A Special Scar: The Experiences of People Bereaved by Suicide

By Alison Wertheimer | Go to book overview

Chapter 1

Suicide: an introduction

The act of suicide, which represents both personal unhappiness and the implied belief that the victim's fellow-men are powerless to remedy his condition, can never be viewed with indifference.

(Carstairs 1973:7)

Suicides are a significant cause of early death, and are responsible each year for nearly half a million years of life lost in those aged 75 and under.

(Department of Health 1998)

The idea that a person chooses to die creates in us a profound sense of unease. Suicide challenges some of our most deeply held beliefs. It defies the cherished notion that all human life is sacred; it challenges the value of life itself, and places a question mark over the taboos against the taking of life. The suicide of another person forces us to question the value and meaning not only of life in general but of our own individual lives.

For many people, the contemplation of apparently self-chosen death hardly bears thinking about and yet, over the centuries, they have found it impossible to ignore the subject. There have been persistent attempts to categorise and compartmentalise suicide and, in doing so, perhaps we have been trying to make ourselves a bit more comfortable with it. Suicide has been examined from many angles. Lawyers, doctors, novelists, poets, philosophers and theologians have all contributed to the debate.

But the fruits of that continuing quest for understanding are not only to be found in the pages of legal, medical and philosophical journals. We have inherited a collection of images of suicide, and our reactions to the act of suicide do not occur in a vacuum. Historical images have helped to shape society's attitudes and psychological reactions towards those who take their own lives, and towards the survivors of suicide-family and friends who are bequeathed what is usually such a painful legacy.

Suicide is a complex and multi-faceted act shaped by many different factors. It is also replete with paradoxes. In most cases, suicide is a solitary

-3-

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