By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor
The circumstances surrounding a suicide earlier this week in San Francisco — a man jumped to his death from a building on a busy street corner as a large crowd watched — are so disturbing that I am reluctant to write about it, but I hope to extract something helpful out of the situation.
Let me begin by saying that my own description, calling it “a sucide earlier this week” and “the situation” obscures the most centrally important, viscerally real fact about it, which is that a living, breathing human being died — that a life as unique and special as your life or my life are to us right now was irrevocably extinguished. In the blink of an eye, an actual person was tranformed from an “is” into a “was,” into a man who now can be referred to only in the past tense.
But, for those closest to him, their love for him is not in the past tense.
Here is an audio recording of a news interview I did with Don Grant of KOTA Radio in January 2008 after a teenage boy died by suicide in my hometown in a scene that was very public. In the interview, I say,
When something makes front page news … when the public is very aware of a suicide death, it turns a private matter into a public matter. So I think the first thing I would say to the community is, please remember that this is a very private matter … In many ways, it is a death like any other death, and we don’t want to bring attention to a family’s private suffering … The first thing I would like the community to understand is that this suicide affected a very precious human being … He has a family and friends and loved ones who deserve our respect and our compassion and our understanding and our support. We really need to … understand that, in our hearts, the most important people in this moment are those who have lost their dear loved one. That young man just a few days ago was a very vibrant human being: We should not make judgments about him. He had the same things to be happy over or to be sad over that we have. Suicide sometimes strikes a family, and we should be very understanding of that.
Another thing about last week’s tragedy in San Francisco that merits comment is the crowd’s reaction to — or perhaps I should say participation in — the suicide. Some news coverage (and lots of social network communication) depicted people who urged the man to jump or who laughed about his death. Besides the numerous seemingly obvious and perhaps futile comments that one might make (that such behavior is barbaric, that the media-entertainment machinery has so desensitized us that we are numb to each other’s pain, etc.), I would like to assert this: It might have gone differently, had those near at hand at the time he died acted differently.
This is not merely wishful thinking on my part nor simply my desire to blame someone for something that is terribly upsetting to me. Rather, I am claiming that a very straightforward, common-sense, practical behavior might have saved a man’s life.
What if one inspired, compassionate person in the crowd had yelled — not at the man threatening to jump but at the rest of the crowd — “Chant with me! Please don’t jump. Please don’t jump. Please don’t jump”? I can imagine something like that happening: “Chant with me! Everyone chant with me! Please don’t jump. Please don’t jump.” I can imagine a few dozen people taking up the chant in unison, “Please don’t jump! Please don’t jump! Please don’t jump!” Then a few hundred people joining in, “Please don’t jump! Please don’t jump! Please don’t jump!”
Can’t you, too, imagine that happening, ? If you were there, wouldn’t you have joined in the chanting? “Please don’t jump!”
There is no way to know whether that would have prevented the man from jumping, but, as the photographer says in the quote below, “he stood [on the ledge] for 50 minutes or so,” and, according to other news coverage, “witnesses reported seeing the man start to jump twice and then stop himself at the last second, before he finally made the jump.” So there were unquestionably real moments when his ambivalence between wanting to die and wanting to live might have allowed him to step back from the abyss.
The noisy scene at Powell and Market on Tuesday suggests that ideas such as these — that people facing a suicide crisis ought to be compassionately cared for as unique human beings and that there are effective ways we can intervene to help save a life during a suicide crisis — are so fundamental that perhaps we’ve taken them for granted.
[Editor’s note: There is an inherent contradiction in my words “this is a very private matter” and in my decision to publish the photo that accompanies this post. In addition, publishing the photo is arguably an infraction of the suicide prevention field’s media guidelines, which advise against sensationalizing suicide. My decision to publish the photograph was not made lightly nor without considering those matters, but the point that the man who died was “a living, breathing human being” possessing “a life as unique and special as your life or my life are to us right now” is brought home more powerfully than it could be in any other way by including the picture with the story. The photographer who posted the photo online said of the man pictured that he wanted “to show him alive [while] he is standing there … He stood for 50 minutes or so, and I watched him look around as if he was waiting for some positive message for help … So by remembering this image, next time you see someone … thinking about taking their own life, then please talk to them. Let them know you are [there] for them and ask them what do they need. Show them love even if it is a stranger.” FJC]
[The abridged URL for this post is http://bit.ly/onemansdeath .]