by Renae Griggs
On March 24, 2015, Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed into the French Alps killing 149 passengers and crew, along with Andreas Lubitz the copilot who, through skillful use of the autopilot supplemented by manual maneuvers of the plane’s speed, plowed the Airbus A320 into the mountainside. Headlines, news feeds, commentaries, and columns frenzied to somehow sanitize and characterize the horrible event for the public to more readily digest and have repeatedly referred to the copilot’s actions as “premeditated mass murder.”
Each time I see or hear it I have a visceral reaction to the attempt to neatly package in a sound bite what is an intensely complex psychological Rubik’s cube with implications far beyond airline passenger safety, pilot screening, and whether or not the industry needs to consider remote technological overrides.
Of course in the face of this tragedy whereby 149 people descended to their deaths because of the deliberate choice of another to end his life, it is essential to unravel how it is that Andreas Lubitz was able to successfully carry out his suicide at the expense of everyone else on board. And of course it is the obligation of all of those responsible for air travel safety and security to determine what changes can be made to reduce the potential for it to happen again. My concern, however, is that in the aftermath where fear tends to trump fact, the core complexities of death by suicide already grossly misunderstood and misinterpreted leading to perpetual misinformation will be further maligned and cast even deeper into the shadows.
With that, I have no intention to conduct my own psychological autopsy of Andreas Lubitz with what little information I have, nor will I venture into an analysis of his series of deliberate actions that led to the crash and the inexplicable loss of life. Those are matters left for investigators to carefully consider over weeks and months of evidence collection and due diligence in piecing that evidence together to create a clear picture of the how, what, where, and why. I do see this event, though, as an opportunity to discuss the broader issue that does fall within my scope of expertise, and is also of passionate interest to me.
To be clear, my focus is not on Andreas Lubitz or this particular crash per se. This incident is a topical point of contact to open up a much wide discussion in a larger context about suicide and motivation. To that end, using Flight 9525 as a frame of reference I’ll start the conversation from the position of this global presumption: Lubitz acted with malicious intent to kill the 149 people on his plane, along with himself, which leads to the conclusion that he did so with a sense of acute awareness of the circumference of consequences of his actions. Thus, the cumulative assumptions assert that his planned suicide is equal to premeditated mass murder.
In as much as anyone can understand the dynamics of suicide, I do. And given the depth of my insight on this complicated manner of death, I’ve taken every opportunity during the past fifteen years to share what I have learned. Not doing so now, while this crash is at the forefront of the world’s collective mind, would be more than remiss. All I ask is that you receive the information with openness, consider your own perceptions/assumptions, and recalibrate if necessary while you continue to educate yourself beyond our neat and tidy soundbite culture.
As a police detective charged with investigating deaths of all types, I came upon my fair share of people who died by suicide. These cases crossed gender, race, age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, occupation, education level, and the list goes on. I remember some more than others, but one has always haunted me in a way.
She was barely 30 years old my age at the time. I walked in the door of her townhouse that morning, the Florida sun already filling blue skies and spilling lavishly over everything, but the exuberant rays were totally shut out of this home. Not even a pinhole of light came through. The shades were completely drawn and it was strangely dark and quiet inside. Such a stark contrast from the opposite side of the door.
The outside bustled with sounds of life…traffic noise, the voices of passersby, dogs barking, birds chirping, airplanes overhead. Yet inside this well kept, moderately furnished home utter silence. I remember the big, beautiful, robust plants all over the kitchen and living room, so healthy and vibrant looking. I thought, clearly the sun was a welcomed visitor here or those plants would never be able to thrive as they were. But not today. Today no one had opened the blinds to let the light in. Why? I asked myself. Why had she gotten up and obviously taken such purposeful care of those plants every other day…but not today? What changed?
I continued down the hall to the bedroom where she lay on her stomach, no observable signs of trauma, apparently healthy average height and weight – her body lifelessly stretched across her bed. I noticed two empty pill bottles on the nightstand near the phone. She could have called for help if she had a change of heart. But she didn’t. She decided it was her day to die. And so it was.
I stood there in her room wondering what she was thinking when she swallowed the pills. Curious if she had talked to anyone beforehand…did anyone have a suspicion she may do this? I spoke softly to the corpse in front of me, “What made you so sad? Why did you give up? Help me understand.” As I stood there staring at her, I could literally feel the heaviness in the room. She must have been weighed down by it. I knew there would be someone who would plead with me to explain how this could have happened to her. I needed answers.
Suicide is so difficult for family and friends to comprehend. Most people initially insist it’s not possible and pressure investigators to pursue the case as a homicide, or something other than what it is. Contrary to popular opinion, the majority of people who die by suicide do not write a note or provide an explanation of any kind. This leaves the door open to speculation, and inevitably upon accepting the manner of death, to surviving loved ones asking out of hurt and anger, “How could she do this to us?” They are left to grieve amid the swirl of misinformation about suicide, and to cope with the guilt, shame, and isolation that misunderstanding and misinterpretation perpetuate in our society.
I searched her home and my own soul for answers, but left unsatisfied. So many questions remained. Not just about her death in particular, but the choice in general. How does someone come to that place of wanting to die so badly they are able to actually take the steps to cause their own death?
As I walked out of the silent darkness of her home, I had no idea I was already on my way to a similar spiral myself. In just a couple of years I would have answers to many of the larger questions. I would come to understand a great many things that eluded me that day. I would become intimately acquainted with that crushing weight the same sense of foreboding heaviness that enveloped me while I stood in her room. I would find myself on the other side of the door absent of light as well, and I would know what change transcends reason, rationality, and the will to live.
Ultimately, as that change overwhelmed me, I too, would decide it was my day to put an end to the pain.
TO BE CONTINUED
About the Author: Renae Griggs is a former Major Crimes Detective and SWAT cop who left her law enforcement career after 13 years to supplement her expertise and advanced training in criminal behavior with academic pursuits focused on the mental health and well being of police personnel and their families.
After graduating with distinction in 2000, with a B.S. in Psychology and Minors in Criminal Justice and Forensic Psychology, and upon being selected as a Truman Scholar, Renae went on to attend graduate school at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. While working on her M.A. in Forensic Psychology, specializing in violence and police psychology, Renae launched the first of its kind national nonprofit to stimulate a transformative dialogue around the increasing incidents of domestic violence and suicide in police families, which she believed could be decreased by influencing the police culture’s attitudes about mental health and by creating proactive strategies and policies reducing the stigma of help seeking.
Renae is an award winning social entrepreneur whose work has been recognized by some of the most prestigious global initiatives supporting social justice movements, and she is currently providing expert forensic consulting across the State of Florida.