I recall the moment my Sunday School teacher revealed to the class that her daughter had taken her life. I can visualise the exchange and almost feel my reaction. Shock! Confusion! Disquiet! I was young and didn’t have the life experience to process such a stark, tragic event. I have often wondered why I retained this memory when so many other memories have been lost. Clifton Crais, author of History Lessons: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, and the Brain, refers to our forgotten past as the ‘blank spaces’ of our lives.
I had no understanding of why someone like Marjorie (not her real name) would want to take their life. The question of her death was not something I thought about, that is, until my own son took his life. I have observed that life and death issues require some resolution. We find it difficult to live with uncertainty.
A recent conversation with my two older sisters brought to light new information. They recounted a story from school days when Marjorie would embarrass everyone by fossicking in the rubbish bins looking for food. And then the giveaway line, “You do know she survived the Blitz.”
Life was very hard during the Blitz. London was very bad as it was bombed nearly every night for seven months. People spent most nights sleeping in Air Raid Shelters. I can’t contemplate the terror experienced by the young.
Marjorie’s life had been permanently scarred by the trauma of war. She had heard the sirens, felt the explosions, seen the suffering, listened to the fearful chatter, and witnessed the disfigured landscape. She had experienced firsthand the madness of war and it had shattered her belief in humanity.
We have a name for what Marjorie was experiencing. We call it post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. It is a type of anxiety disorder that results from experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event.
Clinical psychologist Martin N. Seif PhD. says, “People with PTSD often experience disturbing memories about the traumatic event and have vivid flashbacks and nightmares. As a result they may often feel irritable and on edge.”
Seif also notes, “People who have been traumatised generally go into a shell. They often appear visibly withdrawn and depressed. Not surprisingly, people who are socially isolated are at particular risk of suicide.”
I didn’t have much contact with Marjorie. She tended to avoid social situations. I don’t recall her attending church regularly. Her parents were gentle people and would have been generous in their love and support.
Survivors of traumatic events are at increased risk of suicide. This includes people who have experienced the terrors of war, victims of sexual abuse, and also people who have survived the loss of a friend or loved one to suicide.