The Unfathomable ‘Why’ of Suicide

I have been struggling all weekend to understand what unknowable forces compel a young person so full of vitality and joy – and I do believe it is a compulsion – to take his own life. I know about immature frontal lobes, and the telescopic vision of late adolescence. Yes, yes, I know about risk factors. And still… there is no answer to the wailing rage of WHY.

As ‘house masters’ at Harvard, my husband and I  often find ourselves immersed in symbolic responsibilities: presiding over various Ivy-tinged milestones, making the odd lofty remarks when duty calls. These aren’t insignificant matters, to be sure – and sometimes they are even transformative; we take the intellectual and moral lives of our students very, very seriously.

But it’s easy to get wrapped up in metaphors. (It’s an academic thing.) This weekend, my work took me back down to earth, into the raw and dirty trenches of youthful grief, disbelief, rage and fear. I’ve spent two days feeding people, handing out tissues, pouring glasses of orange juice and ice water, patting people on the back. All weekend, students have streamed into our house, begging, pleading for answers. I have none. Instead, I hand out origami paper, to make peace cranes. I say: Eat a cookie. ‘Ask for help.’ Is there anything I can do for you? Hollow gestures. There is no answer I can offer that would satisfy.

But the scientist in me believes one day there will be some answers that go beyond platitudes. One day I hope we can better understand and prevent the scourge of suicide. And the first step is to acknowledge and name it. Suicide. I’m therefore incredibly grateful to the family of Cote Laramie for allowing administrators such as myself at Harvard College to officially name the cause of dear Cote’s death. I believe we honor Cote’s life when we  acknowledge the complexities and contradictions and mysteries of the human condition. We honor the wholeness of his life by admitting the painful truth: that his sensitivity and artistic talents and passion for language were not only a gift — to him and to others – but sometimes, truly, an unbearable burden.

I believe Cote was fording a river to self-discovery. I do believe that. Like the rugged landscape of his beloved New Hampshire, the river Cote was crossing was a thing of great beauty and power: churning, changing, highly oxygenated. He was finding a way across that damned river. But last week, he slipped and he fell into the swirl of white water. I  believe in time Cote would have found a way to see the half-submerged rock before he slipped and lost his balance. And he would have come to see the pool of calm water resting just below the falls, too. That is the special horror of youthful suicide: tunnel vision.

The suicide of a young person is unbearable. We cannot bear it. The only answer is to draw together, in love and kindness, and then to move forward, seeking the knowledge we need to stop suicide. This doesn’t mean we should be riven with guilt and “What ifs.” But we need to find those answers. We need to find out how we can help people bear the unbearable: the pain and mystery and fullness of their lives.

I am so sorry, Cote, that we couldn’t help you to better integrate the many facets of your rich, beautiful, and anguished existence.

This is Cote’s obituary in the Harvard Crimson, which captures the Cote we knew and loved.

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director and Harvard College house master/some-time journalist. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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9 Responses to The Unfathomable ‘Why’ of Suicide

  1. Erin Frey says:

    This is one of the most beautiful, touching, and deeply truthful things that I have ever read. Thank you for finding–and sharing–these words when so many of us are unable to articulate our own.

  2. Peter says:

    Why? What an all encompassing question…

    Suicide, violence, mass shootings…I feel isolation is a big part of all of them. We market crap in this country: phones, clothes, cars. These things are ephemeral. What if we marketed other things with the same fervor, things that really matter? Kindness? Mutual respect? Empathy? Humility? Hell, how about not thinking you’re the worst person in the world because you failed a class, or because you can’t get a girlfriend/boyfriend? How about thinking that people will ACCEPT you for all your flaws? That you just being YOU is enough? That you don’t have to be _________ to be deserving of love?

    I can’t speculate why anyone completes suicide. I can only say that in my darkest moments I felt extremely isolated. I had been dumped, failing classes, or I couldn’t find a job. I was very much ashamed of my failings, even though they are all commonplace.

    I don’t know if this comforts or offers anything of any use, but I hope it’s something. I wish you good luck. *hug*

  3. Cheryl Best says:

    This is absolutely beautiful and honors Cote in a truly wonderful way.

  4. Shambhavi Singh says:

    Erika – this was a most insightful description of what this weekend has been like. Thank you for putting it into words – it helps all those who read it understand their own thoughts in response to this tragic incident. I think your metaphor of the river is beautiful and apt.

  5. rosemm13 says:

    Because my daughter dated Cote for a short time, we had the privilege of meeting him and spending some time with him. Thank you for the profundity of your words that describe the sentiments I feel. Perhaps by talking about suicide loudly, young people may see that they are not alone and there is light at the end of the tunnel. The feeling is we have to do SOMETHING. Perhaps Cote’s beautiful life will help us to learn how we can help. Thank you to Cote’s family. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.

  6. Kristin says:

    Well this article made me tear…a lot…RIP Cote :'( You will be missed, even by those like me who never got a chance to meet you.

  7. Jason says:

    While I am deeply sympathetic to Cote’s friends and family in a time of extreme grief, I don’t think there can be an answer to the question posed here: “why?” Yes, the act of suicide itself can be irrefutably tied to genetic inheritance, case history, and environmental factors, the mathematics of reality will doubtless be of little solace to those who loved Cote. The universe concedes nothing to human desire, it remains ever silent in pitiless indifference to the plight of humankind. Thus, it is up to each of us to create an answer that satisfies our irrational need for coherence from a meaningless void. Some will leap to supernatural conclusions, some will turn to poetry and prose, still others will say that scientific reductionism – which demands an ardent distrust in free will itself – is necessary and sufficient. For me, answers are far less important than the preservation of memory, and the immutable past where our departed loved ones exist eternally. What has happened can never have not happened; answers will vary, speculation will abound and be fretted for, but I remember this: Cote was, and therefore is.

  8. Thank you for this post. I lost my brother to suicide in March, and though he had long crushed the spirit you attribute to Cote with alcohol and self-abuse, he once embodied these very characterisitics. Those who knew my brother as a young man would have described him similarly. A beautiful tribute, both on the blog and in the obituary, as many have said. Thank you also, Jason, for your words. My brother was, therefore he is, and I try to remember this and take solace in it. I can’t answer why, and the asking of it tortures me. Why was life not enough for him? Why was our love not enough for him? Why did he give up? But, I agree that speaking of suicide is one way to take the mysticism out of it and to address the underlying issues of addiction, depression and mental illness, as well as the social structure that compounds people’s feelings of inadequacy. We must talk about it if we have any hope of understanding it, even slightly.

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