The stigma around suicide made my own experience of grief far more difficult
a personal essay by Dr Nandini Murali
Two years ago, my husband died of suicide.
Before this, I had not had any direct experience of suicide loss. I had only heard about other people going through this. Except for fleeting sympathy for the person who had passed, I had not experienced any other connection with them. I had never given a thought to the person’s family and friends who had been left in their wake, to grapple with their passing.
Until I was directly confronted with what I call the four ‘S’ — the stigma, shame, secrecy and silence that surrounds death by suicide — I did not understand exactly how damaging they could be.
Across the world, suicide is viewed through a rather moralistic lens, and as I have said elsewhere, dominant narratives surrounding it frame it as criminal or sinful. Media reportage is often insensitive, either glorifying or demonising the incident and the person at the centre of it, thus reinforcing the bias.
There are different causes of suicide — in India, because of social and economic inequalities and oppression, many people die by suicide. In many cases, suicide is also due to a convergence of factors. Trying to single out a cause is like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Suicidologists say that it is therefore pointless to blame the victim for having ‘chosen’ suicide and portraying it as a personal flaw. My husband was a brilliant urologist, and in his case, his depression was a risk factor when it came to suicide. It is in that context that I am sharing my story.
In the immediate aftermath of my husband’s death, I was overwhelmed by shame and guilt. I criticised myself harshly. For at least a year after, I would keep asking myself the same questions over and over again — could I have done something more? Why had I failed to anticipate what would happen, and why had I not taken preventive measures?
The stigma around suicide means that culturally, we heavily judge the act of suicide itself, and everyone affected by it, including the victim. I internalised this completely, and in addition to judging myself, I judged him too.
‘The question, “Why do we die?” has always been an unanswerable mystery; with suicide, the question reshapes into, “Why did my loved one choose to die?”’ writes Carla Fine, a suicide loss survivor, in Touched by Suicide. This is the question that most haunted me.
In addition, I experienced deep rage. I felt completely rejected. ‘Even my love was not enough for you!’ I screamed, as I pummelled pillows in frustration. Now I know that had he died of natural causes, I would still have been angry. Anger is supposed to be the second stage of grief. I would have been angry at fate, angry at my life having been disrupted. But it would have been unalloyed anger, devoid of the toxic emotions of guilt, self-blame and self-reproach.
These emotions lead survivors of suicide loss to be acutely ashamed of it all — the act, the victim, ourselves. This is why so many people keep the cause of death a secret. In the immediate aftermath of my husband’s death, I thought about lying about how he had died, but I quickly realised that I did not want to do this.
This meant I had to face the full force of judgment that comes with telling the truth about suicide. Instead of simply offering their condolences, people questioned me about why I didn’t prevent his death. One person even suggested that he would not have died had I not been travelling at the time. The complete absence of empathy was intensely painful for me, like I was undergoing surgery without anaesthesia.
This seems to be an experience that survivors of suicide loss have to endure across cultures, especially if they happen to also be women. Two friends of mine who both lost children to suicide told me people had blamed them. They had to endure this in addition to the self-blame they were already acutely experiencing.
I was intimately aware of this self-blame. I constantly wondered if I should have acted on my impulse to ring up my husband on the night he decided to end his life. However, there was nothing specific I had to share and since I would be meeting him in the morning, I had not called. Would my calling have tethered him to life?
That night, around the presumed time he must have died, I experienced a great sense of unease and discomfort. Even months after the incident, I kept replaying and rehashing his last moments in a desperate attempt to make sense of them. Should I have listened to my inner voice when I sensed that there was something unusual in the ‘parting’ gift that he gave me? Should I have done this… or that…
I indulged in this self-flagellation despite the fact that I had done everything a human could possibly do for him. However, the reality of suicide — the shock and the traumatic impact — leaves survivors of suicide loss gasping like fish out of water.
I glimpsed a nebulous roadmap with which to navigate what author and grief psychotherapist Alan Wolfelt describes as the “wilderness of suicide grief.” It would be a lonely, desolate journey. Although I had no strategic plan, I felt compelled to act.
I wanted to change the narratives of suicide from blame and judgment to compassion and empathy, and to create safe supportive spaces for conversations on suicide. But for that to happen, I had to slowly and painfully unlearn my own internalised stigma.
I have never regretted that decision to own my truth; to tell my story as it is, for the cause of suicide prevention.
April 27, 2017. That was the day I lost my precious partner. The day the sun plunged into darkness. The day that began my journey of loss. The day that marked my transition from the known into the unknown. The day my life changed forever.
On April 27, 2018, the first anniversary of my husband’s death, I launched SPEAK, an initiative to change conversations on suicide and promote mental health.
Dr Nandini Murali is a gender and diversity and communications professional. A suicide prevention activist, she set up SPEAK (www.speakinitiative.org), an initiative of MS Chellamuthu Trust and Research Foundation, Madurai, to change conversations on suicide and promote mental health.
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