About Suicide Stigma:
There is absolutely no question that a Suicide wreaks havoc on a family. And the aftermath seems impossible to navigate. Compared to other deaths the support (overall) is minimal at best.
One of the early shocks I got was reading a book by an A. Alvarez, who was born in the UK. The book details the way the body, family and worldly possessions were handled for those that ended their own lives. For anyone interested in this book by A. Alvarez . . . it is “The Savage God” A Study of Suicide, printed by W. W. Norton & Company . . . London and New York . . . Copy Right 1971. I do not recommend reading this for the first few years. It is blunt and to the point.
Fortunately, things have progressed since those days. During the Second Vatican in the early 1960’s, the Catholic Church played a major role in starting a change in judgment, regarding a Suicide. All of that to say, those left behind today are handled much kinder (though it may not seem that way) than the survivors of previous generations. The acknowledgment of grace and mercy could do so much more to lift the stigma that suicide carries to this day.
Continuing changes brought on by the Second Vatican Council of 1962, has altered the posture of the Catholic Church. This is officially called out in their books of Catechisms (doctrines and teachings) and succeeding Compendiums. Even with all these years, the religious community is still divided on this issue of Judgment for suicide.
I know of one attendee in our St. Louis survivor group that had her Catholic Church refuse her son’s funeral be conducted there (2002.) None of this is written to criticize any church, it is simply to delineate ways our society has shunned the event of Suicide throughout history and all the remnants that remain. I realize that pointing things like this out or not really helpful to survivors. It does, however, let us look back over history and see things don’t change, just because an official stance changes.
I have for years struggled to find churches or other help organizations that see ministering to those Left-Behind-By-Suicide as worthy of pursuing.
Mute would be the word that comes to mind within my former church. I had been a member for twenty-two years at the time of Rebecca’s death. Initially, I felt the prevailing attitude was avoidance. More than anything else no one knew how to minister to my family.
As I have mentioned in other writings, Kathleen Leggett (also a survivor with over eight years under her belt and also a member of my church) stepped out of line in numerous ways. She influenced me to follow her guidance out of the PIT. Kathleen and I spent hours upon hours hashing and rehashing the various issues and experiences we both encountered in the aftermath. I would learn a lot from Kathleen, who was one of Rebecca’s closest friend for two decades.
In a select way, I had a core of supporters that included members of my church. Looking back, I often wondered how I survived the days and months of those first years.
In the beginning, I found myself unable to concentrate, read, or comprehend much of anything for months. This slashed deeply into my teaching work. The job required me to stay current with all manner of changes and enhancements occurring in my field. Fortunately, I had established a reputation within Lucent, after years of contract class assignments. Along with Kathleen, Lucent stepped out of normal bounds to assist me in rebuilding in the years that followed.
I was onsite teaching in their North Andover, MA plant when the news of Rebecca’s death reached me. The night manager jumped thru hoops when this trauma unfolded. For this, I am and will be forever, grateful to the Lucent staff with their kindness and attention in getting me back to St. Louis.
The fact is we, as the survivor community, have to internalize all this, make all the adjustment and then inform and educate our contacts. This presents a never-ending line of folks to encounter and they continue to this day.
Just yesterday I saw a new Doctor. Here come the questions [married? divorced? widowed, did she have cancer? - - - suicide? - - - was she depressed? - - - mentally ill?] I am prepared for this routine, now, after all these years. I don’t like it, but now, I can handle those questions.
In the past I would have been prone to answer “no she was not depressed, she just had a hang-nail and did not want to clip it . . . then, are you a total idiot?” I learned over time that confrontation is mostly about anger management. This is all a compelling reason for face to face support groups and being able to learn and perfect telling your story and anticipate future encounters.
For me trying to soft-pedal things just leads to more frustration . . . and . . . there will always be someone that disagrees.
In those early days, it was simply a matter of doing the next thing. One of the hardest parts of all was masquerading as though I was okay. All the while I did not have the slightest idea of how to be my “new” self. I knew that the world had changed in a flash and in a permanent way. For the longest, I could not envision how I could ever fit in again.
Grassroots counseling came from unexpected places. People that I previously thought of as just “ordinary folks,” stepped out to travel the hard road with me. Just be aware that help can come from places you would never expect. It may take some time to even realize their presence.
For me, I was so resistant to being told anything . . . period. I became instantly critical of every minute detail . . . or at least the ones I could recognize. I think this was the results of pent-up anger (which I refused to admit to.) Through it all, I came to despise the word “normal.” I still try to avoid the word. I like ordinary or typical much better. I have no regard for “normal.” I am not normal, sorry.
And so the work of dealing with stigma rolls on ahead of us and likely forever will. There seems to be no way to state suicide occurrence that does not offend someone. Everyone is put off by how the event is stated. I have come to prefer “She took her life,” because that is the truth. For me wanting to put some spin on the announced method or official public records . . . well . . . it more often than not . . . falls short and further damages my relationship with another.