Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out:
So where there is no talebearer, there the strife ceaseth.
— Proverbs 26:20
I have some things to say about how we can make communities safer from suicide, and about how we can take better care of people who are suffering grief and loss. I want to talk about what happens when we share images of how a person died by suicide, and about the effect it has on survivors of suicide loss.
But suicide is such an emotionally-charged issue that the underlying factors can be hard to see. So I’d like to start by telling you a story about a different kind of loss—and then we’ll come back to talking about pictures of suicide death.
A parable of loss
When I was in middle school, I had a friend who was killed in a road accident. As I recall, he was out riding his bike one day, wearing a helmet, doing everything right, but a big tractor trailer came by, didn’t see him, and killed him.
I remember getting the news and being shocked and pretty scared: I spent a lot of time riding my bike, too, and I became painfully aware that luck was the only thing that had protected me. I had been lucky, and he had not. I didn’t ride my bike for a while because I was too afraid of trucks on the road, and when I did eventually get back in the saddle, I was pretty nervous.
Time went by, and eventually his death started to fade. I got back to feeling confident on my bike around town, and my friends and I started riding in groups again. But I noticed, after a while, that some of my friends would always lead us away from the spot where our friend was killed. That if we were on that street, they would always head off in a different direction. That, basically, something about the street where he died was still excruciating to them, months and years later.
I’m sorry to say that I didn’t think about it a whole lot more. I paid attention to other things and moved on, as people do. We grew older, made it to high school, got drivers’ licenses and access to cars and the freedom to drive around.
And I noticed that some of the same people still wouldn’t drive past that intersection. It just hurt too much.
Reminders of death
When you’ve lost someone you care about, reminders are everywhere. Every Episcopal church reminds me of my grandpa George, who was an Episcopal rector. Every tune Gordon Duncan wrote reminds me, a little bit, of how sad I am that he killed himself and that, seemingly, none of us could do enough to help him stay alive.
Often these reminders of death are pretty painful at first. I believe that it’s part of the grieving process to engage with them and find ways to make peace with the fact that a person we loved is gone. But whether you’ve made peace or not, the reminders are still there, and the grief response to seeing one can be immediate, overpowering, and totally involuntary. (You might find the Grief Closet to be a useful metaphor here).
So people develop coping mechanisms. I stayed off my bike for a while because I was scared of ending up like my friend. Eventually I made it through that fear and managed to get back onto my bike, even though I was watching like a hawk for any trucks nearby. My friends found it too painful to use the intersection where he died, so they didn’t go there. They planned routes that didn’t take us past it.
And once the rest of us understood that that’s what was happening, we didn’t try to force it. We picked alternate routes too. We did our best not to throw the painful thing in their faces, because we knew they were hurting.
Talking about suicide death
I’ve written a lot about Robin Williams’s death and how we should talk about it this week. I want to help people see that there’s no magic in suicide intervention and prevention—most of it is common sense—and to encourage the idea that suicide prevention is a mission in which everyone can play a role. We are strongest when everyone pitches in.
Once people understand the reasons for guidelines, they often don’t need to memorize the specific rules anymore. That’s why I started this article with a story that isn’t about suicide: because most of us already understand what happened, and we get why and how our community quietly worked to protect the people who were still hurting.
My friend’s death in the truck accident was a traumatic loss for our community. Most people here were affected in some way. Early on, pretty much everyone had a hard time with that intersection, and most of us were shaken and scared. Some of us processed that quickly, although fears of being hit by trucks were common for a while. But others took much longer to return to “normal” after the accident, and some people still can’t drive through that intersection without thinking about what happened there.
This is exactly the same as what happens when someone dies by suicide. For a while, everyone is shaken. Most people begin finding coping mechanisms that work for them, and fairly quickly, most of the population starts moving on. This is good.
But there are still some people in the community who are really hurting. For them, any mention of the person’s death brings them straight back into the worst of their own pain. Images are particularly hard; what has been seen cannot be unseen. These survivors of suicide loss have a longer road to walk before they can make peace with the person’s death, and we make it harder by showing them pictures of deaths.
Pictures and videos of suicide death
There’s a video going around that purports to be a surreptitious view of Robin Williams’s body after he died. I’m not going to link to it, but I’m sure you can find it if you must. People have been posting pictures on Facebook and Twitter that are, allegedly, pictures of his body depicting how he died.
In the aftermath of a suicide death, people often want to talk about the “how” of the death. Maybe it’s because talking about how the person died feels easier than wrestling with why the person died. We have a difficult cultural view of death, and that can often lead to morbid fascination with the mechanics of an ending life.
It’s not my intention to ask you to stop having those conversations.
But please, as you talk about suicide deaths, be aware that you are surrounded by people for whom these images are profoundly painful. Remember that, when you talk about Robin Williams’s death, some of your listeners will also hear the story of how their son, or husband, or mother, or sister, or friend died.
Most of the time you won’t be told that this is happening; people tend to keep their grief on the inside, especially when dealing with traumatic deaths like suicides. People mostly won’t say “hey, my uncle died by suicide; could we talk about something else?”. But there’s a lot of research and a whole boatload of anecdotes suggesting that how we talk about suicide has a big effect on how survivors of suicide loss can heal.
If you think about it, social media has the power to really hurt vulnerable people. Before social media came along, when my friends couldn’t bear the thought of driving through the intersection where our friend died, they had the ability to take another route and, in doing so, control their exposure to the trigger. They could make sure it didn’t bite them out of nowhere.
But with social media, you can’t control what shows up in your news feed. You can’t protect yourself against those triggers because you have no way to know when they’re coming.
The saddest part is that, because of this uncontrollable flow of trigger images in social media, people who are grieving a suicide loss often feel that they have to isolate themselves, for self-protection, when they most need to reach out for support.
The same is true for people who sometimes think of killing themselves. Talking about how a person killed himself isn’t really helpful to anyone, and for vulnerable people the research suggests it can push them to think more concretely about killing themselves. Being flooded with images of death is really dangerous for people who are considering suicide.
What to do instead
I’d love it if you would skip forwarding the videos. Don’t tweet that picture from the Coroner’s office. Don’t share the article in which an unnamed official tells the gory details about what really happened. Choose not to speculate about the method. Don’t be a talebearer, and choose not to put wood on the fire; help the fire to go out and the strife to cease.
Let’s stop focusing on how people died, and talk about why they died instead. Let’s start a real discussion about depression and mental illness, and then let’s put some time and money into providing meaningful care for people who want it. Let’s talk about how to help the people who’ll have thoughts of suicide tomorrow instead of focusing on how someone died last week.
If you want to forward something or share it on Facebook, share the article you’re reading right now. Or this one.
Suicide has been a taboo subject for too long. We need to talk about it, but we need to do so in a way that’s respectful and that avoids triggering the many people in our communities who struggle with their own thoughts of suicide or who’ve lost loved ones to suicide.
Remember, we are surrounded by people who are vulnerable, for whom images of suicide are horrible reminders of a loved one’s death. For others, videos of a dead person’s body trigger their own thoughts of suicide. So let’s keep the pictures off of Facebook and Twitter, and let’s make the conversation more about how we can prevent harm in future. These people are all surviving, but they can only do that if we leave their coping skills intact.
They can’t control what shows up on their social media. But, together, we can. Let’s do it.
If you need to talk to someone about your own thoughts of suicide, please do. Anywhere in the USA, you can call 1-800-273-TALK and get the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Many other countries have similar programs. Please call.
I suppose it goes without saying that most of this also applies to the videos of James Foley being beheaded by ISIS militants. Jim Foley’s beheading isn’t something people need to see. Let’s choose to keep that off Facebook, too. People who want to see it will go looking, but let’s not forcibly expose everyone else, eh?