Betty Jarrett writes about the pastoral care of those bereaved by suicide
I count myself very fortunate in that in my twenty-five years as a practising psychotherapist not one of my clients committed suicide. That did not mean that some did not have plans to do so. At various times I had quite a stash of various drugs which had been given to me by clients to protect themselves from rash acts. Suicide has been much in the news over the last month or two as the horror of the German plane crash became apparent. There was also a Panorama programme some weeks back which looked at the increasing rate of suicide among younger men.
The fundamental question for all those bereaved by suicide is why? When I started training I was told that suicide was the ultimate angry response. I am going to take four different stories of suicide and look in more depth at what might have been going on for those who considered it. Although some facts have been changed and certainly the names, the stories are composites, all based on true experiences. Anger is at the base of all these stories. As an emotion anger is very difficult for some people to handle. It often cannot be expressed for many reasons; possibly because of fear of being too aggressive, or perhaps being seen as someone who complains. Sometimes as children we are told to behave ourselves so we become good, compliant and unable to express negative emotions. In some families anger is almost forbidden and so anything negative is disregarded.
Therefore anger can become internalized, hidden, even ignored, and then turns into depression. This would seem to be the case in regard to many who are suicidal.
My first story is of a child abused over a number of years by a man she knew as a family friend .Let us call her Jane. Her story was not believed. Jane subsequently became withdrawn and uncommunicative about the abuse. Jane desperately wanted the man to die so that the abuse would stop but this did not happen. Eventually she moved away from the area and from the man. The abuse stopped. That was fine superficially, but the anger and fury Jane felt towards this man, having never been acknowledged, festered away inside her. She felt worthless and unlovable. Over a period of time Jane attempted suicide by many different methods. She eventually went to hospital and gradually received the help she needed. Jane tried taking overdoses of drugs and slashed her wrists. Her wish was for the death of the abuser but as she could not kill him, killing herself was the next best thing. It was as if she said I will show you how much hatred you have put inside me and how much I now want someone to die.
The second story is of desperate loneliness. Undiagnosed mental health problems in adolescence and teenage years is a growing concern. We have witnessed this in the publicity given to it by all the political parties during the recent general election campaign. Often those lonely young people are confronted with thoughts and feelings which do not make any sense to them. James was one such teenager. He found it difficult to relate to others. As he grew older James realized that others found him odd and difficult. James was very bright and could manage exams with little difficulty. His apparent difference and oddness led to him withdrawing into himself. As with all teenagers James was adept at using social media. He quickly found ways in which he could end the existence which he found so miserable. Fortunately the overdose that James took was not fatal and suitable help was found. He was diagnosed as autistic. Then suitable supports were put in place for him. There are those, though, who are not so fortunate.
Simon was a well respected schoolmaster. He lived alone in a flat in the boarding school grounds and was a bit of a loner. The boys in his school at first thought he was wonderful.
Simon gradually gained their confidence and then began grooming them. He dabbled with pornography and began to live an almost double life. Soon he was attempting to make indecent images. The boys he had tried to film gradually came forward to talk to those in authority. Simon was charged as a sex offender. He was ashamed; he could not stand the thought of a public trial and humiliation. Simon wrote a note of confession. He drove his car to the nearest level crossing and stood in front of the oncoming express train.
Feelings of dread
My last story concerns Susan. She was called to the hospital for a routine mammogram. Susan was called back for more tests and was told about two weeks later that she had breast cancer. Susan was on her own as she was given this diagnosis. She came away from the hospital with enormous feelings of dread about what the future held. She walked along the canal on her way home and seriously considered jumping in. Susan was terrified both of the illness and the treatment. She was fearful that the outcome would not be good. She had also lost control of and confidence in her own body. Susan did not jump into the canal. She was subsequently able to confide in friends who gave her the confidence to carry on. Each time Susan was called for a check-up the same dread overcame her. Her friends were able to accompany and protect her.
It is interesting to note the methods each of these people chose to use for their final acts. For Jane it seemed important to slash her wrists and make a mess. Her life had been a mess and she wanted that subconscious message to get home. James used a method which he had investigated on the internet, the way in which lonely people often communicate. Simon’s horrific death in front of a train must have taken courage as the impact must have been unimaginable. This death feels more like an execution, a ritual punishment for being so bad. Susan was confronted by despair. It is easy to imagine her walking along the canal and resignedly thinking that life might just as well end there.
Cry for help
There are probably as many methods of suicide as there are suicides. Every story is different. These stories do not all end in death. It was that factor, of course, that enabled me to talk to those concerned and begin to identify some of the reasons for their behaviour. If the first question, when confronted by someone who has taken their own life, is why, the second must be what stopped them from sharing their desperation with another person. We live in a world where to be seen as successful and happy is deemed very important. To try to talk about problems seems not to be an easy thing to do, even with those closest to us. That was not the case for Jane who attempted to share her story and was desperate for someone to believe her. Because the abuser was known to the family and respected by them, the words of a child were belittled. She felt no one really cared. James, by contrast, found communicating anything, particularly emotions, very hard. He did not have an understanding about what was going on inside his head. The only way he could cry for help was by self-harming. The pressures he was under from school with its continual assessment and from peers with their expectations was too much to bear.
A way out
Simon comes into another category. He was ashamed, embarrassed and humiliated by what he had done. To be confronted by this publicly would be too much to bear. He was easily able to confess to the police but facing the abused boys was a different story. If, like Simon, one is disgusted with oneself, maybe it would feel that the only way out is by a really horrific death, almost a self-inflicted execution. Susan is different again. The despair which she felt was an instantaneous response to a very difficult situation. She was obviously one of those who when confronted by huge difficulties, collapsed under them. Susan just wanted to get rid of her difficulties. Death in this situation was the best way out and it might just as well be a quick instantaneous one rather than one drawn out by chemotherapy.
Disturbance of mind
The elements that all four cases have in common is the loneliness and isolation of these people. They may well be part of a loving caring community and family but internally may feel worthless, guilty, unacceptable or just plain terrified. It is this which leads them to attempt taking their own lives, as the old coroner’s verdict used to say, while the balance of their mind was disturbed. A person’s disturbance of mind must be very great, as in order to kill oneself, one has to overcome the natural instinct of self-preservation. It is good that nowadays the stigma of suicide has disappeared. There is acknowledgement of the great mental distress and illness those who are driven to suicide are suffering. Those left in mourning are faced with the difficulty of resolving any anger which they may feel. They may be angry that the death happened at all. They may be angry with themselves because they feel they should have spotted what was happening and done something to prevent it. Sometimes this anger is the projected anger of the deceased. They want to make one to feel just like them.
I think of those who have taken their own life as a stone thrown into the middle of a pond. The ripples go out to all those in any way concerned with the pastoral care of those bereaved by suicide. Those hit by the first large waves are the immediate family and friends. They will be questioning themselves. They may well be angry as they seek to find out why the suicide happened and why they could do nothing to stop it. The next ripples affect the police and investigating authorities. For many people it will be a strange experience to be caught up with coroners and detectives. A family near my home spent many hours trying to find out where their son’s body had been taken after his suicide. Fortunately someone contacted a priest who knew the family and he could help them to sort things out. The smallest, but not the least important, are the ripples which reach the funeral director. A priest travelling back from the crematorium with the funeral director listened as he needed to talk about the horror of being called out to pick up body parts from the railway line. Finally there are the priests who have to minister to those families and may, years on, be still affected by the death.
These seemingly needless deaths affect anyone concerned. In my work with the police, other counsellors and therapists, and the clergy, I have been aware of the emotional cost of a suicide. For some suicide is a cry for help, for others a mark of desperation. For some it is a way out of a seemingly intractable situation. Whatever the reason, those left behind will have many questions. Large numbers of these will always remain unanswered. It is the legacy of a suicide. ND
This article is based on an address given at the Guild of All souls’ conference on ‘Pastoral care of Families Bereaved by suicide’ held at Walsingham in May 2015.