Executive's Suicide in Perspective


by Tony Kontzer

When I read the news that Richard Egan, the "E" in EMC Corp., had taken his own life over the weekend, I was saddened--and curious, as I always I am when I see the word "suicide."

I wondered why a man who'd amassed such fortunes, built a billion-dollar tech company from scratch, and had the honor of serving as U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, would want to pull the plug on such a fortunate life. Then I learned that he was facing a long battle with terminal lung cancer, and it all made sense.

Even though someone in the U.S. dies by suicide once every 16 minutes, it remains an act shrouded in stigma. Consider that three days after reports broke that Egan had shot himself in the head rather than face a slow death by cancer, EMC still was standing by a press release stating that Egan died "after a long battle with cancer."

Every day, families all over the country similarly pretend that a family member died in some other, more dignified way.

Don't get me wrong, I completely understand why EMC has chosen to take the vague approach. There are a lot of associations with suicide that would only serve to cast a negative light on EMC. Not that Egan's suicide should reflect on EMC in any way, but it could definitely be bad for business. Still, that doesn't make me feel any better about EMC's quiet little exercise in denial, which effectively pulls the veil just a little further over suicide rather than taking advantage of an opportunity to provide a bit more understanding.

Now, you may be asking, why the heck is this tech blogger waxing philosophical about suicide? And to that, I have a two-part answer.

First, because Egan was a titan in the world of data storage, and thus has had an impact on IT shops all over the country, it behooves me to at least pause to consider the significance of his passing.

But more importantly, I've dealt with suicide intimately.

My first wife, Roxann, the mother of my 12-year-old son, Jackson, took her own life in April 2006. So, unlike the folks in EMC's PR department, when I see an opportunity to use my station in life to shed some light on a misunderstood issue, I take advantage of it.

To be fair, there are huge differences between Egan's suicide and Roxann's. Egan's actions sound to me like a clear-thinking decision from a man who'd lived a full life and wasn't willing to go out with a whimper. Conversely, my first wife was a middle-aged woman with no physical health issues and three kids still needing her guidance through life, but in the end, she was done in by a bad brain. And in that sense, she is the face of suicide. Or, more to the point, she's the face of mental illness and what it does to those who are unlucky enough to find themselves standing in its path.

But because she wasn't rich or well-known, Roxann's death went without notice beyond her family and friends. When someone of Egan's wealth and fame takes his own life, it's a chance to remind people that suicide is real--epidemic, really--and that it comes in all shapes and sizes. The billionaire technology executive. The mentally ill suburban mom. The jilted young lover who's lost his perspective. The middle-age father who can't take the pressure. Or--getting back to technology-related news--the teen-aged girl on MySpace badgered to the point of no return by the unscrupulous parent of a friend. Sometimes, it makes all the sense in the world, sometimes it makes less sense than anything you can imagine.

Yet, because of that word--suicide--all of these deaths end up dumped into the same bucket of misunderstanding.

So as you think about Egan's death, or Roxann's, or that of anyone else you've known who's chosen suicide for whatever reason, try to celebrate who they were in life, and be up front about how they died. In time, an amazing thing will happen: That stigma surrounding their deaths will just melt away.

For an interesting take on Egan's life, read this.


52 Comments for "Executive's Suicide in Perspective"

  • DSK October 16, 2009 7:08 pm

    Two Cents: I am sorry for your pain and for your anger.Cats in the Cradle possibly reflects your life? This is why I think we must teach our children about good parenting from early childhood- of course to do this we must model it ourselves. I work in suicide prevention and so many issues go back to childhood- not always because of inadequate parenting I hasten to add but often because an adult/adults could not/would not act with the humanity a defenceless little person deserves. Sadly though I have come to understand that these tragic adults were only repeating their histories and I have learnt to understand that those who do not know better cannot do better. Tony's article and the responses to it help us "know better" the issues of suicide and perhaps when we are faced with dilemmas similar we will be able to "do better". I work too with those bereaved by suicide- it is a pain that hacks at the heart for a lifetime, mellowed only by the determination survive - such paradoxes.

  • Karrie September 25, 2009 2:53 pm

    Thanks for the well done piece on Mr. Egan and my condelences for your loss. My brother committed suicide July 2006 not a day goes that something doesn't trigger memories of his life and the impact his suicide had on those he left behind. Thanks for bringing attention to this important issue

  • Renny September 11, 2009 1:39 pm

    I have a paternal uncle who committed suicide. However, no-one would talk much about it -- especially during my childhood. From what I've determined over the years, he was also a poor soul, mental disturbed, and undiagnosed. I'm sorry to hear about your wife, bless her soul. I believe a lot of the stigma is a creation of religion, which condones the simple act of desperation. I'm an extremely devout in my "faith", but not at all a supported of organized religion as it is practiced today. I think they create more problems than they solve... Anyways... great article.

  • Just My Two Cents September 11, 2009 12:53 pm

    Hi Tony, Condolences on both of your losses, especially your passed wife, Prayer's to you, your son and new family. Congratulations on your new life also! My comment to all of this and suicide is who does anyone think they are to want be able to control anothers life. I use "control" because that is what I consider it when "you" the one who wants the loved one, friend or significant other to hang on no matter what they are going through, no matter how much pain they have just so you can selfishly have more time with them and they are the one doing all the suffering with their illness. Let them go, be happy you will have all those years of good memories to reflect back on and they will always be with you in heart and mind if you keep them there with thoughts, memories and pictures of the good times as I do of my loved one's now gone. I am not talking bereavement suffering, but the one who has the situation has to live through a whole host of pain, suffering, possible depression (not all suffer depression when ill), sickness in whatever form their illness lays on them and more. They also get to lie there in this state of sickness for all to see and not everyone wants to be on parade when ill and looking and feeling like "death warmed over" as the expression goes. I don't and wouldn't. I have told my kids no wake, no funeral, just stick the cheapest box they can find in the ground and get it over with. I will be dead at that point and all the people that mattered to me will have been there in life and that is what I want remembered is life not death or a miserable death at that. Death has become such an equitable business that I am not going to feed into it. Simple and to the point, dead and buried is good enough, just like life was, good enough. Can't go for perfection as they say that is not a healthy way to live either, can't go for the bottom level of living life as that is kind of what this subject matter is about -depression and suicide so that leaves "good enough". I for one, if I knew I had terminal cancer may just consider doing the same. I took care of my Mother and my Brother with terminal cancer and it is not a pretty sight to see them go from who they were to what they ended up as and they not even knowing who they were due to having to be on so many drugs to kill that pain that they were hallucinating. They were adamantly against drugs all their lives and hardly ever even took aspirin, but it is OK to get them so drugged up for the pupose of pain control and cause hallucinations and that is acceptable?! I say no, it is not, they did not agree with it when in their own capacites, but at that point they have slipped beyond the ability to make their own decisions and some times it goes to those who know little to nothing of what they go through such as a family memeber who has not been there through out but came in in the last minute to save the day - so they think and just OK any med that is prescribed. You also do not know what some families put the one's through that were there all through the years for the loved one who is dieing only to be told in the end that the children are taking over and that you are now on the outside looking in because they are going to save the day at the last minute and all they came in to do was save what they could for their inheritance that they were the only ones going after it and did not deserve it, but got it all. I took care of and got to be with my Mother in the last six months of dieing life and Brother in the last six months of dieing life (but his kids made sure they took control near the end so that as they kept stating "we do not want to lose the house before he is gone or after either"), watching them turn into a living skeleton with their skin just hanging on their bones and no muscles to even speak of with the cancer lumps on the body poopping up and out daily and if you think it any better than just being gone then you need to be around some ...

  • Tony September 11, 2009 8:56 am

    Thank you for that article, and maybe more importantly, your followup. I think this is the first article I've read on CIO Insight that has brought me to tears. I'm going through a similar situation and my concern over my wife's reaction to the thought of us seperating is one of the things that is keeping me where I am for now. Your response has emphasized the need for me to be aware of what she's going through and to make sure she has the support she needs in the event that we do divorce. Adding two young boys, 6 and 9, to the equation doesn't help. Again, thank you for taking on this delicate subject.

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