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Suicide taboos and healing memories


Cost of silence cover

On Wedneday this week we mark World Suicide Prevention Day. Its focus is rightly on noticing and caring for people who are at risk of taking their lives. But the day also recalls the great pain suffered by many people when their relative or friend takes their own life.

The centre of their experience lies in the way that suicide excludes people from any participation in this decisive act of people's lives, and also prevents them from understanding it. Suicide is always shrouded in silence, and arouses dread at entering the silence. So it imposes further silence. It is a dark mystery, surrounded by a stigma that makes people reluctant to talk about it, ill at ease in speaking to those affected by it, and creates further acts of exclusion. Once people who took their own lives could not be buried in consecrated ground, and were even symbolically executed to show society's abhorrence of the deed. These taboos and exclusions further excluded and silenced relatives and friends of people who had taken their life.

This exclusion intensifies natural feelings of guilt. 'If only my child, parent or friend were still alive' turns easily into 'if only I had noticed, found the right word or silence, refrained from the harsh word, and so on.' Or 'if only they had thought of me'. Then 'if only' easily turns into accusation or resentment. People and their memories are further locked into silence.

A little book launched today, The Cost of Silence, published by Support After Suicide presents the writing of men who lost a relative to suicide. What they write is a testimony to the black hole that suicide digs in the lives of those close to it, and to the power of accompaniment and conversation to dissipate it.

Most striking in their accounts is the power and complexity of memory and the need to attend to it. Their descriptions are concrete and detailed, particularly when describing their relatives when alive. 'She was a whizz at shopping, and stormed the shops in Chapel Street for bargains'. 'Dad had been at the beach for the weekend helping his brother finish his pergola'. 'We all sat down to watch the footy, and he sat with us'. Each dead relative is remembered in their connections to other people and to their world.

The memories of confronting the suicide of their relative are also vivid, but are sometimes disconnected. A backpacker's van parked near the toilet-block at the beach is remembered, as are boots crunching on the gravel. Relatives remember what they are doing: 'I'm making pizzas on the night when I receive the call'. Some remember details clearly: 'I saw the open coffin, the lit candles burning on either side, hear Enya playing in the background, and her still form lying there'. Others turn to metaphor to describe the effect on them. 'The horror blossomed in my head like an opening flower'.

All the memories are double edged. One of the writers speaks finely of 'my memory's double entendre'. They remind people of the person whom they loved, but also of their death and the silence at its heart. 'A spectacular view across the bay, sun high in the sky and the water beautiful blue…but you were not there, you can't be there, you won't be there.'

The wrenching cry at the heart of all these memories wrestles with silence, 'Why did you do it? You know that we loved you.' Expressing the fear that a death may not have been sought in a moment of overwhelming misery, but have been long planned, another writer begs, 'Give me a sign that this is not how you left us.' Memory leads people to the heart of the silence and taboo that freeze memory.

Memories characteristically take people into a different world: from before to after, from connection with the everyday world to isolation. This is articulated in metaphor. 'My world is travelling/in a parallel universe to theirs.' It also shapes the way in which things are seen: 'We got your death certificate last week. It looks the same as your birth certificate only it reads like a bookend.'

Later on everyday memories can come to bless even when edged with grief: 'Every time Carlton wins I still think of him after the final siren and how he would love to be singing the theme song.'

The variety and complexity of memories and the silence and the stigma with which they are intertwined make working through the suicide of a close relative correspondingly complex. It has sometimes been described as the healing of memory. This metaphor is helpful in suggesting that this will be a long and therapeutic process, and that memories need to be taken seriously, not suppressed.

But the variety and layering of memory suggests a much more complex process than healing. It calls for more elaborated metaphors to describe it. Memories need to be uncovered, like bones, and owned in all their bloodiness and dirt. They need to be handled tenderly and washed clean of the silence that taints them. They need to be treasured, wrapped carefully in good words, brought to life, and the gift that the person was shared proudly with friends. This is a messy, unorderly business that requires a safe place to attend to it. The writing in this collection is a testimony to the power of this process and to the pain involved in it

If there is a simple message of this book, it is that nothing causes pain like love, that nothing can heal pain except love, and that both love and healing need words.


Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.Andrew Hamilton

Image cropped from the cover of The Cost of Silence

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Cost of Silence, World Suicide Prevention Day, suicide, memories



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Existing comments

Our family has been touched by suicide. When I hear of one who has died this way I am filled with a most indescribeable sadness for them and the aloneness and despair they must have felt. And I pray. AEMC.

Anne Chang | 10 September 2014  

I know what my Church says. Yet since I was young, suicide has always appeared to be item number one on the list of Human Rights. []

Kevin G. SMITH | 10 September 2014  

It is a credit to you that you write on this issue with great tenderness and respect. Thank you.

Geralyn | 10 September 2014  

Suicide can be inspiring. I admire those suiciding Buddhist monks protesting during Viet Nam War by burning themselves. I admire the Manly Municipality Judge/magistrate and his wife who a score of years ago carefully organised their affairs to facilitate their suicides, all this to provide maximise benefit to their heirs / children.

Kevin G. Smith | 10 September 2014  

"... the simple message of this book is that nothing causes pain like love, that nothing can heal pain except love and that both love and healing need words." Perhaps one word might be enough FORGIVENESS - of the type that Christ showed in his dying.

Name | 10 September 2014  

This article helped me reach out to someone expressing ideas about suicide as an solution to dealing with perceived financial issues upon retirement.

Val | 10 September 2014  

Thank you

Diana Hayes | 10 September 2014  

On the other hand, in some circumstances suicide is a sensible, peaceful, welcomed act, with no negative connotations at all. Hamilton should acknowledge that.

Peter Shaw | 10 September 2014  

"On Wedneday this week we mark World Suicide Prevention Day." It's a pity all religions will not be taking part. Muslims seem to interpret "Greater love no one has than to lay down their life for their friends" to mean-.than to lay down their life killing their enemies." This may bring short-term help to their friends, but in the long term merely increases hatred and wars between the factions. It is far greater love to live one's life devoted to helping create understanding and tolerance than to end it all harming others.

Robert Liddy | 10 September 2014  

Dear Peter Shaw, forgive me but there are always negative consequences when someone chooses to die by their own hand. Illness can cloud judgement and hope . Lack of satisfactory relationships can promote despair. But the supportive love of others even though not easily recognized is there and can make life worth living and even meaningful.

Celia | 10 September 2014  

I What Kevin G Smith says is the sort of thingyou get from some philosophers and the likes of Messrs Kevokarian and Nitchske. I have grave doubts about those people. Interestingly, the Buddha never advocated suicide. His near contemporary, Mahavira, founder of the Jains, did and fasted to death. Suicide sadly, in my experience, is often the result of serious mental illness. I do not - repeat do not - advocate " allowing" the seriously mental ill to take their lives, nor, obviously, would I support the Nazi's solution of involuntary suicide for those they considered " unfit". I believe involuntary euthanasia may be making a sly comeback through the " progressive" Benelux countries. Recent prospective Belgian legislation is horrific. I hope the monarch withholds consent. I think, in the past, official Christianity was too judgemental and harsh about suicides. I certainly hope none of my clerical ancestors in the Church of England was like that. They certainly showed spunk and went against the grain and took a principled and personally and financially ruinous stance on a number of occasions. I am glad that you are writing this, Andrew. It needed writing.

Edward Fido | 10 September 2014  

Thank you for your article. My husband died by suicide 15 years ago. It was such a difficult time. There was so much to try and make sense of. There was grief but anger and shame and feelings that one shouldn't grief because of the circumstances around the death. For the one who dies there is loss and for those left behind there are only unanswered questions. Your article is very respectful of the many strange feelings and issues which are unique to suicide and those bereaved by it.

Karen | 10 September 2014  

Peter Shaw, I guess if you are referring to the suicide of Hitler, you would have to be agreed with.

AURELIUS | 10 September 2014  

Thank your for your comments. A couple of responses. Sometimes suicide is understandable, and itshould never alter the esteem and love which we have for people who die by their own hand. But I believe that it is always sad. And I feel sad for the lives and world of people who find it admirable, peaceful, sensible and welcome. It is rarely the case that people who suicide or are left behind feel any of these things. I know people who are Muslim who are shattered by the suicide of relatives, and who are committed to prevent it. I don't think generalisations about Muslims or any other group are helpful when talking about the grief of persons who are grappling with the suicide of a family member.

andy hamilton | 10 September 2014  

The wrenching cry at the heart of all these memories wrestles with silence, "Why did you do it?" This is not my experience, Andrew. Never once have I wondered why, Schizophrenia had erased her artistic talent, she was too besieged by voices to continue her photographic talent. Tim Page, seeing her photos at an exhibition for mental health funding, three years after her death, told me "Anne had an awesome eye.. praise indeed. Her art was her life, her art had gone, her friends had drifted away, the threatening voices overwhelmed her. She knew she was loved...but she had to find peace...and so she did. And it was her right to do so. My pain can't be compared to Anne's, she had to choose death and attain peace she hadn't had for ten years. I talk about her, and to her, every day; we are very close. Emotional waves occur, obviously, but we are both at peace.

Caroline Storm | 10 September 2014  

The hopeless feeling of suicide comes from an accumulation of bad memories which create beliefs that life is no good and it will not get better. In my book "Heal Your Memories, Change Your Life" there are exercises to help the reader overcome the unhappy feelings of the past. Some parents chastise their kid who is already feeling bad enough and it creates despair instead of motivation. We need to become a more encouraging society.

Frank Healy | 10 September 2014  

I think that what has been missed is the shame that many have attributed to those who have suicided, and the embarrassment that those who remain often feel - hence the, fibs, that may be used to hide the suicide of a friend or family member. My feelings are mixed - I know the sorts of feelings that Andrew mentions first hand. I know the sort of feelings that can lead one to suicide first hand as well, and am aware that there are often better answers. But I also believe that suicide can also be fundamental to one's own ability to self-determine - and denying that or undermining that ultimately hurts more people than it notionally saves. Sad yes, empathize with the victim and family, yes... but also respect the victim - something that I also felt in Andrew's writing about the book.

DeC | 11 September 2014  

Suicide has always been with us but the percentage of people who take their own lives has reached epidemic proportions. Why do so many people feel that their life has lost all meaning and hope? There are always individual reasons but the numbers indicate we must question why there are so many suicides in our western social world. Andrew Hamilton focuses on the power of love to heal the pain of loved ones left behind. As well as this individual approach, though, attention must be paid to the role our society has in producing so much despair. Our society is extremely competitive with the expectation that we must achieve financially security and successful careers as well as being exemplary parents and community participants. Our society gives status to those who succeed but there are many who struggle to succeed or feel the need to give the appearance of succeeding. There are many others who simply cannot achieve what society expects of them for a variety of reasons, and our society rates them as failures. The Abbott government's ideological commitments will certainly greatly exacerbate this already alarming situation.

Anna | 11 September 2014  

Fr Ron Rolheiser speaks of 'victims of suicide' to name those whom we might otherwise describe as having 'committed suicide.' I cannot know (and could any of us?) whether that is a reasonable distinction to make; but it seems to ring true in my experience, and in the experience of others I would have spoken with about the loss of someone close to them as a consequence of suicide.

Richard | 13 September 2014  

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