On surviving after a suicide

Special to The Times

My sister committed suicide in 1986. She was 25 years old and in horrible shape, her mind clouded and her body overwhelmed from years of anorexia. Before she killed herself, in what was to be our final conversation, she told me that she no longer wished to be a burden, that her condition prevented the rest of our family from living.

Needless to say, her death shattered me. I was 23 and living by myself for the first time. Numb with grief, I would sit on my roommate's redwood deck, looking out over a green swath of Mount Washington. I'd move my chair to follow the sun's path, but the rays never seemed to penetrate deep enough to warm me.

People like me who've lost relatives or loved ones to suicide are known as survivors after suicide. As you might imagine, we've rarely been the subject of feature films. The topic isn't exactly "family fare" for Hollywood's tastes.

At the end of 2002, two independent features -- "Love Liza," starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, and "Morvern Callar," starring Samantha Morton -- broke ground by depicting the emotional fallout of suicide loss and how it affects those left behind. Meanwhile, "The Hours" -- a studio film also released at the end of last year -- contemplates the sanity of suicide in three intertwined stories revolving around Virginia Woolf's novel "Mrs. Dalloway." Who knew suicide could be so white hot?

I approached these films with trepidation. Hollywood has so often misconstrued the causes and effects of suicide that survivors like myself can't help but flinch at suicide's portrayal in film. For most filmmakers, suicide is either a plot device for shock value or, worse, a way to expose a character's "flawed" morality. That's why, despite the drawbacks within "Love Liza," "Morvern Callar" and "The Hours," their portrayals of suicide and its aftermath are welcome for their contributions, albeit limited.

"The Hours," adopted from Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, opens in 1941 with the drowning suicide of Woolf (played by Nicole Kidman). Then it alternately flashes back to 1923, as Woolf composes "Mrs. Dalloway" and attempts to manage her encroaching mental disarray, and fast-forwards to a Los Angeles suburb, circa 1951, and contemporary New York City. In L.A., an unhappy housewife (Julianne Moore) struggles to maintain a cheery facade. In New York, an editor (Meryl Streep) busies herself caring for a depressed former lover dying from AIDS (Ed Harris). Moore's character contemplates suicide; Harris' completes the act. Both suicides are portrayed as sacrificial. Woolf takes her life because she can no longer bear to subject herself and her family to her mental disintegration. In the suicide note she left her husband, she writes: "So I am doing what seems the best thing to do .... I can't go on spoiling your life any longer." So, too, the second suicide is portrayed as allowing the survivors to move on and "value life more."

That's easier said than done, no matter how "reasonable" the suicides appear to be. For survivors, the gritty, emotional minefield in the aftermath of suicide isn't as rational. When we first meet Wilson (Hoffman) in "Love Liza," he's just discovered that his wife has completed suicide. Initially, he copes by ignoring the reality of her death. He refuses to read the suicide note she left for him. At work, he displays inappropriate behavior and is eventually fired. Through it all, he's unable to communicate or commiserate with his mother-in-law (Kathy Bates).

As Wilson's pain becomes more intense and he struggles to find an emotional outlet, he huffs gasoline fumes to get high. His reaction, while extreme, is understandable: He must find escape. At the end of the film, when he finally reads his wife's note, confusion engulfs him. He leaves home, relinquishing all tangible reminders of his former life, and walks into the unknown.

Gordy Hoffman, the writer of "Love Liza" (and Philip's brother), told one reporter that "there was a suicide in my family when I was 3." This seems to infuse the mood of the film. Though most survivors don't choose drugs to alleviate their pain (though many do so), they can relate to how the searing loss of suicide bends Wilson's behavior.

Similarly, in "Morvern Callar," the boyfriend of Callar (Morton) has just killed himself. Her reaction is equal parts denial and anger. She tells friends that he's gone away and parties until she passes out. She also covers up the suicide, disposing of the body without informing authorities, and takes credit for writing his unpublished novel. At the end of the film, flush with the money from the book's sale to a publisher, she leaves her home for the unknown.

It's painful to watch as Callar ricochets from one emotional extreme to another. But in so doing, she accurately portrays survivors' raw confusion. Oftentimes, survivors can't figure out their own moods, much less compute what has just happened. Their reactions are equally random.

The survivors portrayed in these films don't make the "right" choices: Their behavior is, at best, juvenile and, at worst, self-destructive and criminal. And yet their misguided confusion is precisely what's appropriate. The message in these films is clear: Suicide devastates -- and those left behind must figure out how to keep going.

The healing process

Approximately 29,000 people kill themselves every year in the U.S. If you estimate that each suicide death leaves 10 survivors -- a conservative estimate, mind you, if you were to count relatives, friends, and co-workers -- then suicide generates 290,000 new survivors annually.

When my sister killed herself, I limped through life, alternately confused, sad and angry at a lot of people. I never got mad at her. She could only have been in incomprehensible pain to do what she did. And she could only have been mad to think that her suicide would make life better for those she left behind.

Like many other survivors, I healed slowly and in spurts. In this process, I was helped by the national community of survivors, many of whom have become advocates for change in the perception and treatment of mental illness. (One such survivor is Sen. Harry Reid [D-Nev.], whose father committed suicide.) Suicide is still stigmatized -- as is mental illness -- but survivors, along with other concerned citizens and health-care professionals, are working to overcome that.

In the past, Hollywood has been taken to task for its portrayal of mental illness and suicide. For good reason. Too often, filmmakers have trivialized, demonized and sensationalized suicide. Too often, they show off their ignorance.

"The Hours" shows how destructive mental illness and depression can be. In their own twisted ways, "Love Liza" and "Morvern Callar" depict the devastating aftermath of suicide. And perhaps that's as good as it's going to get in Hollywood.


David Davis co-facilitates Survivors After Suicide support groups, run by the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center.

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