Jeff & Me (photo by Kyle Freeman)
Before my brother Jeff died by suicide, I never thought about the language used to talk about suicide. Immediately following his death and for a long time after, I was in shock, so the terms used to describe how he died mattered little to me. But as time passes and the shock subsides, I’ve discovered that I bristle each time I hear the expression “committed” suicide. Historically, in the United States and beyond, the act of suicide was deemed a crime. Until as recently as 1963, six states still considered attempted suicide a criminal act. This is so insanely absurd to me that I’m not going to expend any more energy on the history of the topic but if you’re interested, here’s a link.
Thankfully laws have changed, but our language has not. And 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. If I was telling you about a friend or loved one who actually did commit a crime, chances are I’d feel at least a little embarrassment or shame on behalf of that person. But I don’t feel even the tiniest bit of shame about how Jeff died. Of course, I wish with every fiber of my being we’d been able to successfully help Jeff and that he was alive today. But shame, nope, I don’t feel that about my brother. I focus on how proud I am of who he was in his life – passionate, thoughtful beyond words, brilliant, determined and braver than most people I know for enduring his pain as long as he did. Yes, Jeff Freeman was a brave, brave man. As is any person who grapples with deep emotional distress day after day, year after year.
So to say that someone “committed” suicide feels offensive to me, and I’m not easily offended. The offense is in the inaccuracy. With that said, 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.
By shifting our language around suicide, we have the power to reduce some of the massive shame carried by survivors of suicide. If you feel scared or helpless about what to say to someone who’s lost someone to suicide, take comfort in knowing that, by changing your language about suicide, you’re offering a countercultural act of kindness. It might seem small but the interpersonal and political impact is nothing but huge.
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If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.