The Prison and The Key: Pagan Perspectives on Suicide (Part 1)
Trigger warning: wide range of topics surrounding suicide.
I got the text from my friend on a rainy Saturday morning in October: “Hey, when you are awake, I have some awful news that is better said by phone.” I was newly awake and checking my phone before starting my morning prayers and sitting meditation. My teacher discourages this, instead suggesting we start our practice as soon as possible, and moments like this offer a strong argument as to why. My mind immediately began to write horrifying or angering stories, so I sat down and called him. He answered, sounding defeated and sorrowful, and started a sentence about a mutual friend of ours.
Before be finished, my mind completed the sentence. They had killed themself. A powerful shaman, brilliant artist, and wonderful person, I’d also known that they had a long history of depression. The last time we tried to hang out, they canceled because they felt too depressed to be social. Having been there myself, I agreed we’d reschedule. I had the keys to their apartment after our mutual friend—the friend on the phone—stayed at their place before leaving town. I agreed to be the courier, but we were never able to connect.
In that moment of shock and uncertainty on the phone, I recalled this. “Wow. I still have the keys to their apartment.” That was a dumb thing to say, I thought. Yet that detail seemed to speak so much about the rupturing of illusions we create out of necessity to buffer the realities of life. For example, the illusion that there will always be a “later” when I’ll be able to reconnect with my friends and loved ones, pay back favors.
Other illusions abounded. Though I knew about their depression I did not know my friend well enough to discuss their struggles with suicide. Perhaps I should have been more worried when they canceled, but a month or so after we were supposed to meet they posted on Facebook that they were having excellent results from finally trying psychiatric medications. They seemed to be on an upswing.
In my work as a mental health therapist, I’ve noticed that sometimes people experience very encouraging initial results with medications, only to have those taper off and become more moderate as the body adjusts. This is particularly painful for those who see a glimpse of a life that the sufferer couldn’t have imagined before, and allow themselves to hope, only to feel crushed when things even out. This is one reason for combining medications with therapy. Let’s take advantage of this time when you’re no longer struggling simply to survive to begin to implement the habits of thought and behavior that will help you better maintain and integrate these gains.
Though this and other thoughts occurred to me, I realized that I did not know or understand what had happened. I sat at my altar and offered incense and prayers to Anubis, asking him to be of aid to the shaman while they traversed the journey between this life and whatever happens after. I prayed that they would receive the ease, peace, and joy they could not find here. On my Anubis altar is an arrangement of three keys, and I got the sense I might as well place our friend’s keys before him as well.
Not long after, I got another call. “Do you still have those keys?” my friend asked. “Their sister needs them to get into the apartment.” I and the sister made arrangements to meet at the deceased’s apartment. It took me forty-five minutes to drive down with traffic. It was so rainy and windy outside, I wondered if the city itself was mourning its shaman.
At the apartment, the sister and a few close friends were there, some eyes raw and red, others stone dry with the knowledge that someone had to be the one to keep it together. As a not-so-close friend I wondered what exactly I should be doing—handing over the keys and leaving felt awful, but I wanted to be respectful. What ended up happening was that I went to the apartment and waited for the family to gather their things, then unlocked the door. Inside, the studio was the sort of organized messiness of the artist, illuminated by the lights that were keeping their plants alive. On their desk was a closed laptop with a note explaining how to log in and access the suicide note. I chose to stay and offer calm witness while they read the note, expressed pain and anger, and figured out their next steps. Then I gave them the keys and left.
Driving home, I thought about the confluence of events that led to this moment. If I had gotten the keys back, perhaps they might not have been able to get into the apartment. If I hadn’t awkwardly mentioned it to my friend on the phone, the sister might not have learned I had the keys. It struck me, too, having offered the keys to Anubis the Psychopomp, I ended up being in the priestly role of facilitating access to the home of the dead for their loved ones.
In my work with the dead I’ve encountered ancestors who still held the pain they could not release in life, and I wondered about those who killed themselves under emotional duress. I thought, too, of the thing often said by witches of the dead: “What is remembered, lives.” After this death I wondered—what about those whom did not want to live? Who chose to leave this life? Is this remembering then a condemnation, an unwanted clinging?
My Catholic upbringing was unabashedly against suicide under any conditions, but my Pagan adulthood did not offer such clean lines. Sitting with my questions and recognizing the diversity of practice and belief within our community, I decided to turn towards others who work with the dying and the dead. I noticed some significant themes in the responses I got, and the wider conversation that emerged in the wake of this death. The Pagans I spoke with identified a strong value of autonomy in determining the conditions of one’s death, simultaneously holding a concern for addressing the intrapsychic and systemic pressures that contribute to the decision to commit suicide.
The Value of Autonomy
Too often all forms of suicide are lumped together into a generic category of “bad and wrong.” In a Pagan context that values self-responsibility and autonomy, however, each person is as empowered to choose their death as they are responsible for their life. In conversation with me, Priestess Syren Nagakyrie observed, “If we are truly autonomous, self-possessed, powerful beings, then we have every right to end our life when and how we choose.”
Angie Buchanan, a Pagan minister and certified Death Midwife, suggested that any aversion and judgment of death by suicide comes from “residual indoctrination of the punitive sort that most pagans carry with them from their religions of origin.” She observed that even Pagans who value autonomy might find that compromised by a tendency to personalize another person’s suicide:
Grief due to the finality of death is something we try to avoid and we certainly don’t want to face the pain and anguish we feel, knowing that the source of our grief is due to the choice another has deliberately made; a choice we would not have made for them. Ah ha! And therein lies the rub. […] Suicide becomes something that has been done to us by the one choosing it and we often blame the the dead person for leaving us, for not letting us know things were so bad, for not letting us help because surely we could have made a difference… We believe that we know what would have been best for them… And there is often still the niggling doubt that somewhere, somehow, suicide is wrong, and that somewhere somehow, some ONE is going to hold us accountable, and judge us poorly for it, and that for whatever reason, we are supposed to suffer through life, to the bitter socially acceptable, end.
For those who have lost people to suicide, that tendency toward personalization and blame might depend upon the context of the suicide. We may be willing to offer understanding and empathy for the suicide of those dying of terminal illness or losing their consciousness to dementia. For those who are younger and suffering from mental and emotional distress, however, there is less understanding and often more confusion, shame, and taking the choice personally. When unexpected and painful tragedy arises, our immediate instinct is to reaffirm our sense of control and certainty by forcing the events into our systems of meaning. To really let our spirituality support us and become deeper, we might instead allow ourselves to be present with the pain and confusion and allow it to teach us.
The reactivity and personalization Buchanan speaks of became very apparent to me the day I learned of my friend’s suicide. Though I agree with the value of autonomy, I found myself saying to a loved one, “If you kill yourself, I’m going after you.” I felt like I “had” to say it, like not saying it was somehow giving permission. Later it occurred to me that if this loved one ever did consider suicide, they may now be hesitant to discuss it with me. This is why we need resources like suicide hotlines and therapists who aren’t our friends and lovers. When it’s too close to home, I’m as mired in reactivity as the next person.
Washington state has a “Death with Dignity” law that allows people with terminal illness to acquire a fatal dose of medication that they can choose to administer to themselves whenever they feel ready to do so. When I was preparing to be a hospice volunteer, our trainers explained that many who chose this option never take the fatal dose. Knowing they could choose to finish dying if the pain became too much empowered them to be at ease with the process. Some of my chronically suicidal clients have made similar statements about their emotional pain—knowing they can end it if they need to helps them to stay.
As a therapist, though, I see how that worldview could become disempowering. If you were in a long-term relationship with a person who threatened to leave every time you had a conflict, that would make the relationship unworkable. When you are not committed to staying and working through whatever arises, you may be more prone to overlooking possibilities for solutions. Humans have a remarkable capacity to endure and transform suffering, particularly when well-supported by healing relationships, and that capacity is supported by commitment.
A very specific and small group of people use threats of suicide as strategies to guilt their loved ones into staying or giving in during conflicts. Essentially this is a hostage-taking situation, and a strategy of abuse. In this situation, the value of autonomy is an antidote to the threat. If we are all ultimately responsible for our lives and well-being, it is our job to decide whether we wish to live or die. That doesn’t mean we don’t accept help and support, ask for validation, or ask people to help us find reasons to live. Many of us in the darkest pits of trauma and depression need that help desperately. Soliciting and accepting help is another form of power and self-responsibility.
In the wake of my friend’s death, I looked at their recent Facebook posts and recognized that they were pointing obliquely to their depression and lostness. These expressions were made through humor and indirect statements, as misleading in the moment as they were obvious in retrospect. People in pain are not always able to ask for what they need, and at times might fear that receiving help would be more painful. Whatever their reasons, my friend decided to die, a choice that was theirs to make. Angie Buchanan speaks fiercely to this as a sacred right: “I believe that our deaths are the single most intimate rite of passage we have, more intimate and private than sex—and our choice to make—unapologetically. That last exhale—the final act we commit as a human being—is a sacred act, no matter the cause or the motivation.”
With my therapy clients, I am legally and ethically bound to encourage my clients to live. When a person comes to me wanting to die, I consider it my job to be an advocate for the part of them that wants to live. If that part did not exist, from my view, that client would not be here talking to me. Yet to help them fully choose to live, I need to allow nonjudgmental space to dialogue with the part of them that wants to die: to understand what death would solve, explore what the potential consequences would be—desirable or undesirable. I want their choices to come from consciousness, power, and their deep values—not fear, shame, guilt, or despair.
[Part 2 out tomorrow]
If you are considering suicide and do not have anyone you feel safe to discuss this with, please consider calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you are a queer or questioning youth, you could also call The Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386.
Anthony Rella is a witch, writer, and psychotherapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School and a member of the Fellowship of the Phoenix. Anthony has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005. More on his work is available at his website.