Category Archives: suicide

Southern Christian Mourning

In the fall of my sophomore year, my friend Kalyssa, who attended Georgia State University, killed herself. While suicide is in itself worthy of a discussion post, I was struck by the radical differences in funeral and funerary processes between her culture and mine. Kalyssa Fuentes and I had attended the same middle and high school, we had the same friends, and shared an unrivaled passion for Rihanna. Yet at her funeral, I felt entirely out of place.

I have attended my fair share of funerals for grandparents and family friends, but always from a Jewish perspective. Our funerals, at least in my synagogue’s practice, are short affairs that take place at the cemetery. We tear our clothes and inter the body quickly. Following the burial, we sit shiva for a week and do not work, look into mirrors, or bathe in warm water. For the Fuentes family, the funeral took place at a church, following a viewing with an open casket. It is the casket that stands out most clearly in my mind; I had never seen a body before. Kalyssa’s body was blocked from direct view by a veil, but she was still able to be seen. She looked like she was made of plastic, and she had been dead for two days, so I assume that she was embalmed. There was no smell. 

The funeral itself took place in an African Methodist Episcopal church, where the Fuenteses had found a community after immigrating from Trindidad. The word that immediately came to mind during the service was ostentatious — the people did not look, to me, to be in mourning. The women wore large hats, the choir wore bright robes, and they passed around pamphlets featuring Kalyssa’s face. There was a section of the service devoted to a memorial film, featuring Kalyssa singing a solo in our high school choir during a trip to Rome. Despite this, it was evident that everyone present, for whom this sort of service was the norm, was deeply moved.

Since attending Kalyssa’s funeral, I have been to a handful of others that were christian, all of which also involved a viewing of the body before burial. Although personally I feel a bit disturbed by the practice, I believe that the process of seeing the body prior to burial to be important to some people in order to accept the death of their loved ones. Viewings may not be a part of my own culture, but are an interesting way to explore the grief.

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Seppuku – Honorable Suicide

A staged version of the Japanese ritual suicide known as Seppuku or Hara-Kiri, circa 1885. The warrior in white plunges a knife into his belly, while his second stands behind him, ready to perform the decapitation. (Photo by Sean Sexton/Getty Images)

As an anime fan, one thing that I have grown to love and appreciate is the diversity and uniqueness of both modern and traditional Japanese culture. One practice that does stand out to me is the practice of the honorable death known as Seppuku.  Seppuku, death by self-disembowelment, became a ritualized and institutionalized form of suicide among the Samurai in Feudal Japan; and it was seen has a form of honor and courage reserved for the Samurai, the traditional Japanese military. I was interested in learning a little bit more about this practice especially with our recent class discussions of what constitutes a “good” death or a “bad” death.

The deaths of Minamoto Yorimasa, a poet, and Minamoto Tametono, a samurai, describes the earliest known acts of Seppuku. Seppuku, which describes a process of slicing the stomach open, was considered the most courageous, straightforward and bravest way to die because the stomach was considered to be where the human spirit resided. In these practices, witnesses would sit discreetly to the side while the samurai, dressed in white, would kneel on large white cushion. The Samurai would then inflict the fatal injury to his stomach and his Kaishakuin, second in command or assistant, would make sure the Samurai did not experience prolonged suffering and ensured a honorable death.

Seppuku’s adoration and inspiration in Japanese culture has remained even today and can be seen depicted in movies, plays, novels, anime and more. During WWII, in the Pacific Islands, American soldiers witness Japanese militia committing this ritual right before their very eyes. After losing the war, some men and women performed the ritual in order to serve as an apology to the Emperor of Japan.  But for people who are not Japanese the practice has been held with horrid fascination.I think this is because each individual has their own qualms about the topic of death and even more so suicide. So for me, it is interesting to see how understanding death is highly influenced by the culture, the society and the time and how they all play a major role in determining what constitutes a “good” or “bad” death.

References

http://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/honorable-death-samurai-and-suicide-feudal-japan-005822

Fusé, Toyomasa. “Suicide and culture in Japan: A study of seppuku as an institutionalized form of suicide.” Social Psychiatry 15.2 (1980): 57-63.

 

 

The 27 Club

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There is a group of rock starts whom all died at the age of 27 that perfectly exemplify the idea of a good death or a bad death. Currently, there are 49 members on this list, most famously including Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Amy Winehouse.  In a famous quote by Neil Young he stated “it’s better to burn out than to fade away”. This was later cited in the suicide note of Kurt Cobain. The idea behind this quote- and what is thought many of these young rock stars’ deaths is defining the difference between a good death and a bad death.

Here, a good death is one where you die famous, still in the spotlight and doing amazing things, never becoming old and fading away. A bad death is one where you slowly lose your sparkle and your death will no longer greatly influence your fans. When Kurt Cobain killed himself, people went in to mourning. Everyone remembers when they heard Kurt Cobain died, everyone cared when Amy Winehouse overdosed. I remember working at a summer camp for children and everyone screaming about how awful Winehouse’s death was. It is hypothesized that all of these members of the 27 club took their lives so that they could remain their young, beautiful, rock star selves in the minds of their fans forever- leaving a legacy. While there is proof that many of the members committed suicide, there is also thought that many of those that overdosed, did it purposefully. This would support the idea of their strategic deaths.

This reminds me of royal suicide. In some communities, when a king feels he is becoming weak, he will kill himself so that his people will not ever have to see him weak and the royal system can continue on- always having a powerful, strong body in power. While obviously the rock stars of this club don’t have as great of an impact as an actual king- they did call Elvis the “king of rock” and we all know what  the public’s response when he died!

 

Link to 27 club list:

http://ppcorn.com/us/2015/10/16/musicians-members-27-club/

College Students and Suicide

We were in one of Emory’s freshman dorms celebrating my 19th birthday. The surprise party, pink- and-orange  decorations, white lights, and the warmth of my friends made the day pretty memorable. Yet, that day was made unforgettable for a different reason.

It was after everyone left that I began opening my presents. I had opened all of my presents and read most of my cards when I came across a handwritten birthday card that was decorated in red and green marker-ink. Inside the card was a very, very long note. I was going to put the card aside until I realized that the note was from one of my closest friends. I had known her all my life and was fortunate enough to be attending the same college with her – someone who was there to witness every awkward phase of my life as I matured and grew. The card began with the typical birthday wishes and a recollection of some of the best memories we shared as friends. When I reached the middle of the note, my life would never be the same again.

My friend, who I loved dearly and knew so well, confessed that I had saved her life one day. It was the middle of the semester and she had attempted to intentionally overdose on a medication, thinking that it would end her life. She was in the midst of this process when she received a phone call from me. I had called to ask her a question but also to check in on how she was doing. We hadn’t seen each other in a while. She said she was stressed and going through a difficult time. I tried to say something encouraging; however, I don’t recall exactly what I said to her. Nevertheless, I had come to know later that that simple gesture was enough for her to change her mind.

College students are at that point in the semester in which mental illness surfaces the most. There are so many reasons why this makes sense. With midterms, projects, writing assignments, extracurriculars, enrollment and with the added pressure of finding their individual motivation and purpose in life there is no doubt that college students can be subjected to all forms of mental illnesses. However, sometimes colleges or universities are not as understanding when students act on their state of mind.

W.P., a pseudonym for a first-year student at Princeton in 2013, was forced to leave after he attempted suicide for the third time. It is well known that in cases such as these, intensive psychiatric treatment becomes mandated. However, lesser known is that if students don’t voluntarily take a leave of absence after they pose a threat to themselves, they are involuntarily withdrawn from the university such as in the case of W.P. While he suggested other alternatives such as taking a lighter course load or living off campus, he was told that these conditions would “fundamentally alter the nature of a Princeton education.” Additionally, Princeton did not want to be held accountable for W.P.’s suicidal tendencies.

This is not an uncommon process. To keep things in its natural order, many universities require suicidal students to leave campus. Nevertheless, it was the act of leaving campus itself that almost completely hindered W.P’s recovery process. He lost his motivation in life and his self-esteem. According to W.P.’s psychiatrist, “An important aspect of W.P.’s recovery [was] a sense of purpose. Requiring a leave of absence and excluding him from the university community at this time [would] be detrimental to his health and well-being.”

When W.P. was denied an appeal, he filed a lawsuit against Princeton accusing it of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Fair Housing Act Amendments. However, Princeton won on the basis that it simply “did not want to gamble with W.P.’s life”

This New Yorker article brings to mind the question of what Emory does when it encounters a student who has had thoughts of ending his or her life. Taking a year off might be beneficial to some but to others like W.P. it does not do much to find that sense of purpose in life. For that whole year, you might feel less resilient. You might feel like you’re wasting time. College is all about discovering yourself and what you are passionate about. It does not always come immediately and it does not always turn out the way you expected or imagined it would. However, what ultimately matters is constantly surrounding yourself by people who you think/know might care. And if you ever sense that someone is going through a rough time, just a simple “how are you doing” might even be sufficient. You never know the impact that your actions might have on someone else’s life as I came to know the day I received that birthday card.

http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/suicidal-students-allowed-campus

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Save the Planet, Kill Yourself

Over the past few weeks I’ve been really into researching religious zealots and cults (brought on by this Netflix documentary called Jesus Camp –10/10 would recommend) and I just read an article about one group in particular that shocked me a little more than all the rest. The Church of Euthanasia was founded in the mid-1990s by an ex-DJ named Chris Korda, who says the church’s guiding principle is “Thou shalt not procreate.” Apparently, Korda and her followers (of which there were more than I had hoped) were so worried about climate change and overpopulation that they decided to start a movement based solely on encouraging people to die.

A Church of Euthanasia protest for abortion

“Fetuses AREN’T People. They aren’t even CHICKENS. Who Cares?”

 

The Church of Euthanasia gained traction by protesting at major political events, including the 1992 Democratic National Convention, where they popularized their slogan, “Save the Planet, Kill Yourself.” This fits in nicely with the four pillars of their religion, which are as follows: “Suicide (optional but encouraged), abortion (may be required to avoid procreation), cannibalism (mandatory if you insist on eating flesh, but only if someone is already dead), and sodomy (optional, but strongly encouraged).” It seems as though the CoE was trying to get rid of the Earth’s population through every way possible, except outright homicide. Side note: I’m a little unsure of where cannibalism fits into the whole philosophy, but I guess that by consuming dead bodies you’re freeing up space for other activities???

The part that really shocked me was the hotline the Church attempted to set up, which would have provided round the clock instructions for people looking to commit suicide. It’s kind of a cruel twist of fate, because suicide hotlines are normally resources used to prevent suicide, not to encourage it. I really couldn’t believe that people’s lives meant so little to the members of this group that they were willing to encourage this sort of behavior for the sake of an imperceptible amount of extra breathing room on the planet.

I was expecting a disclaimer at the end of the article, something along the lines of, “Korda, along with her most loyal followers, committed suicide in 1995..,” but there was none. The founder of the Church of Euthanasia, who had no problem telling everyone else it was their duty to die, is still living today. Whether that means she felt she needed to be here to keep up the mission, or if the whole thing was just some elaborate hoax, I don’t know.

Link to article: http://www.vice.com/read/save-the-planet-kill-yourself-the-contentious-history-of-the-church-of-euthanasia-1022

This article is part of a Vice News column called “Post Mortem” and there are some really great pieces on there as well!

http://www.vice.com/series/post-mortem-with-simon-davis

 

 

 

Disparate Attitudes Towards Death 

             In an article entitled, Endings: A Sociology of Death and Dying, Michael Kearl discusses the statistics behind death. I was shocked to find that the rate of suicide among men aged 85 and older is 155% higher than of the age group aged 15-24. I found this extraordinarily telling of elderly citizens opinions toward death and wondered if the recent increase parallels the development of life sustaining technology. Are these statistics telling us something about American’s desire to die in control? Do they reflect a failing system of geriatric care? Or does it reveal something more profound about the dwindling quality of life as one ages?

             In August of this year, renowned neurologist, researcher and writer Oliver Sacks passed away after being diagnosed with cancer. Upon learning the diagnosis he published an article in the New York Times entitled, My Own Life, where he reflected on his accomplishments and philosophized about the end of his life. He compared his thoughts on death to those of philosopher David Hume who wrote, “It is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at present.” Sacks elaborated on Hume’s idea stating, “Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life. On the contrary, I feel intensely alive…” He goes on to detail the life events that brought him joy and reflect on what he has yet to accomplish. Months later, he composed another statement that was published in the Times where he concluded, “And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

In light of the courage and genuine contentedness of Sack’s words, I found it difficult then, to understand why elderly suicide statistics are exceedingly high. What could foster such a drastic difference of attitude towards one’s death? Is there a biological explanation why some people desire death to the point of suicide while others publish articles on their deathbed asserting they are not yet finished with life? Could this be an effect of education, economics or religion? Investigating attitudes towards death would educate society about this oftentimes-taboo topic and hopefully allow us to view our own lives as the “enormous privilege and adventure” that Oliver Sacks did.

 

 

A New Look on The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games is a trilogy that takes place in Panem, which is a country with 12 districts that are controlled by the Capitol.  Panem used to have a 13th district, but the Capitol destroyed it after the people in the 13th district rebelled.  As a result, every year one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 from each district are chosen to compete in the Hunger Games.  These participants are known as tributes, and they must kill one another in an outdoor arena until only one winner is left standing.

Before taking this class, I wouldn’t have paid attention to the fact that these tributes are basically each district’s sacrifice in order to maintain “peace” for Panem.  But now, that’s the first thing that comes to mind.  Some tributes, known as Careers, will voluntarily offer themselves for the games because they were trained for them from an early age.  But do they consider themselves as some sort of martyrs?  Or is this some sort of twisted suicide? I know there is a lot of fame and benefits that come from winning the games, but these children are basically offering themselves up as a sort of sacrifice.  But for what? Panem doesn’t need to use children to keep peace, but the president thought that it would be the most effective way.  This is even shown in reality because we are more outraged or sympathetic or empathetic when children are killed, sacrificed, hurt, or abused than adults.  If our children’s lives were at stake, I can see people either causing an uprising or complying to the whoever is in power.  Children evoke stronger emotions and opinions than any other age group.  I would assume it’s because they are seen as powerless and naive, but there’s nothing powerless or naive about the tributes.

The tributes make me wonder why some of them are excited about the games while others fear them.  I understand the fear more than being excited.  I don’t think I could ever be excited about sacrificing my own life for a competition that falsely promotes peace and forces me to kill others if I want to stay alive.  I really enjoyed the trilogy (both the books, and so far the movies!), but I definitely see them in a different perspective now.

Suicide Watch: reddit and suicide

Some of the traditional methods for suicide prevention in the past several decades have consisted of therapeutic programs, medications, and suicide hotlines. Suicide hotlines have been a key part of the suicide prevention phenomenon in the United States and the Western world and are also part of the public conceptualization of the suicide problem (with them being a theme or topic of television series episodes). The suicide hotline model is an important one and not unusual that it has been somewhat reshaped to fit the internet.

The popular online discussion board reddit has a ‘subreddit’ called Suicide Watch, which allows users to submit their stories and receive advice and support from other members of the website. The site is not just for people contemplating or planning to commit suicide but is also open to discussion for individuals who are worried about loved ones and would like advice for how to go about getting them help and saving their lives. To ensure the safety and protection of their user base the moderators of the subreddit have installed guidelines for posting and replying on Suicide Watch. These can be seen on the right side of the forum when browsing through threads or reading through individual comments and responses. The emphasis on no “abuse, pro-suicide comments, tough love” and the espousal of “non-judgmental peer support” are key parts of the suicide prevention dogma.

I know we have discussed (at least in my discussion group) how anonymity of the internet can promote bullying and thus suicide or other violent actions. But in the case of Suicide Watch on reddit, the anonymity of the internet lifts barriers of fear that would have otherwise prevented individuals from seeking the help they so dearly required. Opening and reading some of the various threads that have been posted on Suicide Watch is somewhat saddening, but also very touching to see the amount of care and effort people will put into helping others to whom they have no personal connection beyond being members of the same discussion board.

Beyond the mental health advocacy groups and suicide hotlines and psychiatric clinics in the United States, the internet, in this case reddit, represents a new frontier for suicide prevention, as well as support for other issues like depression and self-harm (which are covered by subreddits listed as related by the moderators of Suicide Watch).

Here is the link to Suicide Watch in case you wish to read some of the threads and see how an online community is reacting to suicidality: http://www.reddit.com/r/suicidewatch. I think a lot of the stories speak for themselves.

Life panels and the idea of physician-assisted suicide

This morning, I came across this article that discusses the concept of “life panels.” Life panels are a reimagining of the concept of the death panel, which has become a heavily politicized idea. Life panels, however, are removed from the stigma that comes with the death panel idea. While life panels are not yet a thing, they raise issues with the current approach America has to physician-assisted suicide.

Currently, Oregon, Washington, and Vermont are some of the few states that allow for physician-assisted suicide. However, while this sounds great for those states, the decision to end one’s life has to be made when the person is fully competent. This complicates things for people like the author of the article from earlier, whose mother is 95 years old, limited to a hospital bed, with little to no quality of life. However, because she has entered dementia, she is no longer legally competent to choose to end her life.

Why is choosing to end one’s life such a controversial topic for Americans? For me, I see it as a product of America’s religious fervor and how it has intertwined itself with American politics. Because religious Americans often tout the idea of allowing someone to end their life as tantamount to playing God, it has long been outlawed in America. However, these ideas have been partially disrupted by America’s aging population. There are a growing number of Americans who fear losing their faculties, and thus want the right to die in a dignified manner. Speaking from personal experience, my mom’s greatest fear is that she’ll languish with Alzheimer’s in a hospital bed. Because of this, my mother has always had open and candid talks about what she’d want me to do in certain situations. I think this is increasingly common as families experience grandparents that have died under similar conditions.

While “life panels” don’t currently exist, I think that someday they’ll be a common part of growing old in America. Physician-assisted suicide is becoming increasingly accepted across America, and American politics will soon catch up to this.

The “rights” to suicide?

Death is a very difficult problem to deal with, especially when suicide is the cause. After a suicidal death, other than grieving, people often feel guilty as well as angry toward the deceased person because they feel that the person’s death is related to them. Suicide represents the tie between the society and the individuals. As we have learned in class, a too strong or weak tie between the person and society can lead to different types of suicide. Suicide is very personal because the choice is made by the individual. However, it is also not personal because there are many external factors that influence a suicidal decision. In my opinion, when deciding to suicide, people often try to identify themselves in relation with other people in communities. Therefore, the society’s value and culture indirectly control whether or not a person has the “rights” to take his own life.

In class, we talked about suicide in suicide bombers. These people are willing to give up their life for the future of the society. This is partly due to the fact that society glorifies their death as heroic. The suicide bomber might feel that he will bring honor to his family and nation. Such relationship between the individual, family and society gives the person the “rights” to take his own life freely.

However, in some cultures, people are not “allowed” to take their own lives. In countries with strong Buddhism influence, the value of families is especially emphasized. In a very famous Chinese tale, Nezha is a child deity. As a little child, he accidently kills the Dragon King’s son who comes to bully his friends. Nezha’s father who is always not pleased with Nezha almost sacrifices his son to save the people. However, Nezha kills himself first to save his people from the wrath of the Dragon King. Nezha did not just kill himself; he carves his flesh and bones and returns them to his parents. This action is to repay the “debt” of his parents giving birth to him. The following is an excerpt of the tale, when the Dragon King demands Natra to “take responsibility” for his action: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8THpvyba3Lg. From this tale, there is a notion that your body does not belong to you. It is given to you by your parents and you have no rights to destroy it without their consent.

Why do we feel angry at the deceased and think that the person is “selfish”? The person is selfish because he did not consider the feeling and well beings of other people, even though his body is supposed to be his own to take? Therefore, society’s value in some way gives a “yes” or  “no” to a suicidal act. When a person disregards the social value, his death is regarded as a bad death.