How to Talk About Suicide

In 2010 I traveled to Ireland to research suicides. The gap between the loveliness of the people and grimness of my topic was wider than the Atlantic. I had the world’s worst response to: “Welcome to Ireland! What brings you here?”

I’ve carried a lot of stories over the past twelve years I’ve been writing, but few have been as heavy as those stories from Ireland. They have been even heavier because the book never came into existence, and I’m not sure where you publish such stories. So for the first time, I’m sharing them on this blog and on the blog of the Facing Project.

I’m not an expert on suicides. I’ve never been personally touch by suicide. So one of the first things I did in Ireland was track down an expert, Tom, who you’ll meet in the piece below. Tom volunteers with a group that works to prevent suicides, Samaritans. Samaritans has a resource on how to report on suicides here.

The thing about writing about suicides is that reporting on suicides can lead to copycat suicides and ultimately suicide clusters. In the wake of Robin Williams’ tragic death by suicide, we need to talk about suicides, and we need to talk about suicides responsibly.

You can read about Michael and Rose who lost their son over at The Facing Project.

Trigger Warning: So if you are reading this and think maybe you shouldn’t, please stop.

“I was volunteering as a nurse at a prison and chatting with a man who tried to kill himself,” Tom says. “He was standing on a bridge waiting for a train to come and hit him. Right before the train got to him, he jumped. I asked him, ‘What was going through your head right as you jumped?’ I’ll never forget what he told me.” Tom leans in. “He said, ‘I was hoping to God I’d live.’”

Tom is the director of the Limerick branch of the Samaritans. The Samaritans are a group of trained volunteers that offer support for people when they are having suicidal thoughts or just need someone else to talk to when there is nowhere else to turn. There is something unusual about Tom: the way he talks and smiles and moves is happier than the real world. This is even more so when set against our morbid topic.

“Often people who hang themselves are found with scratch marks on their necks,” Tom says. He scratches at the imaginary noose around his neck. “At that last moment they are fighting to live.”

Tom and I are at a restaurant sitting in a long wooden booth, something that looks like it would be at a steakhouse in Texas.

“It used to be a crime to kill yourself,” Tom says. It wasn’t until 1993 that the legislature decriminalized suicide in Ireland.

How were the dead punished? They couldn’t be buried on church property. They couldn’t have a burial service. They were punished for eternity.

“Often the doctor wouldn’t say if it was a suicide or not,” Tom says. A lot of people “drowned” in rivers or died before their time of ‘natural causes.’ Now, when I talk with priests about doing services for someone who died by suicide, I tell them to use the word suicide.”

I’ve never heard anyone talk about suicide the way Tom talks about suicide.

When talking about answering the phones at Samaritans, he says, “I tell them to think about the worms eating into their brains…their flesh decomposing.” My mouth hangs open more than enough to let a few worms in. Here’s this witty, quick-talking Irishman with a small voice taking suicide head on.

One thing that really stands out is that Tom doesn’t ever say, “commit suicide.” The two words are almost married in everyday talk, in the newspapers, and on TV. “A criminal commits a crime. A murderer commits murder. A man who cheats on his wife commits adultery,” Tom says. “Suicide isn’t something you commit. It isn’t a crime. People choose suicide when they feel like they are a burden.” In this way maybe suicide is the ultimate act of love. You feel like your family would be better off without you so you make it so.

“How do you think the financial crisis relates to the increase in suicides?” I ask.

“We had a seventy-five percent increase in calls this Christmas,” Tom says. “Parents can’t buy presents for their kids. They explain that Santa can’t come this year, but Santa visits their neighbors.”

Limerick has been especially hit. A few blocks from the Samaritans’ office sit modern, shiny apartments, built to house some of the nearby Dell factory’s five thousand employees. The city, once known as “Stab City” for the amount of crime, had remade itself with the tech industry in the nineties. But Dell started to pull out in 2008 and now the apartments are mostly empty.

Not everyone believed the period of unprecedented growth in Ireland between 1995 and 2007, known as the Celtic Tiger, would continue.

In 2007 as the Celtic Tiger was showing signs of faltering, Ireland’s Prime Minister, Bertie Ahren, while discussing those predicting the economy’s collapse, said, “Sitting on the sideline or the fence, cribbing and moaning is a lost opportunity. In fact I don’t know how people who engage in that don’t commit suicide.” Now that the naysayers have been proven right, and the immortality of the Celtic Tiger has been proven wrong, many are doing exactly that.

The Irish Property council, a group made up of builders, has linked twenty nine suicides of their members to financial distress.

January 19th, 2009 – RIP Patrick ROCCA, 42, of Dublin

Patrick Rocca came from a successful family. The New York Times referred to him as a cub of the “Celtic Tiger.” In 2007 he was reportedly worth $647 million dollars. In his personal helicopter he took Bill Clinton on a tour of golf courses in Ireland. He once flew psychic, Uri Geller, over a World Cup qualifying match with Switzerland to send positive vibes to the Irish team.

The property and stock market collapses took much of his fortune with them. On a Monday, after a Sunday spent with family and friends, after his wife left to take their kids to school, Partrick, brother-in-law to singer Van Morrison, husband to Annette, father to sons Stuart and Patrick Jr., paced in his yard in his pajamas, put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger.

Some call the gunshot heard by his neighbors, “The Gunshot Heard Around the World” because it marked the death of the Celtic Tiger.

February 27, 2009 – RIP John O’DOLAN, 51, of Galway

John O’Dolan was one of the West Coast’s most successful builders. He believed the Celtic Tiger would continue, and bought the Island of Ireland in Dubai. The project, referred to as ‘The World’, was started in 2003. The islands were of such a scale that only satellites, astronauts, and gods looking down scratching their heads could see that they were placed to replicate the shapes of the continents. When the financial crisis hit, ‘The World’ collapsed.

Fourteen billion dollars later, only the island of Greenland has been developed. The other two hundred and ninety nine islands don’t have so much as a lone palm tree or shack on them. When The World collapsed it took down people with it. A pair of developers who bounced checks are in jail. Lawsuits nearly outnumber the island’s grains of sand. And John O’Dolan, husband to Eileen, father to daughters Fiona and Roisin and son Robert, went to an unused horse shed, tied a noose, stuck his head in it, and took his own life. He hung there until his father found him.

“John was a very strong character,” said Father Peter Finnerty, who knew John since he was nine. “He was the last person I would have thought that this would happen to. He had rung me the week before and he did say he was under terrible pressure in relation to business matters…He enjoyed what he had and he was a happy person. And if things were getting him down he would say ‘ah, sure it’s only money’ or ‘it’s only business’. He had that type of attitude. That’s why I believe that somewhere along the line he was put under a strain he couldn’t endure.”

“Many of you are saying … why did John do this? Why are we in this situation?” Father Finnerty said, presiding over John’s funeral. He didn’t shy away from how John died. He took it head on just like Tom would tell him to do. “John was under immense stress and strain that led to deep depression. And I think that John felt that he had let his friends down. That is my view, because he loved everybody and would never let anybody down.”

December 19, 2008 – RIP Jack MARRY, 64, of Meath

Jack Marry was a pig farmer, a very successful one. He retired in 2002, and after a lifetime of investing his money in living, breathing assets, put his money in the stock market. One morning, shortly after the market collapsed, Jack, husband to Rosemary and father to six children, placed a note on the kitchen table, walked upstairs to the bathroom, locked the door, put a shotgun against his head and pulled the trigger.

At his funeral, Father Joe Deegan said that Jack was a genius at solving problems.

Tom and I discuss these deaths and others that have made the headlines. In fact, one out of every ten calls the Samaritans receive now is recession-related. Suicides have become so common in the business community in Ireland that one businessman was reported to have texted another notifying him about a mutual acquaintance’s suicide and ended the text with, “It’s another financial.”

A financial crisis causes a loss of identity and introduces uncertainty. “It is especially demanding on men,” Tom says. “They lose their job and feel inferior. Some men have expressed concern about their wives selling themselves to make money. They think, ‘What if there is no other option and my wife has to sell herself and she doesn’t tell me?’ The crisis threatens morals. Robbery increases. I’ve talked with people who were afraid they would have to start stealing.”

It threatens our friendships. “It’s a change in culture. Before you had parties, you attended parties. You went on holidays with your friends. You went golfing with your buddies. You met them at the pub. Now you can’t do those things and you fall out of your social circle.”

It challenges our beliefs. “You had great faith and you prayed – prayed harder than you ever have before – but you get a negative outcome.”

But one thing is for sure, the person who kills himself doesn’t have to live with his actions.

You can read about Michael and Rose who lost their son over at The Facing Project.

Becky Vigus says:

Keep telling these stories. Those left behind deal with tremendous guilt. All wondering what they could have done, how they could have helped. These inner demons are horrible. I have fought depression in my past. I have always known when I needed to reach for help. Most of the time, I can keep the demons at bay. I know some who choose to give up that fight.

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Let your voice be heard!