Suicide. A dear friend of mine died this way almost 40 years ago, leaving behind a beautiful six-month-old boy and a beloved and loving husband. I have never given any thought to the way we friends and family refer to her death. Then last week, I came across a 2015 blog post by the sister of a man who died in the same way.
In the post on a website that shares experiences of disability and mental illness, former hospice social worker Kyle Freeman argues that this term suggests criminality. She points to laws in the U.S. that, until a little more than 50 years ago, defined suicide as a criminal act. Kyle feels this history has perpetuated a sense of shame and embarrassment in survivors.
“…the residue of shame associated with the committal of a genuine crime remains attached to suicide. My brother did not commit a crime. He resorted to suicide, which he perceived, in his unwell mind, to be the only possible solution to his tremendous suffering.”
Kyle believes that the common use of the phrase “committed suicide” is not only inaccurate but can add to the suffering of those who have lost friends or family in this way. She prefers the term dying by suicide. Despite Kyle’s quibbles with the expression, she also notes:
“ . . . I don’t judge people for using this expression—until August 17, 2007, I did the same. But now I don’t. And I humbly ask that you consider the same. When you have occasion to talk about suicide, please try to refer to someone dying by suicide.”
We in nursing have always tried to choose our words carefully, especially when speaking with patients and their families. We want to communicate clearly and also to avoid thoughtlessly inflicting unnecessary pain on people in crisis. Is it time to change the words we use to describe suicide?