Many people find suicide to be mysterious, confusing and perplexing. That is especially true for those left behind in the wake of suicide. When my mother died from suicide when I was 13, I couldn’t understand how she could do such a thing and abandon her children. I was angry for many years that she chose to miss my whole life. Now, from the much wiser perspective of adulthood, I have come to understand it a little better, and it is less of a mystery. As result, I’m no longer angry and, instead, just feel sad that she was in such great pain that she felt death was the only way to end her suffering.
Everywhere you read about suicide, it is mentioned that there is a strong connection between suicide and mental illness. The impression this leaves is that people who kill or attempt to kill themselves must be “crazy.” The majority of people can’t understand why someone would do this to themselves and readily buy this explanation. Meanwhile, many loved ones of people who die from suicide report that the person who died showed no signs of chronic mental illness. Through his research while writing the book Waking Up, Alive!, Dr. Richard Heckler found a more accurate description of the state of mind during a suicide attempt called the “suicidal trance.”
A trance is neither rational nor “mental illness,” but a temporary dissociative state, or altered state of consciousness, similar to when someone hallucinates during a high fever. Prior to this state, thoughts of suicide can be triggered during times of high stress from emotional pain, physical pain, high anxiety, disappointment, depression, etc. to bring about a sense of relief from the stress. The will to live and fear of how suicide would affect loved ones causes the person to reject these thoughts, while continued stress causes them to be re-triggered. The person may battle suicidal thoughts for years until the continued and relentless stress causes them to mentally retreat into a “suicidal trance” where the sense of relief that death would bring becomes overwhelming.
In this state, the person begins to accept certain false beliefs in order to suppress the will to live. One belief is that death is the only option to end their suffering. They become hopeless that their lives will ever be better or different and time, a change of circumstances or healing will not bring any relief. They also begin to feel helpless and believe there is nothing they or anyone else can do to change the situation. They also often start to believe that no one really loves them, and they will not be missed. They also often believe that everyone around them, and perhaps the world itself, would be better off without them. Their own minds create these false beliefs which they embrace in order to be able to fully accept that death is the solution to their suffering. It’s like their mind lulls them into a state of confusion and self-deception like being hypnotized.
Despite their differences, suicidal trances share these common characteristics:
- “They appear extremely logical, with a premise and a rational series of
arguments that encourage suicide as a reasonable response to pain. These
arguments are powerful, especially when created by someone who has become emotionally deadened — whose reservoirs of faith, trust, and hope have
- Suicidal trances appear as resignation, in which a person stops caring at
all about the state of his or her life. They are frustrating and frightening to
family and friends: it seems as if there is no force strong enough to persuade the person to act on his or her own behalf.
- Suicidal trances “beckon.” As the trance intensifies, it becomes more
insistent that the person finally complete the act. These urgings most
often take the form of voices entreating him or her to take the final
step, or of images presenting a picture of the final act.
- Finally, this type of trance includes a particular vision of the future:
an illusion of eternity in which the future is projected as an endless
repetition of the present pain and disappointment, never-ending and
One suicide attempt survivor described it like this:
“Towards the end of my depression I fixate on the fact that I am a burden to my loved ones and I really am doing the best for them by taking my own life. I go into psychosis – I think they call it – just before a suicide attempt – when I truly believe what I am thinking to be true. It is near impossible to change my mind about the suicide by then. I love my family so much and honestly believe I am doing ‘right’ by them at this time. Of course I know this not to be true when I’m well.
Depression is an awful illness, everything can feel so black, with the walls closing in from every side. There is no relief from it. When I have made the decision to commit suicide, however, I am overcome with a sense of calmness and peace that I have finally found the answer.”
Linda Gray Sexton, daughter of famed author, Anne Sexton who died from suicide at 45, described her own suicide attempt like this:
“That night I had nothing planned. There was just the pain. Suicide simply came up from behind and took me in a bear hug.
I ran a tub and got in, slowly, carefully, balancing my martini on the rim. A sharp paring knife lay beside it. Next to the knife stood two small brown bottles: Valium and Dalmane, prescribed for some other difficulty, some other time. Their labels were perilously out of date.
For the first time in weeks, all at once, I felt peaceful…
…why couldn’t I feel, deeply, what a betrayal it would be? Why, this time, did my love for my children not help me to push away the desire to die and to push away the desperation that had dogged me all my life, as it had so many times before? This time I was numb. The urgency pressed in upon me and flushed every family face, every family voice, from my mind.”
For some, they can be “snapped out” of this state almost instantaneously as happened with my own mother during her numerous suicide attempts prior to her death. She would drive out to the desert in a suicidal trance, listening solely to this voice promising relief for her suffering, take her pills, then “snap out it,” rush home and call 911 so that her life could be saved. Some who have survived jumping to their deaths from the Golden Gate Bridge have said that they felt instant regret the moment their hand let go of the railing. This may help explain why there are 20 to 30 more suicide attempts every year than deaths. Linda Gray Sexton describes this happening to her as well:
“After I finished, I passed out. But when I woke I was lying in a blanket of cold red water.
Under the dark surface, my body was invisible. I tried to sit up and failed; I rolled sideways on one hip instead, my hand scrabbling against the floor tiles for the phone I thought I had put there.
Frightened, I woke a friend. She used her second phone line to call the police secretly while continuing to soothe me. Eventually, the police pounded on the bathroom door and in an instant defeated the lock. Armed with holsters and guns and nightsticks, they hauled me up by the armpits. I struggled vaguely against being saved but they loaded me onto the gurney and strapped me down.
It was only then, rushing on my back through the hall, that I thought clearly of my children and allowed horror to flood through me. At last. Too late.”
For others, though, they awake disappointed that their attempt had failed and are now also in intense agony from poisons, self-inflicted wounds, or pain from surviving an intentionally fatal fall. For them, it takes more than just an instantaneous revelation to bring them back from this dark place and break the suicidal trance. This is important to understand for suicide loss survivors because a suicide attempt does not happen solely because of events that immediately precede it, and it’s unlikely to be stopped by something simple like a visit, phone call or text message. Some who have died from suicide killed themselves directly in front of loved ones even as they were being begged to stop. This does not mean that suicide is inevitable or completely unpreventable; it means that the forces at work that drive a person to attempt suicide are very powerful and usually beyond an outsider’s ability to stop them. It’s up to the attempter to find their way out of that dark place.
In the midst of a suicide loss survivor’s often swirling, confused, self-accusing thoughts there remains but one truth:
Your loved one died because, while in a state of confusion, they believed that death was the only solution to end their suffering, and for no other reason.
For guidance and support while navigating the complicated grief that typically accompanies suicide loss, you can connect with other survivors here:
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with suicidal thoughts and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.