Book Review

Suicide – Living With the Question

Ruth H. Maxwell – Author

We’ve all been affected by the sudden and unexpected death of someone who is close to us or whom we’ve known personally, peripherally or even just cared about from a distance. It is especially perplexing when that person has taken his or her own life, and even more so if they were young and appeared to be healthy, happy and successful. It is all the more horrific if it is a family member and absolutely unthinkable when it is your own child. Ruth H. Maxwell’s book, Suicide – Living With the Question, is an unflinching, honest and poignant narrative of a journey through uncharted territory after the unthinkable has happened, a journey that no parent should ever have to make. The opening part of the book documents the challenges that she and her family and their friends were faced with after her son Bill took his own life just days before his 36th birthday. It is a book that has essentially taken her 23 years to write. Maxwell said, “It took me many years to write it. It was like peeling an onion, layer after layer. A bit like life.”

Suicide – Living with the Question moves far beyond the personal narrative and into the realm of spiritual, philosophical and psychological questions that arise in our attempt to understand such an inexplicable event and find the meaning within. It is written on a personal level in clear, accessible language, and balances the reflective process with research based science. One of the most important aspects of the book is the examination of social norms and prevailing attitudes about the subject. It takes a hard look at the subject of self esteem and the images we project of ourselves and various societal factors that lead to denial and, consequentially, the inability to recognize the signs and signals when someone may be at risk.

I have the deepest admiration and respect for the strength, patience and great fortitude it took to write this important book. I must confess that it also required courage for me to read it, because Bill was my cousin. Reading the book has been a stunning revelation to me and a journey of self discovery that brought me to tears on more than one occasion. I learned of Bill’s death when I was far away from home and had fallen out of contact with much of my extended family. I couldn’t begin to fathom how or why something like this could possibly have happened and never talked it through it with anyone. I still hadn’t completely come to terms with the tragic death of my own younger brother not that many years earlier and now Bill’s death was something I couldn’t really wrap my mind around. I was at a loss as to what to do. Before I knew it, years had passed and I had never taken the time to try and understand it or to fully reflect upon it. Reading Ruth H. Maxwell’s book provided a bridge back to that lost part of my family history and gave me back a piece of myself. It allowed me to emotionally process the narrative of my cousin’s death and the effects it had upon his immediate family, close friends and colleagues. On a personal level, the book also helped me to examine my own questions, and to acknowledge my sense of loss as well as feelings of grief, guilt, shame, blame, regret and acceptance, and a whole spectrum of other emotions.

I think one of the most important conclusions in the book is the significance of post- traumatic stress disorder and clinical depression as critical factors that may contribute to a decision to take one’s own life. The way this book raises awareness and sensitivity to these conditions, and the importance of bringing it all out into the light of day conveys a timely and powerful message. It is a profound reflection about loss, redemption, hope, forgiveness and perseverance and an invaluable resource for educators, counselors, health and spiritual practitioners, parents, friends and all of us.

“When the truth can be told and not judged or evaluated, love follows, for it flourishes in the light.” Ruth H. Maxwell

Michael Gillan Maxwell is a visual artist, writer, editor, teacher and educational consultant. He lives with his family in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State.