My mother died by suicide when I was twenty. Two years earlier, she told me my grandfather, her father, had hanged himself nine days after I was born. I realised over time my relationship with my mother whilst she was alive had been sandwiched between two suicides. Two generations of suicide, two generations bereaved by suicide. My earlier master’s research, which explored the lived experience of losing a mother to suicide (Stewart and Thomas 2018), left me with an intriguing and difficult-to-sit-with finding. That suicide appeared to run in families. Something intergenerational happening. Indigestible feelings passed on to the next generation(s), along with a big dose of suicide risk. How might we understand this? Herein lies the foundation of my PhD, which explores the intergenerational trauma of suicide in families. And when I arrived at the crucial (and rather exciting) stage of recruiting participants, I encountered a surprising and deafening silence to my advert, for several months, causing me to pause and wonder what might be getting enacted or played out here.
Let’s begin with some context for this conundrum. The literature already tells us of the prevalence of shame, stigma and silence around suicide. They make it difficult for us to talk about and process our grief after suicide. My research, clinical work with psychotherapy clients and personal experience of losing my mum to suicide speak to this. Shame and stigma can keep our experiences hidden in the shadows, unspoken, out of awareness. Silence prevails. Before we know it, this complex, traumatic experience has been reduced within families to a single ‘truth’, a public agreed story. Dissociated and matter-of-fact. Split off from the emotional devastation left behind, our deeper experience unavailable for processing. For example, in my family, Our mum died by suicide in 2002. Everything was fine before then and we’re all doing really well now. Our habitual narratives become well-rehearsed ‘thin descriptions’ such as this.
I’m pondering the silence in my recruitment process through the project’s theoretical lenses. Firstly, my research calls on intergenerational trauma theory in its assumption that people bereaved by suicide unconsciously carry unprocessed, unspoken traumatic material, passed down from previous generations. Passed on by those that took their own lives. Secondly, my research calls on poststructuralism in its assumption that language limits, fuels and shapes what’s possible for us to know (and even think) about intergenerational suicide. These thin descriptions have caused our families to lose their language around what has happened. With it, we’ve lost any narrative that might help us make sense of why subsequent generations are struggling with addiction, suicidal feelings, family dysfunction etc etc.
And so, this conundrum. Whilst three months of advertising for participants is now bearing fruit, something felt important in the ‘silence’, in the waiting. I would talk to friends and colleagues who would know of someone bereaved by suicide yet know of no further suicides in that person’s family history and would, therefore, automatically discount them as eligible for the study. More importantly, I noticed hesitation in their asking or talking about this study with suicide bereaved contacts for fear of upsetting them. Hello, stigma? My most surprising conversation was with someone I knew had been bereaved by suicide across at least two generations in their family and they didn’t register this. They didn’t realise they fitted the inclusion criteria for this project. That was really interesting. It wasn’t even available as a thought. That suicide ran in his family. I started to get a real sense of how deeply buried our intergenerational suicide bereavement experiences can become – shrouded in silence, out of awareness, and unavailable to think about and know. No wonder friends and colleagues didn’t always know about multiple family suicides in the lives of those they knew. The family itself may not even ‘know’.
It’s no surprise, then, that my call for participants seemed to initially fall on deaf ears. My advert was landing in a space taken up by silence, shame and stigma. Of course! The way we (don’t) talk about suicide as a society potentially reinforces this silence, shame and stigma, and paralyses change. The status quo continues – unprocessed trauma remains hidden within the unconscious, and behind the closed doors of families and therapist consulting rooms. My research seeks to explore the spaces in and around the stories we tell. Getting beyond the thin descriptions. Asking, how do families talk about suicide? How do they not talk about it? How do shame, stigma and silence show up? Crucially, I suspect that if we continue speaking the same language around suicide (bereavement), we are going to reproduce the same history, whilst unconscious material remains unprocessed and passed onto the next generation. With participants now emerging from within the silence, an exciting opportunity to challenge our well-rehearsed stories of suicide bereavement begins…
If you are interested in taking part or finding out more, please feel free to contact me by email at K.R.Stewartemail@example.com
Kelly Stewart, PhD Researcher at the University of Edinburgh
Stewart, Kelly and Val Thomas. 2020. “A Trainee Psychotherapist’s Heuristic Exploration of Losing a Mother to Suicide.” British Journal of Guidance & Counselling 48 (4), 552–562. DOI: 10.1080/03069885.2018.1519181
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