The act of suicide can never be an act of love

  • 25 February 2005
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"If I had been there with her in that room overlooking the back yard in Haya and Tsvi's flat at that moment, at half past eight or a quarter to nine on that Saturday evening, I would certainly have tried my hardest to explain to her why she mustn't."

Amos Oz, writer and peace campaigner, was 12 years old when his mother took her own life. His book A Tale of Love and Darkness, a mighty book, published at the end of 2004, is an autobiography of his childhood spent in Jerusalem at the end of the British Mandate and through the War of Independence. Threaded through it all, is an account of how his mother's suicide affected him.

"I have hardly ever spoken about my mother till now, till I came to write these pages. Not with my father, or my wife, or my children or anybody else".

At a time in this country when we are struggling to adjust to the horrible mounting toll of suicides; at a time when we are giving tentative voice to what was never discussed and making quiet and respectful room on radio, television and in the newspapers for the stories of the families who have lost their dear ones, we might have a lot to gain from Oz's words which have taken form, some 51 years after his mother's death:

"And if I did not succeed I would have done everything possible to stir her compassion, to make her take pity on her only child. I would have cried and I would have pleaded without any shame and I would have hugged her knees. I might even have pretended to faint or I might have hit and scratched myself till the blood flowed as I had seen her do in moments or despair."

Saturday's Irish Times had the first in a three-part series on suicide and we again heard of the Buckley brothers in Midleton who committed suicide within a year. Their mother and brother were on a recent Late Late Show but The Irish Times article added a new dimension.

Both young men were fathers at the time of their deaths and while they have been mourned and spoken about with love by parent and siblings, it is hard not to think that the story is really not about the parents and the siblings, but about their two children. Those are the lives that have been changed most, though they probably know nothing of it yet.

"Or I would have attacked her like a murderer, I would have smashed a vase over her head without hesitation. Or hit her with the iron that stood on a shelf in a corner of the room. Or taken advantage of her weakness to lie on top of her and tie her hands behind her back, and taken away all those pills and tablets and sachets and solutions and potions and syrups of hers and destroyed the lot of them. But I was not allowed to be there. I was not even allowed to go to her funeral."

Last weekend, Hunter S Thompson, whose early writings for Rolling Stone turned the world of journalism on its head, and who spent most of the time frying his brains with drugs, put a bullet in that brain last Sunday and left himself for his son to find.

And now, because we are going from total silence to acceptance in an effort to stem the tide, you can read in newspapers that so and so was a loving mother. And she may well have been and God knows how people struggle, and what they struggle with, but the act of suicide can never be an act of love.

While struggling to understand and to support and to cope, and to do so publicly and without shame, is a worthy and belated development and may well help to stem the tide, surely making it acceptable will only have the opposite effect? We have seen as much when suicide follows suicide in a given area and for those left behind, left mid-sentence, mid-life and mid-love, there is nothing but devastation.

While we struggle to comfort the bereaved and shrink from thinking badly of those who have chosen to absent themselves before their time had come, it seems important to acknowledge that suicide can never be anything but a misguided and utterly, utterly selfish act. And it is nevermore so than in the case of a parent.

"…And at the hospital she would not listen to them either and although they tried various means to disturb her good sleep she paid no attention to them, or to the specialist from whom she had heard that the psyche is the worst enemy of the body, and she did not wake up in the mornings either, or even when the day grew brighter, and from the branches of the ficus tree in the garden of the hospital the bird Elise called to her in wonderment and called to her again and again in vain and yet it went on trying over and over again and it still tries sometimes."

Excerpts from A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz, published by Chatto and Windus.