Changes to Suicide Language

I have something I want to say about this issue, but I’ll let you read the article first. My comments can be found afterwards.

The Board of Directors of Compassionate Friends, a nationwide, self-help support organization for families who have experienced the death by suicide, encouraged by members and staff, have officially adopted the terms “died by suicide” or “died of suicide” to replace the commonly used “committed suicide ” or “completed suicide.”

Currently all TCF publications and presentations are being updated to reflect the new language.

“Committed suicide,” with its implications of criminality, is a carryover from the Middle Ages, when civil authorities, finding the victim beyond their reach, punished the survivors by confiscating their property,” says Diana Cunningham, executive director of The Compassionate Friends. “Victims were forbidden traditional funerals and burials, and suicide was considered both illegal and sinful by the laws and religions of the time.

“Completed suicide” implies earlier suicide attempts when there may have been none.

“Both expressions perpetuate a stigma that is neither accurate nor relevant to today’s society,” says Cunningham. “We now know that many suicides are the result of brain disorders or biochemical illnesses such as clinical depression. But the stigma associated with suicide often forces family members to choose between secrecy about the death and social isolation. Their hesitancy to seek the support of the community increases their pain and makes their healing more difficult. Families who have had a child die by suicide are helped in their grief by the use of non-judgmental language.

The Compassionate Friends calls on all network and print media to follow their lead by adopting the new language in reporting deaths by suicide.

I don’t know if you noticed, but I changed the way I refer to suicide some time ago. Every time I said that Barry “committed suicide” I felt like I was accusing him of something sinful and this had a negative impact on my healing.

Some people will argue that Barry did commit a crime, so the terminology is correct. I say that Barry chose to die by suicide, and that was his decision to make. Although I believe he made the wrong choice, I respect his wishes and will never condemn him for what he did. And that includes the way I refer to suicide.

Please take a moment to reflect on how these words would sound to you, how they would cut you to the core, if you lost a child to suicide. Now would you prefer to hear “committed suicide” or “died by suicide”?

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7 thoughts on “Changes to Suicide Language

  1. Twelve years ago when Jim died I sought counseling, and I heard the term ‘suicided’ frequently. (Ex: “Mary suicided twenty years ago.”) I had never heard it before. I’m not sure if I heard it by the counselor or at the support group, but I have not heard it since that time. Is that an accepted term?

  2. This is a very thought-provoking post.

    I think I have said “committed suicide” without really thinking about it.

    I think I have also said “suffered suicide”. But, I suppose, thinking about it, that that would imply that the person who died by suicide was passive – that the suicide happened to them outside of their influence. And from what you say about Barry, you believe it was his choice to make and from that I surmise that you don’t believe he was passive.

    I would like to know how you feel about the term victim as in “suicide victim” or “victim of suicide”?

    I daresay that each person who has suicide in their lives would react differently to each term.

    Thank you for this post

  3. I have a good friend who died a few years ago, having thrown himself off the top of a building — drugs, depression, bi-polar disorder, frustration with his sexuality. I will easily say “committed suicide” because it’s such an oft used term, but whenever talk turns to my friend I usually say “ended his life”.

  4. I did read the replies to this post several days ago, but needed time to think about what had been said.

    Terms don’t usually affect us until we’ve been affected by the situation in question. Seven or eight months ago, I never gave the words “committed suicide” a thought. I would use the words without thinking they might be offensive or painful to hear to someone else. I used them without any intention of hurting anyone. But now, I’ve suffered a loss and my awareness has changed. I don’t like hearing those words now, but I don’t blame anyone of doing anything wrong if they use them. Why should these people be any more aware than I was eight months ago? I accept this fact and push my own issues aside, because they are MY issues. No one else’s.

    Saying “suicided” is a term that I find to be correct. Barry suicided on 18th May 2006. It’s a cold fact, there’s no point beating around the bush about it. I accept this term easily.

    “Suffered” is a little different, because it implies the person suffered from something. In most cases, they probably did, but the parent or brother/sister or grandparents or close friend doesn’t really want to be reminded of this. In a way, it brings back the pain. “Barry suffered suicide” isn’t a term I would use mainly because it sounds strange to me, but that’s a personal thing.

    “Suicide victim” is the term that I really needed to think about. It leaves me wondering who the real victim in all this is – Barry or me (and my family)? In my family’s case, I feel that we are the victims, because we have been dealt a blow that we didn’t want, whereas Barry knew what he was doing. It was his choice. I know that some families will disagree with this statement. Their own experience might be completely different to ours, but Barry wasn’t suffering deep depression, he didn’t have bipolar or any other mental issue. There were no sexuality problems or any other huge problems. He wasn’t an addict of any kind. Yes, he was depressed, but we all get depressed at some time. Sure, he was scared about the future, but we all suffer with worry and uncertainty too. I do believe Barry’s use of ecstasy played a big part in his decision. If he hadn’t been using it, I think he would have been capable of seeing things a lot clearer. Even so, I don’t see him as a victim.

    It’s much like me referring to Daniel as my “surviving son” (which I’ve used a lot over recent months). When I think about this phrase it sounds like Daniel attempted suicide too and survived. Well, Daniel has attempted suicide and survived, but even before that episode I referred to him as my surviving son. I feel this is wrong, because I’ve labeled him, which makes him different to everyone else. He doesn’t need that in his life now. He has enough to handle without me handing him something else to make him stand out in a crowd. Besides, it is wrong. I have never referred to myself as the “surviving mother”, so what right do I have to refer to Daniel as the “surviving son”? As from this moment, I will not refer to Daniel as my “surviving son” again.

    It all comes back to if the term used is labelling someone – the people left behind or the person who has been lost. Terms that are a label are damaging and add to the stigma. The families of the person who suicided don’t need something else to hide from. The stigma is already too much to handle at times. But, for me, at the end of the day, even if I don’t like a term, I will not fret over it. People are people. Most of them don’t mean to hurt. In fact, most of them don’t have any idea that their words do hurt. I have learned to accept this and move on…

    And, of course, do my part to increase awareness of those around me.

  5. I want to acknowledge you for this post. Language is everything. My personal mission going forward as a result of my own experience with suicidal thoughts is to change the words that people use when talking about people who think differently than most. Thank you again for highlighting an important but often brushed aside topic.

  6. You’re welcome, Francesco.

    It’s unfortunate that these things only mean anything when we’ve been affected by something. It makes me more aware of other issues that I may never have given any thought to, but could be hurting someone by saying them.

    But again, it’s unusally after the event that I’m made aware of this…and I must remember that this is the same for other people.

  7. I usually say my son, Nate, took his life. I am a public speaker and share on the topic of suicide, suicide grief and support groups. I hated the term completed suicide when I heard it, but it really hit a chord with two members of my support group. I never liked committed suicide. My son may have committed sins during his life, but taking his life was not a commission. His true self was gone by the time he decided to hang himself. The years he spent dealing with bi-polar and substance abuse took a toll on his mental health. I believe it was his deteriorated mental health that led him to take his life. I think each survivor of suicide finds terms that make sense to them when addressing their loved one’s death. I respect that and will not change the way I handle it just to make someone else happy. My peace is what my son’s death is what matters now.

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