Two high-profile suicides in a week have left many of us rattled. I know nothing of fashion and hadn’t heard of Kate Spade. I was scarcely aware of Anthony Bourdain, despite enjoying cookery shows. But I’ve been shocked to find myself compulsively reading about their close relationships.
A suicide in the family (and I am not including deliberated euthanasia by the terminally ill) inflicts a lasting community wound. My maternal grandmother committed suicide when I was three and a half. I do not believe that my mother, who died a natural death in 2016, ever recovered.
I starkly remember the day the news arrived, my mother’s howls, and how much I missed her when she disappeared to Scotland for what seemed an eternity. But most of all I remember her saying, when I was older, how bitterly she regretted giving me her mother’s name, even though one motive had been to try to alleviate Edith Henderson’s depression.
The ancient Greeks had the concept of an inherited curse to help them understand how suicide and other violence runs in families. I am sure Antigone found it easier to put that noose round her neck because her mother Jocasta had done so before her. Suicide seems a more feasible option where there are precedents close to home. My grandmother had previously lost several relations to suicide.
I have experienced three periods of acute depression myself. One was post-natal and the symptoms were not self-destructive. But I did consider suicide during two depressions as a young woman, before I'd identified my life’s project and when I still believed, partly because of my own tense relationship with my mother, that I was psychologically incapable of good-enough parenting.
Allowing myself to have a child required seven years of therapy, Aristotelian Ethics and a tolerant boyfriend. I feel desperately sorry for everyone who suffers from depression. It’s just that I feel even sorrier for those they leave behind.
Aristotle disapproved of suicide because we are all part of communities and the violent death of a member of any group, whether by suicide or murder, is in a sense an assault on the other members. He can’t have fully understood the torment that depression can inflict. The pain can be as bad as physical agony and the need to escape it just as urgent.
But I do think that the survivors of suicide by loved ones need far more support than in my experience they are offered. Otherwise the repercussions may be felt across the generations. In the UK there is an admirable organisation Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide. It is just as important that we spread this information as it is to help people in suicidal crisis.