide threat, attempt, or an actual death is “why?” In the case of threateners and attempters, the individual can be asked that question directly. The answers are often vague and inconclusive. In the case of committers, we can only speculate. Suicide notes are rarely a good source of information. First of all, only about one third of suicide committers leave a note.² Most of the note writers are female,³ and the notes rarely give any indication as to motive. Such notes often contain directions as to how to close out a person’s estate or how to dispose of their body. Frequently they are requests for forgiveness either from significant others or from God. When they do give an indication about motive, they reveal unbearable and unending mental or physical anguish and pain. The major themes of these notes are hopelessness, helplessness, and loneliness.
Researchers usually turn to those closest to the deceased to find out why the person may have resorted to the extreme step. Unfortunately, the inner thoughts and feelings of people are highly guarded secrets of life, and more often than not, the survivor- victims of suicide are caught off guard and left perplexed as to motive. In looking back over the life of their loved one or friend, especially the last few days, they suddenly become aware of “clues” that the deceased dropped here and there encoding their hopelessness and their tendency toward self-destruction. But these indicators were either missed, or they were taken to be less than serious.
Suicidologists believe that the leading motives for suicide are a sense of helplessness and hopelessness over some event in the person’s life over which they feel they have no control, such as irreversible physical illness and pain, or an anguishing disruption in personal relationships with no perceivable positive outcome.
Suicide is not an impulsive act with little forethought or planning. In fact, it is well designed and thought out Research suggests that most suicides evolve over at least a 90-day period preceding the attempt, the planning process being quite orderly and methodical, with three distinct stages.
Stages in suicide planning
The first stage is called the resolution phase. This is usually the longest phase and is accompanied by a great deal of agitation and restlessness. During this time the individual is struggling with the moral and ethical issues of suicide. They are asking themselves whether or not suicide is a sin or what effect it will have on loved ones and friends. The deep significance of these questions accounts for the high degree of edginess and agitation felt by the individual. Their significant others experience this as a time of extreme moodiness and impatience.
The second stage, the initiation phase, involves less time than the first and produces a milder form of agitation. In this phase the individual formulates actual plans for the act. The person wrestles with what means should be used: shooting, hanging. jumping, drug overdose, etc. The person also plans on where to do it: at home or off in some remote region. If at home, which place: the garage, the living room, a bedroom? The person also thinks about who might find their body: family members, friends, police, or a maid in a motel. Once they have resolved these issues, they begin to gather the means for carrying out their suicidal act, usually collecting an overabundance of the items they plan to use.
When the first two phases of the plan are in place, the individual often becomes very calm as he or she enters the third stage or postponement. Knowing that they are capable of solving their problem, they relax and bide their time until they fulfill their plan. This serenity often catches the family and friends off guard, so that when their loved one finally commits the suicidal act, they are surprised. People close to the victim often say such things as “I can’t believe he actually killed himself. If he had done it a few months ago I would not have been shocked . . . he was so anxious and agitated back then. But recently it seemed as if things were going so much better He seemed so relaxed.”