My knickers are in a twist about semantics these days. Sometimes I slip into using “girl” or “boy” instead of the turgid “young woman” or “young man,” I have been criticized for titling a short story “Mi Juan” (taken from the lyrics from a Woody Guthrie song) because it was “colonial,” have been corrected for quoting someone else’s reference to certain music as “Negro Spirituals,” and have been told that writing that someone “championed the underdog: the Dodgers, the African-American, the Jew, the Native American, the Immigrant, the mentally ill, the gay and transgender” would be insulting to those groups. My choices are to shut up and do as we have always done, ignore the criticism, or try to tread a compassionate and sensitive line of my own devising.
Since my upcoming book, THE SWEET PAIN OF BEING ALIVE, is (among other things) about the suicide of my beloved husband Terry, I have entered into a minefield of semantic traps and conundrums.
After his death, awash in a barrage of confusing emotions, I joined what was called a “Suicide Survivors Group.” It rolls sweetly off the tongue but what does that mean? Neither I nor Terry survived suicide. Suicide is brutal on others, but so is homicide, death in a car wreck, or any other sudden, unexpected death. My brother died of an aortic aneurysm on a flight from Tucson to Chicago, a death so sudden that his seatmate didn’t realize he’d died. My sister-in-law was waiting for him at the airport and imagine her shock when told of his death, yet she is not called an “aneurysm survivor.” Abraham Lincoln’s wife would not be a called “assassination survivor.” The term suggests that I have suffered not only the abruptness of his loss, but something akin to what my husband himself suffered that remains to be healed. But his demons were not mine.
Other support groups also struggle to find a suitable name. CancerCare provides “free, professional support services for people who have experienced the loss of a loved one to cancer,” though those people aren’t ill and don’t need cancer care. For those who have lost a loved one to a heart attack there is a group “Heart Attacks and Grieving a Sudden Loss.” This is ungainly but gets more to the point. Since our society does not confront suicide with the forthrightness with which we confront other causes of death, there is a need for specialized information, and organizations such as the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (988), the CDC, WHO, or a local psychologist or counselor trained in dealing with suicide would be a much better source than a group of similarly blind-sided mourners. Once that specialized information is provided, the mourner can join a “Grief Support Group” on equal footing , thus removing the isolation that results from thinking her suffering is different from any other. Treating a suicide as a devastation greater than any another sudden, unexpected death places a responsibility on the mourner that makes grieving last longer.
Another semantic tangle is the traditional term “commit suicide.” I’ve been told that using the verb “commit” links suicide to crime, as in “he committed murder,” and should not be used. There are two aspects of this argument. One is that suicide is indeed considered a crime in some belief systems. The other is that the verb “commit” is also used in a positive sense—”he committed his whole fortune to building homes for the poor.” So the verb “commit” in itself does not necessarily have negative connotations, yet it acknowledges agency in one’s own death without undue bluntness. Bluntness is perhaps to avoided. Shortly after Terry’s death, I met the woman who lived in the apartment above us in the supermarket. She asked after Terry and I told her he’d died. She clutched her chest. “Did he die of COVID?” “No. Suicide,” I answered. She bucked backward into a supermarket shelf as if I had shoved her. This was a shock that she didn’t deserve. To soften the blow, I had a range of possibilities. “He died by his own hand” is perhaps the gentlest answer. “He committed suicide” acknowledges his agency in his own death. “He died of suicide” is passive, as if he had died of sepsis or cancer. “He was a suicide” is an unfamiliar articulation. “He killed himself” feels crude and abrupt. Under certain circumstances, I might specify that he died of suffocation by putting a plastic bag over his head, but that introduces a vision into a person’s mind that might haunt them, so should be used sparingly. I might simply have said, “He died suddenly and unexpectedly” and leave it at that. I am under no obligation to address the issues surrounding suicide with anybody. On the other hand, as someone who has witnessed someone’s decline and death from suicide, I try to take opportunities that arise to encourage frankness on the subject, since I have learned about the many misconceptions and assumptions bring to the word.
Attitudes, reportage, and resources have been changing. The American Association of Suicidology has been around for 56 years, but it is only quite recently that articles on suicide appear frequently in the press and on television, with particular interest in suicide rates among veterans and teens, which paints a picture in which people think of suicide as having been caused by environmental factors or traumatic experiences. Increased interest in the subject has not caused rates of suicide have not declined, and may be rising, so whatever we’ve been doing so far is not working. Linguistic change often reflects a change in attitude and brings clarity to cloudy issues. I remember wondering in 2001 what we would call that calamitous day when the Twin Towers fell. Linguistic evolution produced “9/11,” which made is easier to talk about that day and all that came with it. The word “suicide” itself probably doesn’t need changing, but the aura around it needs to be broken down into terms that reflect what I hope is a change in attitude toward this sad phenomenon.
SUICIDE AND SEMANTICS