Trying not to talk about suicide

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The Independent Culture
I DIDN'T know, when I picked up the telephone and heard the croaky, tearful voice of my girlfriend's aunt, quite how depressed she was, and I hadn't been prurient enough to pick through the details of her recent brush with suicide; like many minor suicide attempts, it had generated a kind of negative publicity, had turned into a non-talking point. So when I said: 'You'd better do something about her, or she really will kill herself,' I immediately thought: I've said the wrong thing; the wrong thing if my warning turns out to be wrong - but also, strangely, the wrong thing if it's . . . not wrong. But the woman's voice - it sounded terrible.

And I didn't think that, when we arranged to visit the aunt a few days later, it would make any difference if we telephoned in advance; it didn't occur to me that things would have been a bit different, and might have been completely different, if we had. Because, where suicide is concerned, thinking of the act as a definite, concrete possibility becomes a kind of blasphemy, especially when it is a concrete possibility; taking suicide seriously insults the potential victim, turns a person into something else - a prospective killer. And it also bestows on you a kind of unattractive self-importance. You don't want people to think you think you know better.

So we didn't telephone and, because of a last minute detour, we didn't visit my girlfriend's aunt on that day in August, and we didn't talk about any guilt we might have had about not making the visit, because we couldn't quite accept that there was anything to be guilty about, that guilt was a reasonable response. Taking a detour, driving in a new direction, we entered a new phase of tacit unworry about my girlfriend's aunt; at one point, she had been someone we were visiting because we were worried about her, and then, quite suddenly, she became someone we were not visiting, because there was really no need to worry, no need to be hysterical.

And when, three days later, sitting in a hotel, looking at a pint of bitter and a gin and tonic, my girlfriend came back into the bar, completely transformed by some incredible force, unable to speak or walk properly, I was still unwilling to think: it's her aunt, she really has done it. In that moment when I knew something terrible, something inexpressibly bad had happened, I found myself bargaining for lower stakes. I thought: please let it not be the cat, please not the cat. I wouldn't allow my scale of what was thinkable to go any higher than that.

'It's, she's . . .'

'What? What?'

'Killed her . . . killed her . . .self . . .'

And when, an hour later, after the disbelief had begun to subside, after its hard edges had started to wear away, I asked: 'How did she do it?' and received the reply: 'I . . . don't know,' I felt a frisson of horror. I'd been on the outer fringes of suicides before, I'd been part of the strange culture of talking about it and not talking about it, trying to find something, anything, good or positive to say. People talked about the pills, how peaceful a death it was; death from an overdose is related to the kind of death that we picture when we want to make ourselves feel less bad about death; it looks like an extension of sleep, rather than the result of violence. Also, if you die of a pill overdose, you've left a door open; perhaps you didn't want to kill yourself, but just to worry people into thinking that you did. With a pill-suicide, the mourner can allow himself a chink of light.

But there was none of that. So I knew . . . something. And I thought of the 10 or 15 people, the immediate relatives, who would at this moment be caught in the teeth of an emotional tornado, and of the 20 or 30 people, like me, whose lives would be, for a while, completely turned over; we'd be starting temporary careers as carers, supporters, choosers of funeral clothes, brokers of sensitive pieces of information. When somebody kills themselves, you wonder: was life so terrible that they wanted it to end? Or: did they find communication with others so difficult that life was a price worth paying in order to communicate? Because when you kill yourself, one of the things you are doing is communicating. You certainly do get through to people. But what, exactly, are you telling them?

As the bits of information filter through, it's difficult to know quite what to do with them, hard to give them a definite, rounded meaning which is fitting, appropriate, dignified. But you try. At first, knowing only the bare fact of suicide, each subsequent scrap of information arrives, and is treated as if it were hope itself, or death itself. The body was found in these circumstances, by this person; it had been there this length of time. She hanged herself; does this mean anything? Of course it does. But what? That she wanted to be sure. That she wanted people to know she wanted to be sure. Is this correct?

Later, these same details become a grey, negotiable area and, after many discussions, the whole scenario has subtly changed; images, for instance, of falling, of rope, of pain, gradually get replaced by gentler, easier ones: swiftness, painlessness. Horror turns into peace. Just as, when a suicide is pending, or threatened, we fight our understanding of this fact; when it has happened, when someone has killed themselves, we have a similar response. In a way, understanding is the last thing we want to be burdened with.

So when, on that hot August afternoon, as I was putting the last couple of bits of luggage into the car, a friend unexpectedly telephoned me and invited me to make a detour, I didn't say: no, I'm visiting someone who might be suicidal. I said: yes] I put the telephone down, and got into the car, and told my girlfriend about the new plan, trying not to understand my darker suspicions, trying instead to look at the scenery. The sun was shining. And there was a point when, on a dual carriageway in Sussex, my detour began; I turned left, and drove in a different direction.