Sunday, May 3, 2009

Five Things: Language

I use it myself. "He killed himself." "She committed suicide."

There is an intentionality implied in the language we use that is, to my way of thinking, completely inaccurate, and makes a significant contribution to the anguish of surviving family and friends.

For weeks after our son died, one of my most oft-repeated questions was, "How could he do this? And its variations: "How could he do this to me? To us?"

It took me a long time to understand that he didn't.

A friend whose son also died by suicide at age 24 told me, over and over again, about the "tunnel vision" that immediately precedes such a death, in which the person who is, literally, a victim himself, loses sight of everything in his life except the need to eradicate the intense pain in which he is submerged.

Ron Rolheiser helps us to understand with
this:

". . . the propensity for suicide is, in most cases, an illness. We are made up of body and soul. Either can snap. We can die of cancer, high blood pressure, heart attacks, aneurysms. These are physical sicknesses. But we can suffer these as well in the soul. There are malignancies and aneurysms too of the heart, deadly wounds from which the soul cannot recover. In most cases, suicide, like any terminal illness, takes a person out of life against his or her will. The death is not freely chosen, but is an illness, far from an act of free will. In most instances, suicide is a desperate attempt to end unendurable pain, much like a man who throws himself through a window because his clothing is on fire. That's a tragedy, not an act of despair.

and with
this, from the author William Styron, who contemplated suicide but was saved by a last-minute sense of the pain he would inflict on his loved ones:

"The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain. . . . and for the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer. . . .

What I had begun to discover is that, mysteriously and in ways that are totally remote from normal experience, the gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain. But it is not an immediately identifiable pain, like that of a broken limb. It may be more accurate to say that despair, owing to some evil trick played upon the sick brain by the inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this caldron, because there is no escape from the smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion."

Most of us will never endure such pain, although I think that many left behind come close enough, at one point or another, to grasp something of its horrific depth and breadth and to understand that it can lead to a point in which the will, as we usually understand it, is overtaken in the same way that the body can be overwhelmed by cancer cells or physical trauma.

In the first weeks after our son's death, I likened it to his having been run over by a train. It seemed that sudden, that out of nowhere. As we have learned more, it appears that the train was a good deal slower, but just as inexorably powerful.

And so: I try to use the phrase "died by suicide." At the survivors support group I sometimes attend, the leader, a social worker who lost someone beloved to her by suicide, and many of the "old-timers," use the word as a verb: "He suicided." That sounds particularly ugly to me, although I can't articulate a reason. Maybe because it is the only instance in which I have heard the verb expressed. I've never heard patricide, or matricide, or deicide, used as a verb. I guess it implies, to me, anyway, an intentionality that I believe is absent from the act.

There is no, or little, at any rate, judgment addressed in this post to anyone who finds themselves struggling with the language. We struggle with the language because we struggle with comprehending the reality.

18 comments:

Katherine E. said...

Oh, GG, I can't tell you deeply helpful this post is. Thank you so much.

Katherine

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

Because of some past experiences that I don't need to go into, I believe what Rolheiser and Styron write about suicide being driven by the need to end the pain to be absolutely true. I'm glad you have a survivors' support group and that you have reached the understanding that your son's death was not directed at you or a form of willfulness on his part.

Often I think the traditional teachings of the church on suicide have done more harm than good. I think God is far more merciful than the traditional stance allows. I only wish our society would not put such a stigma on depression.

Cynthia said...

I am constantly amazed at your ability to understand and articulate the complicated thoughts and feelings around such a traumatic death.

mompriest said...

One of my seminary courses found us reading and discussing a paper written by Karl Barth...in it he discusses the kind of pain and suffering, the darkness that leads to that tunnel vision you describe. In this paper, which might take me some time to find, Barth wonders about the grace of God...and might God's grace be such that God calls to a person in such pain? God's calls to them and they respond by going to God, leaving behind the pain and suffering even though it means taking one's life - the very gift that God gave?

I realize this is no consolation to those of us who remain here. And it opens up all sorts of questions about God....but it also says something about the depth of God's compassion - that in these experiences that are tragic to us, there might also be a loving God who says to someone in pain...come home...come home to me...and I will hold you in my loving arms...and your pain will be no more...

Anyway...for what it's worth...

Gannet Girl said...

Whoa.

I hope you can find it for me, Mompriest.

Although at the moment it is making me feel extremely ill.

mompriest said...

....that's the way we all felt in class too...I'll look through my notebooks...

Daisy said...

Thank you for shedding some light, G.

Mich

David said...

WOW! Powerful grace amidst deep hurt pours from your writing, and the emerging wisdom and continuing strength is wholly evident. Thank you for giving this 'words'. I have lost friends who have 'suicided' and I don't care for that term either. My prayer is always that we never know despair so deep and dark that that is the only answer to be rid of it. I'm so sorry for your loss, but grateful for your witness. Peace.

Purple said...

The links you gave are so very good. I am copying them into my file. Pray that I never had need to use it.

(((GG)))

Sophia said...

I have never heard or thought of this linguistic distinction....Thank you for giving me one small way to better honor and support surviving loved ones of those who have died by suicide.

karengberger said...

All of this makes perfect sense, to me. The son of a friend of mine died by suicide during one summer of high school. There were no warning signs that I know of, either. How can we not view this kind of death with compassion? In the presence of such pain, what other response can there be? My heart goes out to you; may your heart be comforted, moment by moment.

Gal aka SuperMommy said...

Thinking of you as Mother's Day and the anniversaries approach. Know that you are held by those of us who have also lost, and by something so much bigger than all of us. Much love.

Mary said...

I'm not sure how I stumbled across your blog--perhaps you made a comment on someone else's blog that intrigued me. At any rate, you are eloquent in your pain and your ability to share that pain with me and your other readers. My heart goes out to you and your family in the loss of your son.

I know something about intense loss--I've been widowed for 2 years- but I've felt that losing a child would be the ultimate loss.

A few years ago, I received a phone call at work from my brother informing me that one of our sisters was hospitalized after attempting suicide. This was the second time but I had not known about her first attempt. Her pain was so incredibly great (and I think it might still be but she hides it well.) When her husband found her, she was angry: "I was not supposed to wake up!"

Depression runs in our family, and there is some chemical tie-in that psychotherapy can't overcome. My sister hadn't found the right medication that would work for her. When you're in that deep well of despair, you just want the pain to end. I don't think most people (unlike Styron) who die by suicide are able to envision the wounds that are inflicted on the loved ones left behind.

Thank you for opening up your heart and your soul.

Anonymous said...

You continue to be a big part of my support group. After 20 months it still seems as unreal as the morning I heard of my baby girl's death. Your words help.
April

Anonymous said...

You might consider my perspective--which is-- that suicidal thoughts are particularly incidious because they can present as the most rational and logical course to take. As I have moved away from suicidal thoughts, I have looked back in frozen fear at how sensible the thought of taking my own life once seemed.

Gannet Girl said...

April, I am so very sorry.

Maybe you will write about her sometime?

Gannet Girl said...

Anon, I have considered your thoughts, sadly, many times, as I have tried to come to terms with our new reality,and maybe I will incorporate a bit of that into the next post. I hope you will chime in.

I am amazed by how many people with so many perspectives have responded to this entry.

Anonymous said...

Would that I could put coherent thoughts on paper. It is not one of my fortes. When I try to write my thought processes desert me and I become a jumble of emotions that overwhelm me and I have to put the pen down and go for a walk to get back to what is now my real world.
Your blog and some that I have found through your links continue to be a refuge and I am blessed to be able to go to them for solace.
Again, thank you so much.
April