If you're not busy living...
A friend of ours committed suicide this week. An adult man, mid-forties; two kids and a wife. The funeral is on Friday. Earlier in the year, a kid in my son’s football team took his life – 13 years old, early secondary school years, nice young man; kind and conscientious. Many years ago I watched a family deal with the aftermath of their 20-year-old son, brother, grandson taking his own life. It was a desperate time. I hope I never have to go through the trauma of losing someone close in this way, especially not a child.
It’s hard to make sense of suicide. We, the bystanders, need reasons, causes and answers; someone to blame, something to blame. While I don't think its that simple, suicide definitely leaves complexities to add to the grief for those left behind - a dark forrest of scary demons to navigate through - most of them internal; all the ‘what if’s’, and guilt, wondering if I’d been a better parent, better sibling, listened more, loved more, done more. It’s a cruel all-body, emotional pain, and it’s impossible to avoid anger with the person who has died, adding yet another layer of guilt - how can I be angry with someone who was so tormented to think that suicide was their last option? How could you? How could you do this to me, to your mother, to your siblings, to those who love you?
I think we need more knowledge about suicide – more understanding of the experience for a person to venture into suicidal thoughts and how to venture back out again. It seems to me that it’s another type of health and well-being, just like exercise, nutrition, and communication – maybe we need more knowledge about death and life and the thoughts about killing oneself. But what does it mean to want to kill yourself – most of us, most of the time have a irrefutable desire to stay alive, to survive. What about when the switch flicks? I guess it gets a little into the realms of existentialism. What are we here for? Christians, just to pick on one of many religious worldviews – label suicide a range of things from demon possession to the ultimate sin that separates us from heaven; those who take their own life challenging God for the right to end life.
I have recently been reading more on the subject from psychologists willing to delve into the topic. Jesse Bering, an Otago based psychology researcher considers it an adaptive trait – a side effect, if you like, of a highly developed social world. A first world problem maybe ie when you’re not worried about keeping yourself alive, ie from subsistence things like war or famine, then you have other things to worry about like career prospects and social standing. Social mechanisms such as shame and loss of status have the same potential to kill us mentally as a blade has to kill our body – suicide becomes a reasonable option from despair. Elsewhere Jesse suggests that suicidal thoughts also seem to have a lifespan – if a young person, or any person can hang on for 12 hours, the acute feelings pass. We can develop strategies to get through it, if we understand it better – maybe not delving deep for the existential reasons for the malaise, but acceptance that it happens and ways to get through. Unfortunately, those 12 hours tend to make people retreat, circle in their own thoughts and choose actions that make the pain go away – at all costs.
As a community, maybe we need to be sensitive and not sensational, learn to talk about suicidal thought in a way that accepts the human experience rather than piling on more guilt – I do hope for a more inclusive society – not one that raises up ideals but accepts the truth – and that truth is diverse.