‘Feeling suicidal is a frightening place; one which we may be too scared to talk about’
If we ask about this wish for death and really listen, talk of life can also emerge, says Amy Moriarty
When words and feelings are unexpressed, they can fester and poison something in us
I never thought I would attend a funeral without knowing something as meaningful as how the person died. I only found out afterwards over a cup of coffee in a near-church cafe.
I have something to tell you he said gently, trying to prepare me. But no gentleness could stop the shock wave shaking my already rattled body, this new layer of information flattening me. My mind immediately began scanning backwards, finding different meaning in each previous moment, noticing silence that reached back, even before their death. The secrecy and confusion fuelling frustrated questions: what is real and what is truth? Why is it hidden? How do I make sense of any of this?
I remember the work call; the word suicide a stab in my chest and the private tears afterwards. And I remember the personal call; the muddled words, the uncontrollable sobs, the disbelief. Then my body numbing and my heart pounding. Each time thoughts and questions pressing against my skull, crushing hope: What did we miss? Why was nothing enough? Was there something in those last words?
And then there was the evening when I was told that my own father had tried to leave us many years before, but had not succeeded.
I remember the jolt, waking up the part of me that somehow had always known. Then a moment of betrayal, how could he think of leaving me? Whispers of relief, thank god he made it; what would life have been without him in it? Then bewilderment, and a private inquest, why did no one tell me and why does no one talk about it?
A fright that reminds me that we are all connected
I also never thought there would be a time when we would be the ones to reluctantly choose silence. But how do you tell someone with Alzheimer’s, whose memory is disappearing, about the suicide of a loved one? How do you tell them something so painful, when they won’t remember the explanation; instead, only a cycle of telling, upsetting, forgetting and retelling.
And there’s been other times, for people more distant. And somehow, when the word suicide lands, that first fright seems no different. A fright that reminds me that we are all connected; our interdependence is the glue of this web, and when one thread is pulled, something is unravelled.
When I examine these memories and moments I see recurring secrecy and silences. Feeling suicidal is a frightening place; one which we may be too scared to talk about. A place where fear, shame and stigma may have us in their grip. But when something is silenced, something else may be sacrificed. When words and feelings are unexpressed, they can fester and poison something in us. In these places, death may seem like a way out. But often, the only way back in, is to talk about it.
Sometimes, it is these places which we are too scared to ask a person about. There may be a fear that we could make it worse; or not have the right response. We might be afraid of the answer; if we ask, and there is talk of choosing death, it can terrify us; a fear we cannot manage, which cannot be rationalised. This fear may overwhelm families and friends, who in turn plead with professionals, everyone anxiously searching for answers. Everyone wants to stop it, and no one wants to be responsible for it. Everyone feels powerless because no one has an answer. Yet, as we fumble in the unknown, something can get missed. We may have forgotten to explore with curiosity, this place of darkness. If we ask about this wish for death and really listen, talk of life can also emerge.
Sometimes there is silence after suicide.
We may wonder what more could have been done, without even knowing what more means.
When shame and stigma tell us not to talk about it. When we’d rather not be honest about the horror of it. Even more than any death, we may struggle to acknowledge it. The person who has died remains in an eternal silence. And the people left behind grapple, with internal noise and different silences.
My memories remind me of the internal chaos after suicide. The questions that circle and repeat; they can echo louder and longer than after any other death. These questions leave us no quietness, as we scramble to make meaning. We ask ourselves about the help that wasn’t sought or didn’t work. We wonder what was missed, was there something that could have prevented it. We may wonder what more could have been done, without even knowing what more means. And we may live with a gut-wrenching thought that we could have changed it.
These questions fill our grief with so many conflicting emotions that are difficult to unravel: sadness, anger, guilt, blame, betrayal, desperation and fear. Anger may turn to rage, with the person who has gone, or the people who are left. And this anger may also be silenced, when we drown it with guilt for feeling it. After suicide, we may be left with a deep sense of powerlessness, forcing us to confront the cruel truth: that we cannot make someone stay, no matter how much we want it. That we can offer them a hand, but we cannot make them take it.
And in these pandemic times, this is an even more complicated grief, parts of which feel silenced. A suicide now is surrounded by distance and disconnect; our nervous systems dangling; un-hugged and uncomforted. Our group mourning fragmented. Our need to share and hold and tell, disrupted
Yet, I still derive hope from the resilience I have witnessed. As a psychologist, I have seen how the human spirit can overcome the greatest of traumas, especially with the knowledge that nothing is static, that there is nothing that can’t be talked about, and no feeling that isn’t welcome.
– Pieta House, 1800 247 247, text HELP to 51444.
– Samaritans, 116 123, firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Suicide Or Survive, 1890 577 577, email@example.com.
– Aware, 1800 80 48 48, firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Childline, 1800 666 666, text 5101.
– HSE Drugs and Alcohol helpline, 1800 459 459, email@example.com.
– Traveller Counselling Service, (01) 868 5761, 086 308 1476, firstname.lastname@example.org.
– HSE Crisis Text Service, Text 50808.
– St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, (01) 249 3333, email@example.com.
– Alone, 0818 222 024, firstname.lastname@example.org