Discoveries—welcome and unwelcome—arrive after a loved one’s suicide. How much should we add to that, by our own investigations?

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This is a heavier column than usual, so I’m opening with a content warning. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please reach out to someone you trust, establish care with a therapist, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255), or go to your nearest emergency room. Please stick around. We need you.

This column is Part 20 of the Secular Suicide Survivor series. Here’s how it began.

In the days and weeks after suicide, I guarantee you’ll gain new insight into your now-deceased loved one. Some of this knowledge is welcome. After my son Josh died, one of his gaming friends sent us photos of him goofing around during a D&D session. Those snapshots of him cutting loose with his peers are a delight.

Some discoveries only buttress what you already knew. This same friend told us Josh would frequently ghost them for weeks at a time. Not a surprise for the kid who preferred to hibernate in his bedroom and could go days without uttering more than a few sentences.

But other discoveries will wreck and haunt you. Two months after Josh’s suicide, I received a hospital bill from his single car motor vehicle accident in 2020, which I now recognize as a suicide attempt. The gut punch came in noting the date of his crash, 364 days before he took his life.

It’s nearly impossible this is a coincidence. So, Josh was silently harboring suicidal intent for a year, and ended it all on the (near-)anniversary of his first attempt.

What a mindfuck. Was he giving life a one-year trial period, during which me and the rest of his family failed to make an adequate case for persisting? (More guilt, anyone?) Or was he committed to dying regardless, and this extra year was a gift to us, while he fake-smiled through 364 days?

Related: When the elephant in the room sits on your chest: Guilt after suicide

This is an essential preface to this “suicide dilemma” column. It’s crucial to acknowledge that, independent of our own digging for the irrational why of our loved one’s suicide, new data will come our way. We survivors must therefore ask ourselves: how much do we want to add to this inevitability?

Healthy grieving involves shifting our focus away from our beloved’s final moments, to widen memory’s aperture to take in the entirety of their life.

There are a handful of ways that survivors can root through material left behind, as law enforcement and the coroner’s office do their own investigating. After Josh died, my wife Jessica and I went through his bedroom looking for a suicide note or other relevant information. Not surprisingly, for a secretive youngster who had trouble expressing himself in verbal and written form, we found nothing.

In the meantime, local authorities cracked into his computer, but failed to break the security on his cellphone. Like us, they came up empty: no note, no suicide-themed Google searches.

(The lack of a note is the norm. Psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, in her book Night Falls Fast, estimates that three-quarters of suicides do not leave notes. Later research is consistent with this figure. When there is a note, they tend to be disappointingly bland, only underlining the hopelessness their act already made apparent. No appalling rage, no last-act revelations.)

This is where I elected to end my digging. After the police finished with Josh’s devices, I didn’t even reclaim them. Despite their empathy and professionalism, I was wrecked after any dealings with the police or coroner. When numbness was helpfully protecting me against despair or collapse, our conversations made it too real that Josh was gone. And on the day of Josh’s suicide, part of confirming his identity was verifying that the cellphone next to his body was indeed his. The earbuds and cord plugged into his phone were stained with his blood, and I didn’t need that talisman of his violent end.

A part of me would’ve liked to know his final choice of music, though with time to ponder this, I feel more than 50% sure of the song he was playing. (I’ll never disclose that here. Some things need to stay private.) But a part of me is relieved by this uncertainty, as I fear this music would then occupy an oppressive place in my psyche.

I also didn’t want Josh’s computer back, to avoid the temptation of prying into his search history. He was a private kid, so I ought to respect his privacy. Besides, does any right-thinking parent want to learn their offspring’s porn preferences?

Another category of “don’t wanna know” is the exact location where Josh died. In the weeks after his death, I intermittently contemplated taking my own life using Josh’s method, so having this data would’ve been an dangerous tilt in that direction. (Please don’t worry, readers, that phase has passed. One reason I write this column is its role as a public contract with the universe, a signature on the dotted line that my own end will arrive naturally.)

Related: The dangerous and the commonplace: Despair and sadness after suicide

Also related: How to talk suicide prevention with the mentally ill person in your life

Perhaps I’ll call the police sergeant at a later date and find this out. There may come a day or year when I’ll want to visit this location, when it’ll feel safer to enter Josh’s final headspace. But not now.

On the other hand, I don’t think I’ll ever want a copy of Josh’s autopsy report. I can’t envision these gruesome particulars as anything but nightmare fodder. A friend whose suicide survivor journey began 13 years before mine has said he knows no-one whose mental health improved after reading their loved one’s autopsy report. I believe him.

Healthy grieving involves shifting our focus away from our beloved’s final moments, to widen memory’s aperture to take in the entirety of their life. A dive into Josh’s autopsy report, or a detective-like perusal of his computer for clues, would be harmfully ruminative. My brain already returns to Josh’s death often enough. Let me intentionally recall his life instead.

Lastly, we should return to the fact that the irrational why of suicide remains exactly that, irrational. Josh’s choice was a product of the cul-de-sac hopelessness that mental illness sometimes engenders. My postmortem analysis shows he secretly carried a deeper depression than he let on. The poisonous notion of suicide as a legitimate out festered silently for at least a year. How much more do I need to know?

Dilemmas in suicide’s aftermath: How far to dig for the irrational why? | A photo of Josh, grinning at the beach
Josh, on the Outer Banks. Isn’t his little sandy foot adorable? Photo by author

Life seemed as good as it gets in early 2021, with a happy family, a job I loved, and a long-desired move out of the Bible Belt to the Pacific Northwest. My world split open on September 12th, when...

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