When is suicide justified? When is it permissible to give in to the despair and hopelessness that life sends to some of us?
Before you answer, a cautionary tale.
The little girl was born in approximately 1889. She was five years old when her parents died in a home fire. Two older brothers, themselves only in their late teens, were now heads of a household that lacked a house.
The farming community in which they lived in Lithuania (then a part of Russia) offered few vocational prospects and certainly no way for them to support their two younger siblings. A neighboring family made them an offer. In return for the promised work services of the five-year old and the slightly older sister for the next seven years, the head of that family would advance the two boys enough money for passage to the USA. By then, it was hoped, the brothers would have sufficient funds to arrange for the transport overseas of their little sisters.
And thus, this poor little five-year old, already having lost her parents, now separated from the older brothers she loved.
What is seven years to a five-year old?
But the family with which these children lived was good to them, and the brothers made good on their promise. They kept in contact by writing letters to their sisters and, after seven years, had enough money to arrange for a reunion with them in the USA.
The now 12-year-old girl was named Johanna. And it was not too terribly long after, when she was 16, that she met the man who was to be her husband. Her brothers had been supporting her, as well as their own young families. It was time for her to marry, she was told. She had to choose among the suitors available in their small town of LaSalle, Illinois.
The man she chose was 16 years her senior — 32 years old. A coal miner. Farming and coal mining were the chief ways of making a living in that time and place.
Johanna had the first of her five children when she was 18. Life was relatively peaceful and she made the best of the marriage that her brothers had required of her. But, in her 37th year, Johanna began to feel less than her best. At first, she thought little of the fatigue and shortness of breath. Others noticed her pallor. Meanwhile, her appetite diminished and she suffered from diarrhea.
Eventually, the symptoms could not be ignored. The physician diagnosed her as having pernicious anemia, a disturbance in the formation of normal red blood cells.
There was no cure. Her doctor estimated that she might live for one year.
LaSalle, Illinois was a small, largely Lithuanian community. And in that place, at the same time that Johanna received her death sentence, so did another young woman, also a mother.
That person became profoundly depressed and hung herself.
Johanna did not. She did not want to leave her children and her husband in such a fashion. There were things yet to do for her children, messages to impart, care to deliver.
Johanna informed her children that she was going to die before long. She instructed them in what they needed to know in order to take over her household duties and become independent themselves. And, she told them that they would almost certainly have a step-mother eventually, and to welcome her as if she were their own mother.
In 1926, the year of her preparation for death, Johanna Grigalunas could not know that there would be a second World War 13 years in the future and that the country of her birth would be consumed by it. She might have heard of Winston Churchill, however, the man who became Prime Minister of England for most of that conflict. But she would not have been aware that Churchill battled depression himself.
Things were particularly dark for England in 1940. All of continental Europe had been conquered by the Nazis and night after night, the great cities of that island nation were bombed by the Luftwaffe, Hitler’s air force. The British Empire stood alone against the Third Reich and expected a land invasion. The United States had not yet entered the War and there was no certainty that it would. Virtually no one thought England would survive. But Churchill did and the Nazis were defeated.
In October of 1941, Churchill was asked to speak to the students of Harrow School, an independent boarding school that was his alma mater. Most of his words that day are now forgotten. But his job was to rally and inspire a nation, as well as the young men to whom he said:
“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in…”
Just as she could not know of the geo-political events ahead for the world, Johanna did not know that two separate research teams, one in England and one in the USA, were searching for a cure for the disease that afflicted her.
Thus, in 1926, George Richards Minot and William Perry Murphy fed large amounts of beef liver to their pernicious anemia patients, based on the pioneering work of George Whipple, who had demonstrated that the creation of red blood cells in dogs could be enhanced in this way. It was determined that a daily diet rich in liver would prolong the life of those with this disease. All three scientists received the 1934 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology. Eventually, the crucial healing component in the liver, vitamin B 12, became deliverable by injection.
Johanna Grigalunas lived to be 93, more than a half-century beyond the medical death sentence that she received in the 1920s.
Now, you might ask, how is it that I know this story?
Well, I met Johanna Grigalunas, almost blind but full of life, when she was over 90.
You see, Johanna was my wife’s grandmother.
The above image is of Winston Churchill. The quotation in the title is also from Churchill: “In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity.”
Churchill is reported to have suffered from depression off and on throughout his life. He referred to it as his “black dog.” On the subject of suicide, he said the following:
I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.