Durkeim's suicide causes in final last words

By Christopher Wink | Mar 5, 2008 | Death and Dying

We are so often caught up in final words. I suppose we write stories because we most enjoy understanding something’s beginning and its end. It follows then, if only in a casual way, that suicide, its finality, the control and closure it is said to provide, is irrationality that some can come to understand. One of the most important elements to the act is the note, those final words. Otherwise, pain lingers longer and doubt clouds the mind.

Émile Durkheim was a French sociologist who came to know a great deal of self-inflicted death, his interest led him to establish much of contemporary understanding of suicide. This very paper will use Durkheim (1858 – 1917) to vet out the varied causes of suicide, using the final words* of those killed for insight into possible motivation.

For Durkeim, suicide was all about social circumstances, not quite Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939) discussion of it being self-inflicting rage but not quite American Mortimer J. Adler (1902 – 2001) who said it was directed not at oneself but outward. Instead, Durkheim felt it was the interplay between the two. In his interpretation, there were three types of suicide. Egoistic, caused by a lack of integration into society or some group therein, anomic, caused by insufficient social regulation or a transition that would disrupt one’s understanding of that, and altruistic, caused by one feeling his death would benefit those left behind. Using these three and suicide notes that might suggest these three areas, this paper will distinguish Durkheim’s three causes.

First, this paper will discuss a possible example of an egoistic suicide, in which the person killed herself because she lacked personal intimacy enough to see any reason to remain alive.

“You cops will want to know why I did it, well just let us say that I lived 61 years too many. People have always put obstacles in my way. One of the great ones is leaving this world when you want to and have nothing to live for. I am not insane. My mind was never more clear. It has been a long day. The motor got so hot it would not run so I just had to sit here and wait. The breaks were against me to the very last. The sun is leaving the hill now so hope nothing else happens.”

This particular note was written by a 61-year-old divorcee, and appears, sadly, to be a precise example of an egoistic suicide. She wrote about how “people” put obstacles in her way. Moreover, the note was addressed to police, no loved ones were included at all. Even in her final moments, she couldn’t seem to conjure up any memories of happier times, noting that the extent of her life as she can remember it has been an over-extension of what it should have been. Whether it is true or not, when this woman wrote her final words, she was in a despair caused by a complete lack of belief in having anything, indeed, having anyone for whom to live. Without that connection, which dictates to most of us that killing oneself would do great damage to those left behind, this woman, and many like her, can’t seem to believe there is any reason at all to remain living.
Secondly, this paper will discuss a possible example of an altruistic suicide, in which the victim killed himself believing full well that those around him would be better off after he is gone.

“My darling wife,
This afternoon I am going to make a third attempt at bringing my turbulent life to an end. I hope that it is successful. I don’t know what I want from this world of ours, but you see I am due to go soon anyway. My mother died a 60ish as did her brothers and father. Also Alf has gone now.
Please don’t get Margaret to come over here, but you go as planned. It will do you good. Put the bungalow on the market and have a sale of the chattels. Then buy a smaller one. The field will have vacant [illegible] … if you want to sell that. The wills are in the safe. My love to you, Margaret, Michael and Janice. I love you all and you have been so good to me.”

There are many common themes of suicide notes that appear in this. Firstly, though not depicted here, the date and specific time were listed, a recurrence of the finality of the decision, providing preciseness for those behind. Secondly, he left instructions for his wife, helping her transition to what he seems to think will be a better time, once he’s gone.
He makes mention of how he probably doesn’t have much time anyway, but the focus is on transitioning his wife to after his death. In closing, he mentions his loved ones as if they did him a favor by loving him, as if his suicide is an unwanted house guest leaving his host after wearing out his welcome.
Thirdly, this paper will discuss a possible example of an anomic suicide, one in which the deceased killed herself because of a difficult transition, which caused insufficient regulation in her life, or so it can appear.

“My dearest Andrew,
It seems as if I have been spending all my life apologizing to you for the things that happened whether they were my fault or not. I am enclosing your pin because I want you to think of what you took from me every time you see it. I don’t want you to think I would kill myself over you because you’re not worth any emotion at all. It is what you cost me that hurts and nothing can replace it.”

This final note was written by a young woman just 21-years-old. It goes without mention that she was likely writing with passion to someone with whom she once felt truly intimate. While suicide is most intimate among elderly men, the next most prone age group are teenagers and young adults, when our children are going through great personal, emotional and physical changes, often without enough guidance. It may very well be that this young woman was going through the heavy transition of lost love, something that is a truly difficult task by all accounts, and may have fallen victim to its burden, a tragic case of anomic suicide to Durkheim, to be sure.
Indeed, in these three brief examples, using brief notes left by suicide victims, Durkheim’s three major causes for suicide are displayed in vivid and likely upsetting style. Finals words are something we all hold dearly, and can be the only way to overcome such stark tragedy as suicide.

*Three suicide notes come from class manual, though the specific book was not listed. This was written for a class on Death and Dying at Temple University.