Don’t Fear The Reaper—Facing up to Death and Suicide

Don’t Fear The Reaper—Facing up to Death and Suicide

Even with all the magical technology we take for granted, there is one thing that our ancestors lived with and knew well that we are much less familiar with today: death.

I have reached the mid-point of my fifth decade, living and travelling in a world of some 7 billion humans, yet having only ever seen one dead person. That seems wrong: why does our society have such a fear of death and dying?

In many ways it’s a greater taboo than sex: we educate our young about sex so that–we hope–they will understand it and be prepared to make informed choices. But death touches all our lives too: why do we not prepare them to deal with that as well?

Like many people my age I have lost members of my family. No grandparents remain alive, nor do my parents. But their deaths occurred in hospitals or hospices, behind closed doors. Not among their family members. And when it came time to bury or cremate them there was only a wooden box in loco corporis.

People talk about saying goodbye, but it’s very hard to see the one you’ve lost through the coffin walls. I don’t think this avoidance makes it easier or less painful. Rather, I believe that hiding the body from sight only feeds our fear of death. Why hide it away unless it’s too terrible to look upon?

The dead person I saw was my step-son. Because of delays with a Coroner’s inquest it was weeks after his death, and his body bore the marks of autopsy: the coarse stitches closing the Y-shaped incision just visible at the top of his chest beneath the sheet. His eyes closed but deeply sunken as the tissues beneath had deteriorated.

It was not a terrifying sight, but a sad one. What I saw remains with me but doesn’t haunt me. Because it’s something we so rarely witness in the modern age, it was a fascinating, unique experience that nothing in my life before that had really prepared me for.

It helped me. It was a rare glimpse into what happens after we die. One of life’s certainties is that it comes to an end, and yet we avert our gaze, silence the words, pretend that ignoring it might make it go away.

What happens when we won’t talk about death? We refuse to hear or see those who seek it.

My own death comes to mind fairly often: I have made suicide attempts in the past and the thoughts–but not the urges so much–cross my mind regularly. One big problem with the denial surrounding death is that it’s very difficult to talk about suicide and suicidal ideation without people reacting with horror and distaste, refusing to engage.

A lot of people when confronted with someone suicidal have no idea how to respond, and they panic. It’s all, “You mustn’t do that!”, “Stop right now!”, “Don’t be silly!” They try to take the means away from you: hide the knives, flush away the pills. They might insist that suicide is wrong or even sinful. They might utter meaningless platitudes about things getting better.

They might dismiss your pain and distress, gaslight you by saying that you’re imagining it or that what you feel isn’t as intense as you think. They try to tell you that you have things to live for. None of it reaches you through the pain.

They won’t confront the central fact that when you are in pain, you want a way out. A way to stop it. That’s the very real attraction of suicide: no more pain. And no consequences for you: you’re not around for the fall-out.

Because there is fall-out. Most of us have people in our lives. They might be loved ones or family, they might be friends we interact with in person or online. It might just be a carer, nurse or doctor we see now and again who knows our name and face.

The biggest effects of a death are on the living, the ones left behind. They are the ones who have to deal with the pain of loss. And for me that is a reason not to die. I might not always have felt I had something to live for, but that slim reason not to die is enough for me not to kill myself.

I’ve been lucky and things in my life improved. I no longer feel that pain. But for some life doesn’t get better, and the pain doesn’t go away. Not without help.

Don’t turn away because you can’t face the thought of death. Being there when somebody is suicidal means confronting death, looking at it head on. You can’t ignore it, pretend it’s not there, not real. Don’t fear it: death is always there around us. We simply choose not to acknowledge it most of the time. Until we have no choice.

If you care about saving lives, make sure that help and support exists. It might be acceptance, it might be standing and fighting against prejudice and abuse. It might be making sure shelters and safe spaces exist. It might be making sure people have a decent life.

We need to treat our fellow humans with respect, dignity, and provide for their needs. There is no excuse for anybody going without food, shelter, or medical care.

We need to stop fearing and running from death. Death is not the enemy. Death is simply the end of life. The enemy is whatever makes life seem unbearable, and in most cases that is down to our fellow humans and their prejudices.

People who are not accepted for who they are–whether it’s because they’re neurodivergent, transgender, or something else–are far more likely to contemplate and attempt suicide. Being hated, feared and persecuted hurts. Acceptance helps to counter that pain.

Acceptance saves lives.

3 thoughts on “Don’t Fear The Reaper—Facing up to Death and Suicide

  1. Very well said, Alex. I’ve seen more dead people than you, but the point still stands: we hide (from) death. And that makes it almost impossible to talk about. I’ve been dealing with suicidal thoughts for a while now, and the main reason why I don’t talk about it with people close to me is the panic reaction. Sometimes I just want to acknowledge that I feel this way, you know? Get it out in the open. But I really can’t deal with “please don’t do it, you’ve got so much to live for!” platitudes. It would be so much nicer if someone would just say, “I hear you.”

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Ine. There are so many myths about suicide that persist because it’s so rarely discussed, such as a belief that talking about it will encourage it. That alone is enough for many to shut down any attempt at dialogue or education.

      I’ve talked about suicide attempts with people a number of times. Mine and theirs. With people who were seriously thinking about killing themselves and weighing up the pros and cons of different methods.

      While I don’t want the person to die, I don’t try to coerce or even persuade them either way. I listen, I try to answer anything they ask as honestly as I can. Sometimes, as you indicate, somebody needs to be heard and validated. Not judged. Never judged.

      I hear you, and I’m here if you want to someone to listen to you.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s a difficult topic. Many years ago, one of my brother’s friends had another family member that attempted suicide. That individual was placed in a psychiatric facility and since I was working in another psychiatric hospital’s medical records department, my brother called me up in tears, demanding to know what “could be done”. Explaining to him that the clinician would be handling the case just made him angrier. A few days later, the individual filed a court appeal for discharge and the judge rule in the patient’s favor. Two days later, that individual took his life by driving his vehicle into a bridge abutment. Well, if I foolishly thought my brother was angry the first time we spoke, it was nothing compared to the second phone call I got. Following that, we didn’t speak for more than two months.

    I realize my brother’s anger was actually directed at the deceased, but even decades later, I still cringe when I remember that call. I didn’t even know the decease or the family involved. Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, there is nothing I could have said or done that would have blunted his anger — and it all spilled out on me. I apparently was the “safe” one. However, it left a major, permanent scar on our relationship. Subsequently, whenever there was a death in our family, I’d end up being his verbal punching bag. That created a rift and estrangement that widened even more with the death of our parents until we now are more acquaintances rather than family.

    So this is all a way to say that listening comes at a cost.

    Liked by 2 people

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