Listening over Speaking & Asking over Telling

Following the first blog post I wrote (Genuine Connection & Sincere Solidarity) I got some messages from people who wanted to share links, articles and thoughts. I just want to put a quick message of acknowledgement here to say thanks! I have since read the articles, followed the links and looked up the suggestions and I really enjoyed doing so – keep em coming!

One thing I learned very quickly when gathering data from the website is that the members and administrators do not categorize or describe the website itself as “pro-suicide” but as “pro-choice”. This is really interesting because it means that people who work in, believe in or support suicide prevention are “pro-life” or as some other website users might describe it “pro-suffering”. I was so taken-aback (and really frustrated) by this when I first started the research. I was forced to see myself (as a suicide prevention worker) as an enemy here rather than an ally. It took me quite some time to understand why.

There are so many threads discussing the right to die, dignity in life and dignity in death. What scared me really was how quickly I soaked up the discussions. Some people made points about death, dying and living that I had never in my life considered or been forced to consider. I could genuinely see and understand how suicide prevention and mental health intervention had failed some of these people in such massive and almost unforgivable ways. That is not to say I agree or disagree with any one school of thought when it comes to death or the right to die- I don’t want to make this blog about pushing my beliefs, what I’m saying is that I was forced to see things from other perspectives – which is always a positive thing.

I think to really be able to talk constructively about rights & dignity in death we need to be able to take into account all types of views – religion, culture, policy & law, value & belief systems, medical principles and so much more. I don’t think it would be appropriate to dive into any part of that conversation without experts, expert opinions, personal experiences or solid research – all of which I certainly do not have.

As I read more and more posts from users detailing their struggles, venting about their daily battles and trying to find comfort in any small thing they could, I was reminded of all the times I’ve heard people say that suicide is selfish. Working in suicide prevention, I’ve heard it so many times. Sometimes I hear it from people who have been lucky enough never to experience loss of a loved one by suicide, sometimes I hear it from people who have fortunately for them never felt suicidal and sometimes I have even heard it from family members and friends of someone who has died by suicide.

Suicide is a loss that is so different. Not a loss greater or less than any other, but different. Sometimes people can feel betrayed, guilty, confused and shell-shocked after a suicide. One description of loss following suicide I hear often is that it simply leaves people with nothing but questions that will never be answered. I think that these things can sometimes fuel the idea that suicide is selfish – “they should have told me, they had no money worries, they had a great family, they had more than their fair share, they should have asked for help”.

People experiencing suicidal crisis often won’t tell you because they don’t want to take up your time. They don’t want to burden you, they don’t want you to feel sad or distressed from hearing the story they have to tell. So many posts from users on this website say things like “I’m feeling this way – I can’t tell my family because they’ll think I’m ungrateful or that I don’t love them” or “I have a good standard of living – I feel so guilty about having these feelings “.

A huge take-away for me from reading posts on the website was seeing how often people apologized for how they were feeling. Just because I have a jacket on, doesn’t mean that I can’t feel cold. People are allowed to feel how they feel. Emotions don’t come with a user-manual or “license to feel” and we need to stop judging people for the feelings they have.

People have often told me that when they expressed just how low they were feeling they were met with reactions like “OMG don’t say things like that” or “wow I wasn’t expecting that, but you’d never do anything stupid, right?”. Language matters and insinuating that someone’s feelings or thoughts are stupid is a another way of saying “I don’t want to hear this” and so this can stop the conversation before it even fully starts. It punishes honesty.

If we are going to tell people that it’s good to talk and that we are here for them, we can’t keep making up new rules as we go about what is acceptable to share. I think if we’re going to push slogan messages that encourage being honest and open about our feelings – then we better be ready to listen to all parts, not just the pieces that feel comfortable. No one can be perfect with discomfort all of the time. No one can learn to sit with big emotions and have the perfect response every time, but with a little bit of practice and a lot of self-awareness we can absolutely learn how to do it better. We can learn how to be there for people simply by asking what they need.

It’s instinct for us to try and come up with ideas to fix things, we don’t like feeling useless. Maybe that also fuels the belief that suicide is selfish, because often after a suicide we are left feeling useless – like we could have done more. I think when we are left with the feeling that we could have done more, we get angry at the person who “robbed” us of that chance and we automatically apply a label of selfishness to their acts. One analogy we like to use in suicide intervention training is that if we’re not trained in cardiac response, how can we perform CPR? You can only do as much as you know how to at the time.

I can tell you from my time on the website that listening and not fixing is sometimes the most useful thing we can do.

We can’t assume that we know how to fix situations that we have never seen from another person’s perspective. I’m not saying we can’t try to help, I’m saying listen, after that listen some more, then ask what the person feels would help them right now and then listen again.

Listen more than you speak and ask more than you tell.

Some of the stories I have read on the website detailing what people face every day shook me to my core. I know it’s a drum that is beaten all too often but we genuinely have no idea what other people are going through.

I suppose my point is this: there are many things that we can say about suicide, I just don’t think suicide being selfish is one of them.

If you’ve made this far thank you for reading, also if you feel like you need support The Samaritans can be reached on freephone 116123.

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