The jump off the bridge

In the north of Bavaria there is a small town called Marktbreit. It has never received much mention in world history; when it does it is as the birthplace of Alois Alzheimer who first diagnosed the dementia disease named after him.

Just before you reach the small town, a high freeway bridge leads over a river. It’s not a very beautiful specimen; just a freeway bridge. The only beautification attempt is the flowers that are planted in the middle of the roundabout which give at least some color to the grayness of the road.

On a Friday morning, not so long ago, a man decided to jump off this bridge. He took his two sons down with him into the deep. A female cyclist found the three dead a few hours later and alerted the police and rescue workers, but there was nothing they could do to help the three. The mother was left behind alone, and we don’t want to imagine how she has been feeling since that Friday morning.

But can an event like this be properly described by calling it “extended suicide”?

Thomas Matterne

It was a depressing atmosphere there on that day. From my time with regional television, I happened to know the reporter who was there reporting the news. Someone who has seen a lot, even here in a corner of the country that can justifiably be called a backwater Province.  The police, and the helpless paramedics as well.

A life wiped out by suicide is just as pointless as any other life ended by violence. That is one of the reasons why, despite all legitimate criticism of the word, I don’t want to make the term “suicide” disappear completely. Suicide for me is a clinical term, a neutral term. It may have its use in the context of assisted dying. But can an event like this be properly described by calling it “extended suicide”?

It wasn’t the first suicide on this bridge, nor will it be the last. But if someone puts an end to their life and takes others with them, especially if they are their own children, then this inevitably affects us deeply. In today’s individualized society, the topic of suicide is discussed differently than in earlier times. The absurd practice of treating suicide attempts as a crime has been abolished; we no longer have separate burial sites for people who committed suicide and who therefore were not to be buried in holy ground. And many a liberal not only considers the right to life as a human right, but also the right to decide upon one’s own death. But even today there will be few people wanting to be the devil’s advocate for an extended suicide. It is one of the few ultimate taboos that no one has crossed yet.

But what went on inside this man’s head? What torments befell him; what demons drove him? What was going on in his mind that made him choose not to commit suicide alone but to take his two sons with him? Psychologists may be able to define the phenomenon of extended suicide. It may even have a number in the DSM, the directory for mental illness. But in the end they are still unable to provide an explanation.

Bleeding can be stopped, stomachs can be pumped out. But once the jump has crossed the boundary of its last limit line, Life remains without return.

Thomas Matterne

I don’t know anybody who wanted to jump to their death off a bridge. But I know people who wanted to kill themselves in other ways. An acquaintance who stuffed himself with medication on a cold winter’s night, and then lay down in a field to die. But death did not want him yet. The scars on the wrists of a former schoolmate, who today is a mother herself and who is – I wish it for her – happy. And yet again and again it is bridges that become the scene of suicide. One can explain this with simple facts. It’s a way of taking your life that offers no way of being saved or calling for help even at the last moment. Bleeding can be stopped, stomachs can be pumped out. But once the jump has crossed the boundary of its last limit line, Life remains without return. There is only the free fall into the depth. Does it feel like you can fly? As though, after a failed life, you’re granted short feeling of happiness? I don’t know. But I think bridges are often the place of death for another reason too. By definition, a bridge has two sides. You cross it, and you end up on the other side. Maybe it is this image that attracts these people.

But do they really cross the bridge; do they really reach the other side?

I make no secret of the fact that I’m critical of suicide and assisted dying. In a conversation about suicide with people who have already tried or at least considered it – and I mean seriously, not just like everyone at some point in their life might say “I’m killing myself” – I once put it this way: As for my own thoughts about committing suicide, I have a double safety mechanism. I am a Catholic and during my childhood my East Prussian grandmother helped to raise me. The Catholic says: God has given you life, so He also decides when it will end. The Prussian says: Your life is a long nightmare; fulfill your duty until it is over. But these are just my own thoughts, who would I be to judge others?

In memory of Marco F., we will never forget you.