Suicide Tsunami

Sheralyn Rose, PhD
10
159

Although suicide usually is a solitary and secret act, it reaches deep into the lives of other people. What appears to be highly individual occurs within the immediate environment of family and friends, as well as the broader context of society as a whole. Suicide reflects collective attitudes and this impacts upon how we, as individuals and as a society, integrate with this phenomenon. Tensions between social behavior and moral values create suicide as a dilemma. It confronts ideologies such as the sanctity of life and the preferred order of cultural milestones. Control is thought to be required. Historically this occurred through the state and the church. Nowadays these structured shackles have been shed, however, suicide remains a cultural conundrum. So does suicide grief.

Losing someone you love to suicide can be a devastating experience. A legacy of torment is created where stigma, shame and secrecy reside. These are echoes of a world that does not know how to respond to what is now termed an epidemic. The baton of collective discomfort is passed from someone who has completed suicide to those intimately involved, making grieving suicide a lonely sentence of social disapproval.

I know. This happened to me. Just as my husband’s nightmare ended with his suicide, mine began. To ease my anxiety I needed to understand what underpinned his decision, to feel his pain and to wonder why his death was so difficult to grasp.

Death is part of life. We all will experience it one day. The unknowns are when and how. Suicide confronts these mysteries. It breaks the rules. It challenges social mores. It may be violent and gruesome, lacking middle-class Western sanitization of the human condition. It makes us feel uncomfortable and therefore we create rules around it.

What better way to enforce public concern than through institutionalized discrimination. While we no longer bury someone who has suicided outside the city limits or banish the bereaved, there are modern methods of exclusion that ensure segregation goes well beyond the grave. For instance life insurance policies made void, or houses that must be identified, if suicide has occurred in a dwelling that goes on the market.

Suicide, thus, is more than death. It is social judgment. Norms have been violated and in the absence of the dead, the living are found guilty. Those who complete suicide are said to be ‘victims of mental disorder,’ and those intimately involved ‘survivors of suicide.’ The acronym for this, S.O.S., shouts alarm that all is not well. Such unease can be witnessed through the voices of the marginalized, those who suffer loss through suicide.

I discovered this as I became aware that I was far from alone in my agonizing grief. Little by little people began opening up to me about their own experiences and I soon found myself collecting their stories. As a medical sociologist I was intrigued by what being intimately involved with someone who suicides means. A matrix began to unfold. Not only was my own unease being affirmed, these experiences were revealing commonalities that reflected negative constructions of suicide. I found that the lived experience of suicide grief replicates prejudicial attitudes to suicide and this detrimentally interferes with the grieving process.

While aspects of each person’s experience differed there were consistent similarities. At the core were difficulty in acknowledging and accepting suicide; guilt at not being able to prevent the suicide; and feeling rejected by the person who suicided. Confusion, shame and helplessness were in danger of being incorporated into a post-suicide identity and interfering with the grieving process.

Contradictory perceptions of suicide make it difficult to understand. It was certainly made apparent to me, by a so-called expert, that my husband was considered to have a mental illness and “should be locked up.” What I saw was a man in pain. A man so selfless, who, I believe, removed himself so as not to burden or ‘contaminate’ (his word) others. His view did not sit easily with the authoritative voice of condemnation. Rather his ultimate decision is understandable as an act of altruism. Yet, he, and other people who suicide, are constrained by lack of choice within an environment that sees complex issues through a single lens. No wonder those who care are equally confused.

Many of the people I spoke to had not opened up before about their connection with someone who had suicided. Embarrassment, shame and making others feel uncomfortable were cited as reasons for this. We each had found ourselves in an awkward void where we were not able to express our grief openly less we, too, were judged.

For some of us guilt crept in early. When a body is found the coroner needs to determine the cause of death. Or if a person goes missing the most likely scenario needs to be established by the police. Murder can sometimes be made to look like suicide and those closest are often scrutinized formally by the police and informally by spectators. The police questioned me at length when my husband went missing. The minds of curious onlookers fueled by speculation.

Scapegoats were not uncommon. A number of people spoke about being blamed for the suicide of someone they loved. Simple explanations were often favored over compassion and complex insights. Answers were sought and frequently someone, or something, became an easy target. If broken relationships, financial stress or embarrassing moments alone caused suicide many of us would have chosen that path already. These are everyday occurrences most people survive. They are not death sentences. They may be the last straw, the catalyst, but rarely are they the single identifiable reason for suicide. Sometimes suicide is a time bomb waiting to go off and a bystander merely stumbles over the trip wire. The cause of suicide involves more than a single life event gone wrong.

Feelings of rejection were high. A sense that someone who completed suicide had a choice over their action left loved-ones feeling abandoned and defenseless. A paradox when it is likely this is exactly how the person who completed suicide had felt. Even the well-intentioned suicide prevention programs can contribute to these insecurities. If suicide can be prevented why, ask the near and dear, could I not have saved my loved one? Or why could they not have saved themself? I was one who had difficulty with the underlying proposal of this program, which is based around being alert to ‘invitations’ for help. In my husband’s case there were many such clues that, despite intervention, did not alter the outcome. Without disclaimers it is easy to pile guilt on the shoulders of those who already assume some form of culpability. With all the good will in the world suicide still wears the misallocated cloak of wrongdoing, rather than alienation, dislocation and powerlessness.

Currently suicide is an enormous social problem with burgeoning numbers and groups identified who were previously not considered as being at risk. For instance it is now reported as the biggest killer of teenage girls. Attention must be drawn to the social milieu, as individual actions cannot be viewed in isolation. What the people I interviewed and I were experiencing was a social phenomenon being reduced to a form of existential angst. We can’t have one without the other. To be human is to be social. Yet suicide, and suicide grief, sit firmly in the separateness of a society focused on individualism.

I came to realize that the lived experience of suicide grief is inextricably bound to perceptions of suicide, and that those who grieve echo the displacement and isolation felt by the suicidal. Communal concerns are transacted at the level of the individual and when these create suicide as a form of transgression it limits choices for the suicidal and makes resolution difficult for the grieving. When attempts are made to control what suicidal people may feel they have no control over, an imbalance in perception arises. Embracing the suicidal within society rather than furthering isolation through social sanctions would provide a more supportive setting for those troubled by anxieties. Moreover it is only by reinventing suicide as death without penalty that the experience of suicide grief can be lived more easily. In an attempt to reach out to those bereaved by suicide and to open discussion on suicide grief, I have combined my own lived experiences with others in my recently published book, Suicide Tsunami.

10 COMMENTS

  1. After twenty years of slowly killing myself with noted moments of deliberation, I can say that the misconceptions regarding suicide, from all angles, are staggering. Psychiatry views (and has taught society to view) suicide as an answer. We even phrase it as such when we say, They took the easy way out.. etc. Suicide is never an answer. What it is is a constantly reoccurring and haunting question that we are never taught to ask: Why does it always come back to this? Why can’t I move forward or back or see a future for myself beyond this? We are judged for the attempt, the completion, and the ideation, not just by society, but by ourselves. For me, I just wanted silence. No more judging and regretting and, more than anything, an end to the constant stream of feeling that seemed to suffocate me. I am 38 years old, and I have only just begun to like myself. In all the confusion, the one thing I know is that suicide is the totality of life experiences perceived by a person who cannot see themselves with a future and cannot continue to live in the past, and they cannot see themselves the way you do. It was not that you were not enough, that they didn’t love you, or that they wanted you to carry this burden. It was nothing you did or that you could fix. What society doesn’t realize is that this has been building and building for that person’s entire life, and they held on because of you.

  2. “the one thing I know is that suicide is the totality of life experiences perceived by a person who cannot see themselves with a future and cannot continue to live in the past, and they cannot see themselves the way you do.”
    This comment states, in one sentence, the most important aspects in understanding suicide. While the mental health industry prefers to always relate suicide to “mental illness”, suicide is alomst always a result of life-long struggles. It is no one’s right to judge another person’s life or final actions. It is only through empathy for the totality of another’s experience can we possibly help someone feel life may be worth living, or accept a person’s final decisions. The importance of respecting the experience of another person, and understanding that we can never fully understand is crucial.

  3. After my first loss and long time friend took his life the day before my birthday two years ago, I was overwhelmed by the weight of the guilt. That was after all my years grappling with my own thoughts of suicide, talking so many other through theirs, and watching as the time ran out anyway. A former professor and friend suggested that I write a dialog between me and him examining the guilt, There was so much I still didn’t understand. Suicide is unique just like each person’s experiences, but we have generalized it in an attempt, I think, to lessen the burden of those left behind. Selfish, weak, easy, vengeful… these are the words we use to simplify what we don’t understand. We tell people who are suicidal that their are people starving in some distant country and others who have it so much worse… And I have yet to meet someone who found a reason for living in an institution. I also don’t think the generalizing is any better for those who have lost someone. You can’t give someone a reason to live. They have to find that for themselves, but you can be there. You can promise not to judge, and sometimes, that’s enough.

  4. First off, I am so sorry for your loss of your husband to suicide. What a huge thing to come to grips with…. You write eloquently of how suicide is stigmatized and marginalized. And how we should embrace it instead. If I understand you correctly: this would help people who are suicidal and also help those who are grieving a person lost to suicide.

    I very much agree with what you say here:

    “If broken relationships, financial stress or embarrassing moments alone caused suicide many of us would have chosen that path already. These are everyday occurrences most people survive. They are not death sentences. They may be the last straw, the catalyst, but rarely are they the single identifiable reason for suicide. Sometimes suicide is a time bomb waiting to go off and a bystander merely stumbles over the trip wire. The cause of suicide involves more than a single life event gone wrong.”

    There is so much simplistic thinking around suicide. People seem to avoid venturing into the deeper waters: that is, the huge, complex, and often long term forces that drive a person to suicide.

    Thanks for shining the light. I am sure your book will be a solace to many. Best wishes to you…..

  5. Thank you for this article Sheralyn.

    I have been torn about writing to my daughter and grand children about my reasoning. I agree that there is no one event that can be identified as a ’cause’, and agree that it is a culmination of events that are triggered at some point.

    In my situation that event was me being drugged without my knowledge and having mental health services conspire to conceal this criminal offense from me. In order to justify their ‘intervention’ they also needed to make a man who was being subjected to domestic violence and abuse into a violent psychotic drug abusing wife beater. After a formal investigation into my detention a set of fraudulent documents were prepared and sent to my advocates. The drugging with benzos removed I was now a paranoid delusional and their vicious and brutal treatment of me was justified. I can only assume that this same set of fraudulent documents will end up with the Coroner.

    Suffice to say I have been trying to ensure that my family at least will know the truth of matters. I simply didn’t realise when I spoke to a social worker ten years before that I would be an “Outpatient” forever and could be snatched from my bed after being drugged as a result of making a decision my wife did not agree with.

    ” To ease my anxiety I needed to understand what underpinned his decision, to feel his pain and to wonder why his death was so difficult to grasp.”

    So whilst the State and my wife may not want the truth to be known, and the police have ensured that nothing will be done about the offenses committed against me, my now estranged family and friends will at least have my side of the story.

    • “I agree that there is no one event that can be identified as a ’cause’, and agree that it is a culmination of events that are triggered at some point.”

      I don’t agree with that. It may be true in many cases but I know full well that the only time I tried to take my own life was when I was being tortured in a hospital and the one and only, singular reason was for the torture to stop.

      • I have a moment that I can identify as being a ’cause’ B, but like your torturers, they people involved could never accept responsibility for their contribution. They will diffuse that responibility, quite possibly out of a need to defend their egos.

        The charred body of a black man hangs in a tree. Was is the finger point from the false accuser? Was it the Klan mob who dragged him to the place where he is hanging? Was it the community who share the belief that this is not a human? Or was it the rope that choked the life out of him?

        How could we accept that it is the brutality that people are subjected to during these ‘interventions’? Best we deceive ourselves, or we may have to accept at least some responsibility.

        The ‘secret’ is that we all know what is contributing to these suicides, but like Orwell said “If you want to keep a secret, you must first hide it from yourself”.

        Take care.

  6. One expression of attitudes toward suicide is the silencing of references to the cause of the death of the person concerned. It is never mentioned in obituaries or at funerals or memorial meetings, although the perceptive observer might infer the likelihood of suicide from the very fact that no cause of death is given.

    When a close colleague committed suicide at an institute where I worked, I offered to organize a meeting to talk the matter through but was told by the personnel manager in no uncertain terms that I would do no such thing. I came to an agreement with her and the director that I would observe the norm of public silence but conduct an investigation and send a report of its results to those colleagues who wanted to receive it. That meant first sending a note informing them that I had prepared the report and asking them to return a slip saying whether or not they wanted to see the report. Every single one of them replied yes! So much for the rationale of keeping silent in order not to disturb people. In fact people are disturbed by the silence as well as by the suicide itself — they want to know and understand (although complete understanding is unattainable). Afterward some colleagues thanked me and said my report had greatly helped them.

    The director also arranged for a close friend of our deceased colleague to come and talk with us informally. She assured us that the suicide had nothing to do with how any of us had behaved toward him, because a number of us, including myself, feared that we might be somehow to blame.