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Litigation News

Fall 2021, Vol. 47, No. 1

Suicide Is [Not] Painless: I Can['t] Take or Leave It If I Please

Joseph Beckman


  • The novelty has worn off after 45 years.
  • Lawyers are statistically less likely than average to die this way. 
  • As a profession, we come in behind corporate executives and just above doctors. 
Suicide Is [Not] Painless: I Can['t] Take or Leave It If I Please
FrankyDeMeyer via Getty Images

Jump to:

7/19/21, 5/11/15, 3/7/13, 10/15/10*, 9/11/04*, 12/16/03*, 1/12/00**, 9/12/80, 4/5/76* *

Relative (2 blood, 2 marriage), ** I was the last to see Scott alive.

Shortly before I started writing this article, I received a phone call. The caller delivered a message I have received, in my view, way too many times in my six decades on this mortal coil. Someone I knew had died by his own hand.

The list above includes (in order of appearance) a radio “Quiz Kid,” a high school junior, a 50-year-old Vietnam vet with a high school degree, a jewelry store owner with four sons under age 16, a 30-year-old investment banker and Triple Nine Society member, a former Motorola engineer with four patents to his name, a high school junior who made an impulsive decision, and an Eagle Scout (at the time a college student). Sadly, and most recently, I learned of the death of a mid-20s accountant.

The accountant was an older brother of a young man who was a classmate and hoops and baseball teammate of my younger son. Another class-/teammate took his own life in 2013.

This is my son’s fifth trip down this road between ages 6 and 23. He has also made that trip with two uncles and a fellow Eagle Scout from his troop. Jack, who is typically an emotionally taciturn young man, asked his mother, “Why does this keep happening?”

The Tenth Leading Cause of Death in America

All nine people I know who exited life this way were males. That Y chromosome makes me roughly four times more likely to die by my own hand than my partner is to die by hers. (According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, however, women attempt suicide two to three times as often as men.)

Surprisingly, lawyers are statistically less likely than average to die this way. As a profession, we come in at 11th place behind corporate executives and just above doctors. Women lawyers, however, are slightly above average compared with the overall rate for female suicide, whereas male lawyers are just under 60 percent of the average.

In 2019, the CDC reported that “12 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.5 million planned a suicide attempt, and 1.4 million attempted suicide.” That is 1 out of every 100 people living in the United States.

The Unanswerable Question: Why?

While death notices in the 1970s and 1980s rarely mentioned suicide, people knew. Despite that, it was barely a topic for “whispered conversations,” and it certainly was not suitable for polite ones. Perhaps it was a function of the stoicism of the “Greatest Generation” (those who came of age during the Great Depression, who then went to fight in World War II). I don’t know.

What I do know is that my own family had an unspoken agreement to refrain from discussing “the family’s suicide.” In law school, however, I finally felt comfortable enough to raise the topic with the older brother of the family’s suicide. He was a pastor in rural Oklahoma, and he wept openly and declined to discuss the matter.

There was a second, less passive reaction. Just before law school, while in front of an aunt who would talk about the topic, I corrected a family member closer to my age for offering an “alternative facts” narrative of the death. My peer (who I knew had some anger management issues) denied this was true, forcefully reasserted the “polite narrative,” and demanded I acknowledge it was true. He became enraged and nearly came to blows with me when I declined to demur.

However, this peculiar omerta extended beyond my family and into the larger community. It was, perhaps, a product of the time.

What was ironic, I suppose, is that the theme song for one of the highest rated shows of the time, M*A*S*H*, included the refrain, “Suicide is painless; it brings on many changes, and I can take or leave it if I please.” So you could hear the concept mentioned once a week on prime-time television, but you just couldn’t talk about it!

“Suicide Survivors”

My friend Jim and I went to the same grammar school from sixth to eighth grade. We were on the basketball team together. Our fathers were both Chicago police officers. Jim’s dad and my dad each died within about six months of each other.

In high school, we had several classes together and ate lunch together pretty much every day our freshman and sophomore years. Jim’s sense of humor was as emotionally stunted as my own, favoring Monty Python, Saturday Night Live, and Benny Hill over more mainstream fare. Although we were not “best friends,” we spent a lot of time together and had several common bonds.

He transferred schools at the start of junior year. He had started to party a bit more than the rest of us and no longer wanted to work as a janitor every day after school to cover his tuition. His death was the result of an impulsive decision on the heels of a youthful indiscretion, plus ready access to his deceased father’s police department–issued revolver.

While I could accept, and I suppose respect in a way, the family’s need to heal silently (particularly its “Greatest Generation” members), what was mind-numbing at the time was a tacit avoidance of any discussion of Jim’s disquieting death at 16.

The shock of Jim’s death, and the knowledge of how it occurred, impacted me profoundly. Despite this and my misgivings, I dutifully walked the eight blocks to the neighborhood funeral parlor and paid respects.

It was not my first trip to a funeral home. I was wholly unprepared, however, for my emotional reaction to viewing his body. I managed to hold myself together for maybe five minutes before I headed right back home.

I had nightmares for three or four nights in a row after that. I recalled asking, “Why?? Why would he do this? He knew better!” I vividly recall my desire and willingness to ask questions about “why” generally made folks very uncomfortable.

These two experiences ultimately led to me declaring a psychology major in college. At the time, there did not seem to be very much in the literature. Moreover, “positive psychology” was not even much of “a thing” then, taking another 15 years or so to hit the mainstream, and maybe 5 to 10 more to take off.

In an attempt to comfort me, however, someone said:

I don’t know why he did this, and I am not sure that knowing the answer would change anything. If, however, his death in this manner causes even one person to think twice and not end his or her life, then Jim’s short life and unfortunate early exit were not in vain.

I didn’t think much of this statement at the time, but over the years, the phrase has become more indelible. When a dark mood hovered over me for more than a day or two, I would remember this statement. It was always, for me anyway, a great pivot point.


This is easily the most difficult piece I have written during my time with this column. It took way longer to get down, and I had to step away from it four times for several days. It is only my opinion, but I disagree that “suicide is painless.” Yes, “it brings on many changes,” both for the departed and those he or she left behind.

Perhaps I am being judgmental, but I don’t see it as a viable exit strategy. For what it is worth, I’ll “leave it,” thank you.

Finally, if you want more information from an organization far more expert than me, one resource I like is SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices in Education), an organization I’ve followed since the departure of my brother-in-law Chris in 2004. SAVE is one of many wonderful resources for folks who may be struggling with depression, as well as for those family and friends who have survived a suicide.


  • “These jobs have the highest rate of suicide,” (June 30, 2016).
  • “Facts About Suicide,” (last accessed Aug. 30, 2021).
  • Johnny Mandel and Michael Altman, “Suicide Is Painless,” M*A*S*H* (Columbia/CBS 1970).
  • Kim I. Mills, “Speaking of Psychology: Positive psychology in a pandemic with Martin Seligman, PhD,” American Psychology (Jan. 2021).
  • Suicide Awareness Voices in Education, (last accessed Sept. 22, 2021).