The Suicide Index – Joan Wickersham

– P. Jyothi 


Why do people commit Suicide? Why do they decide to end it all? Do we really understand the people around us.  Are we really relating to one another?  Believing that Suicide is not a wish to die but a cry for help, these questions come into my mind very often. And all I can do is to search for answers from books which discuss the life stories of people who have gone through this trauma. During this kind of a research I came across this book which is written by a suicide survivor and though it did not answer my questions, it definitely helped me to handle the myths and assumptions regarding to suicide differently. On this International World suicide prevention day when the world WHO gives the following facts I still question myself why could not we prevent them? Where and why are we failing to make this planet worth living? Is mental health the only reason for increasing suicides? Definitely not then why are we not talking about the crisis the way we are supposed to do? It’s high time we call for action and pay attention to all  those crying for help if neglected tomorrow whose turn will it be?????


Before introducing the book for this month let me give the latest Statistics provided by WHO


  •  More than 700 000 people die due to suicide every year.
  • For every suicide there are many more people who attempt suicide. A prior suicide attempt is the single most important risk factor for suicide in the general population.
  • Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death in 15-19-year-olds.
  • 77% of global suicides occur in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Ingestion of pesticide, hanging and firearms are among the most common methods of suicide globally. 

What are we waiting for…. Time we join hands together to build a strong support system to save ourselves by saving them…..


A Sixty one year old man gets up in the morning showers, shaves and dresses up for work. He goes and makes a pot of coffee for his wife, picks up the news paper, he neatly folds it on the kitchen table, takes the coffee to his wife and then goes into his study, closes the door and shoots himself. This is how exactly most suicides happen and we are left with a lot of questions and theories to think and look for when such incidents happen. In this different memoir Joan Wickersham tries to put her father’s death in order, she tries to understand him as the man whom she thought she knew but exactly how much? This was the big question which arises after this incident. After, her father’s above mentioned Suicide.


 THE SUICIDE INDEX is an extraordinary book which deals with those minor hints which the near and dear fail to understand or acknowledge while all along, the person who commits this act gives out these signs to everyone around. The author writes “You have lost everything, not at a single blow but gradually, over years, a small hole in a sandbag. You see the hole clearly but you have no way to fix it.” This is how the act builds up in one’s mind throughout the years and many times we assume that suicide is an impulsive action.


Joan’s father’s body was found in a chair in his study by his wife. When the daughters come, the police take over the scene and the body is removed. Joan’s husband cleans up the mess and it is told that the father has tried to fire a bullet into his heart. Joan’s mother thinks that he must have wanted to save her from the plight of witnessing too much blood. But later the postmortem report reveals that he did shoot himself in his mouth but the bullet was stuck up in the head and not much blood came out. This confirms that he really wanted a bloody death and had no intention of sparing his family from the tragic scene. Joan experiences a feeling of numbness and is not able to understand what actually happened to her. She takes the scene normally, interacts with people around and completes the formalities normally and everything seems to be Ok. But the thought of her fathers’ choice of death haunts her all through and after a few months she has to see a psychiatrist. This continues in the later years too and she realizes that this death has taken a part of her away. She tries to figure out where actually they all went wrong and what really compelled her father to take this drastic step.


She goes into all the things she already knows about her father and puts them all together. Her father’s abused childhood, his insecurities as a son, the lack of love and warmth in his life, always being misjudged and misinterpreted.  He was a failure in businesses and finance management, the dissatisfaction of his wife which accompanied this failure and then his wife trying to forget it in admiring people who made big in life. The insults he silently had to endure from relatives and close friends for being a no body and a failure in profession. His strong need to cover up his failures and project a bold face to the world, his loneliness and the love fading away from his family, and above all his poor health and constant health issues which were painful but never life threatening have already taken his energy away and he lost his zeal to live before he actually killed himself.  None of the people around ever thought him to end his life like this but that was what has happened. Now considering his life and how he took it, this end does not surprise many and that’s the tragedy of the situation. Did they predict this and not try to stop it. Somewhere everyone knew the injustice he was put through and expected this to happen but never acknowledged it.


As survivor of suicide Joan finds it hard to cope up. She is confused about “when and how she can talk about this death with her son”. How much she should and can reveal is a burden eating her up. Her mother tries to move on. Disposing the house where a suicide happened becomes very difficult. Every person and every object related to her father, after his suicide lose their original self. A man who never approved of suicide finally chooses it as his end. This thought troubles her and affects her thoroughly. 


The writer also tries to get some logical and scientific answers but she is unable to remove the guilt from herself. She observes that everyone connected to her father now move on with this guilt and that becomes a life long suffering to all of them.


This memoir discusses about various other suicides and how these incidents affect the kith and kin. Denial, guilt and societal pressure are the problems they need to tackle among themselves. It’s a thought provoking memoir which takes us into the deep study of suicide and suicide survivors. One of the best on the subject and there is lots more to discuss after one reads the book. The writer says “My father’s death had made a permanent shift in how we saw the world” Looking at life through the lens of death is a shattering experience and this book helps us to grow as sensitive humans to understand people and identify their sadness which many of us try to hide behind our glitters.


“Suicide isn’t just a death, it’s an accusation. Its’ a violent, public declaration of loneliness. Its’ a repudiation of connection. It says, You weren’t enough to keep me here. It sets up un resolvable dilemmas of culpability and fault. Were we to blame for being insufficient or was he to blame for finding us so????? A very big question and there is absolutely no logical answer.


This is one story behind a suicide. It is the story of a tormented soul and the world which had never bothered to listen to him and treated him with casual coolness. It is the story of all of us who fail to be available when we are actually needed to our own kith and kin. And when we take a lot of things for granted. But when such incident happens it shatters us. The journey of a suicide survivor is very painful. The recurring question Why and HOW WAS I RESPONSIBLE take away the remaining part of the survivors lives and a lot of questions go unanswered. This book speaks about the need for proper communication and to view ourselves critically. It also speaks about the need to be a good listener and to develop the right empathy to light up our relationships. 


Many times we grade people through their success and failures. The status and the prestige we bestow upon the successors is temporary and comes with a lot of pressure. The strong need to be accepted pressurizes a human to be a successor and if they fail in their attempts, they are doomed to life. Their sincere attempt to keep their loved ones happy is always overruled with the image their failure brings to their lives. This leads to an unhappy aura around. People who are not accepted for what they truly are, and when are seen through the microscopic lens of success and failure become lonely and are hurt. They may not show their wounds to their loved ones but they remain all through. When things become heavy and the pain becomes too much, when nothing can soothe them, the only option left to the person is to end it all. It is hard to accept the snobbery of the loved ones and everything else seems welcome in order to avoid it. It is here that Suicide becomes the only option to the person who is going through this trauma and thus he chooses it to end his pain and fear of being lost among his own. 


Joan’s father’s life compels us to reorganize ourselves, reexamine our relationships and be sensitive and empathetic to those who expect that from us. It is time we also understand that expressing love, and making the other person wanted means a lot in times of despair. It is our duty to give those moments to everyone around so that when the gloom falls on them they still can remember the fine moments, they can still believe that they are needed and their presence matters. 


The Suicide Index is a thought provoking book and a must read at these times when we are losing 132 people every day to suicide around the world. 


NOTE  : There are suicide help lines around the globe working to help those who are depressed, lonely and suicidal.

 “Roshni” is a suicide helpline from Hyderabad (India). Plz call 040 66202000 or 040-66202001 for emotional help.  

Let’s raise to the occasion. Let us not hesitate to seek help in need, or guide those who need help.


The above article is written for 

(10th September – International Suicide prevention Day) 


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