Each year millions of families around the world will receive the news that their loved-one has died and under a variety of circumstances; illness from a dis-ease, accidents, fires, murder, war, natural disasters and natural death. Somehow, someway and someday families will learn to live with that loss and hopefully make peace moving forward.
For a family who grieve the loss of a loved one who has taken their own life, there is no way to comprehend; “the action of killing oneself intentionally.” In the absence of a suicide note of explanation, families are left bereft in their search for answers. The pain of loss compounded by the excruciating guilt that we the wider family circle somehow contributed to the death; “not being there for them when they needed us,” “I should have’s and could have’s in abundance…..”
Not only do families suffer the loss, they also suffer the stigma associated with suicide, the inside and outside of the family speculation of what happened, how, where, who was there, who found them, why, the intense emotions of pain, guilt, anger, hurt, and associated gossip, the family stunned as they try and mentally accept that our loved one “actually killed themselves.”
Suicide: I heard…
“I heard he was depressed for years.”
“I heard she tried to COMMIT suicide a few times, this time it worked.”
“I heard it was in the family, the family are a bit funny/crazy, weird, mental health problems run in the family.”
“I heard he had major financial problems and he couldn’t handle the guilt and shame of losing everything.”
“I heard he/she was an alcoholic, he/she crashed the car killed a child and couldn’t live with the guilt.”
“I heard he/she was estranged from his family for years.”
“I heard he was to proud to come home, was homeless for years.”
“I heard he/she was being abused for years and just could take it anymore.”
“I heard he/she wouldn’t let them out of their marriage.”
“I heard he was never the same after he lost his job, he worked for that company for 35 years.”
“I heard, he/she never got over the separation and then the divorce.”
“I heard she/he drank himself to death.”
“I heard it was drugs.”
“I heard he/she was being bullied.”
“I heard he/her parents put extreme pressure on him/her to do well at school, college, work.”
“I heard that he/she was gay and couldn’t live a lie.”
“I heard that his disease was incurable and that he just decided to go sooner rather than later.”
“I heard that he could never accept his losing his legs.”
“I heard he couldn’t live after the trauma and PTSD having serving in the army.”
(Source: World Health Organization WHO)
Suicide through the ages
In general, the pagan world, both Roman and Greek, had a relaxed attitude towards the concept of suicide.
In Rome, suicide was never a general offense in law, though the whole approach to the question was essentially pragmatic.
The Romans, however, fully approved of what might be termed “patriotic suicide”; death, in other words, as an alternative to dishonor.
Attitudes towards suicide slowly began to shift during the Renaissance; Thomas More the English humanist, wrote in Utopia (1516) that a person afflicted with disease can “free himself from this bitter life…since by death he will put an end not to enjoyment but to torture…it will be a pious and holy action”. John Donne‘s work Biathanatos, contained one of the first modern defences of suicide bringing proof from the conduct of Biblical figures, such as Jesus, Samson and Saul, and presenting arguments on grounds of reason and nature to sanction suicide in certain circumstances.
In the Middle Ages, the Christian church excommunicated people who attempted suicide and those who died by suicide were buried outside consecrated graveyards. A criminal ordinance issued by Louis XIV of France in 1670 was far more severe in its punishment: the dead person’s body was drawn through the streets, face down, and then hung or thrown on a garbage heap. Additionally, all of the person’s property was confiscated.
In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, loopholes were invented to avoid the damnation that was promised by most Christian doctrine as a penalty of suicide. One famous example of someone who wished to end their life but avoid the eternity in hell was Christina Johansdotter (died 1740). She was a Swedish murderer who killed a child in Stockholm with the sole purpose of being executed. She is an example of those who seek suicide through execution by committing a murder.
The secularisation of society that began during The Enlightenment questioned traditional religious attitudes toward suicide to eventually form the modern perspective on the issue. David Hume denied that suicide was a crime as it affected no one and was potentially to the advantage of the individual. In his 1777 Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul he rhetorically asked, “Why should I prolong a miserable existence, because of some frivolous advantage which the public may perhaps receive from me?” A shift in public opinion at large can also be discerned; The Times in 1786 initiated a spirited debate on the motion “Is suicide an act of courage?”
By 1879, English law began to distinguish between suicide and homicide, although suicide still resulted in forfeiture of estate. In 1882, the deceased were permitted daylight burial in England and by the mid 20th century, suicide had become legal in much of the western world.
By the 19th-century, the act of suicide had shifted from being viewed as caused by sin to being caused by insanity in Europe. Although suicide remained illegal during this period, it increasingly became the target of satirical comment, such as the spoof advertisement in the 1839 Bentley’s Miscellany for a London Suicide Company or the Gilbert and Sullivan musical The Mikado that satirised the idea of executing someone who had already killed himself.
Coping with Suicide
I live in a society that accepts death from disease e.g. cancers, heart disease as somehow an affliction of which the individual has no control over….we as a society comfort and the families of the alcoholic, cancer patient, heart attack/stroke victim, we pay our respects, we try if we can to share their burden of grief.
I also live in a society that reacts to suicide based on beliefs developed and personal experience.
Behind closed doors
The Unsympathetic say
- It’s a mortal sin, they will be condemned to the fires of Hell..
- They are Cowards
- They took the easy way out
- They are so selfish, we all have to get out of our own problems, look what he did to his poor wife, children, selfish and cowardly act by a coward.
- They destroy families, they shouldn’t have done this to me/us….
- How could they do that to their poor families.
- Good riddens, he tortured his family with his depression for years… (This type of person may be a narcissist who feels little to no emotion).
The unsympathetic person believes that there is nothing and no-one; “that broken, that they cannot be fixed.” To quit life when; “the going got tough,” is a “cop out.” They simply refuse to believe that it could be; “that bad.” These emotions underpinned by taught and learned beliefs.
The Sympathetic ask
- What was going on in their life and in their head that they felt they had to get out leaving families and children.
- Did they really believe that their family would be better off without them… They must have really hated themselves.
- They are in such pain they are not thinking about their family.
- They have lost hope, feel unworthy, life is hell on earth.
- What must have been going through their minds as they were taking their own lives?
The sympathetic person will try to find a way of understanding so as to ease self-guilt, anger and all of the other negative emotions associated with traumatic loss. We try and walk in the empty shoes of the person, our attempt to understand; “Could life be so bad to justify such a drastic action?” to find a way sooth the trauma that suicide brings to those left behind. I have learned that; “there is a reason why people behave the way they do, we may not understand it, but; we must trust that their leaving has brought them; the Peace they seek so badly.” To celebrate their life in appreciation of the time we had.
“If you change the way you look at things,
the things you look at change. ”
Connecting, communicating and caring
The message of 2016 World Suicide Prevention Day….
I also believe World Suicide Prevention day, is a day of recognition for all the non-judgemental listeners who work toward the prevention of suicide, helping those who are ready to find a different perspective and reason to choose life. Those who support the families through their grief and loss.
“In honor of those who have suffered loss through suicide, it is my sincere hope, you will find this article helpful and informative,” and, May God grant you the Serenity to accept this thing you cannot change; Courage to change the things that you can; And the Wisdom to know the difference.
May you Grieve but not for too long…..