I read many articles this weekend about the suicide of Internet prodigy and activist Aaron Swartz. Most were about how we should view his legacy in the face of charges that he used MIT’s computers to gain illegal access to millions of scholarly papers kept by JSTOR, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals.
Some call Swartz a hero who stood up for Internet freedoms. Others point out that he broke the law and had to be punished.
All that is beside today’s main point: The 26-year-old, co-creator of RSS and Reddit, was a tortured soul, the victim of a horrible illness many still fail to comprehend. It’s an illness I suffer from, and it claimed the life of my best friend 16-plus years ago.
Swartz, a man I never met, was open about his depression. Like other sufferers — like me — he wanted people to understand that it was a true illness, as dangerous to the body and the brain as cancer is when left unchecked.
Now he’s another tragic statistic, and those left behind have to come to terms with the nature of his death.
In the years since my friend’s death, I developed a code of conduct that allowed me to stop wallowing over that evil day in November 1996:
- Don’t blame yourself; it’s pointless. No matter how many times you replay events in your mind, the fact is that it’s not your fault. For one thing, it’s impossible to get into the head of someone who is contemplating suicide. Sure, there are signs, but since we all get the blues sometimes, it’s very easy to dismiss the signs as a normal bout of depression. When someone loudly contemplates suicide, it’s usually a cry for help. When they say nothing and even appear OK, it’s usually because they’ve made their decision and are in the quiet, planning stages.
- Don’t blame others; it’s equally pointless. Take it from me: Nerves in your circle of family and friends are so raw right now that it won’t take much for relationships to break apart. A week after my friend’s death I wrote a column about it, revealing what, in hindsight, was too much detail. His family was furious and most of them haven’t talked to me since. They feel I was exploiting his death to advance my writing career and get attention. What I’ve learned, and this is tough to admit, is that you’re going to have to let it go when the finger pointing starts. It’s better not to engage the other side. Nobody is in their right mind at this point, so go easy on each other. Give people space to make their errors in judgment and learn from them.
- Don’t demonize the dead. When a friend takes their life, one thing that can gnaw at survivors is the notion that if they believe in Heaven and Hell, they believe those who kill themselves are doomed to the latter. I’m a devout Catholic, so you can bet your ass this one has gone through my mind. What I’ve learned, though, is that depression is a clinical disease. A person suffering from depression who then kills themselves isn’t in control of their actions, and Catholics, at least, don’t believe God punishes them for that.
Even if you don’t believe in an afterlife, you might feel angry at your loved one for intentionally leaving you just when they did. It comes to the same thing: that person was sick and couldn’t make good decisions. My practice today is to simply pray that those souls will be redeemed and that they will know peace. It’s really the best you can do.
- Break the stigma. One of the friends Swartz left behind has already done something that honors him: She went on Facebook and directed people toward the American Association of Suicidology website, specifically the page on knowing the warning signs. That’s a great example of doing something to honor your friend’s memory instead of sitting around second-guessing yourself. The best thing to do now is to educate people on the disease so that sufferers can help themselves and friends and family can really be of service.
- Get on with your life. Nobody will blame you for not being yourself for a while. You have, after all, just experienced one of the worst tragedies there is. But try not to let it paralyze you. Life must go on. You have to get on with your work and be there for those around you.
Life can be brutal. But it is a beautiful thing. Seize it.