The Prison and The Key: Pagan Perspectives on Suicide (Part 2)
Trigger warning: wide range of topics surrounding suicide.
Suicide as a Systemic Illness
Respecting the value of autonomy and de-stigmatizing suicide does not mean that Pagans valorize the act. Many Pagans value life on this Earth and want to cultivate more joy and being while we have it. Instead of judging the person who committed suicide, we look to how we can better treat the social, economic, and cultural illnesses that made this choice seem like the best option for the individual. T. Thorn Coyle, in their essay “Trigger Warnings: On Suicide in the New Belle Époque”, wrote passionately about how systemic discrimination contributes to the suicides in their social sphere:
These recent suicides of activists and artists–of genderqueer psychic painters and trans performers, of street warriors fighting for justice–might have happened anyway, no matter what. Yet I can’t help but feel that the tension all of us live with right now hurried these bright spirits on their way. Perhaps if the pressure to just pay rent was not so great… Perhaps if being trans or Black or brown or femme or queer was not to be a target of violence, disgust, or disregard… Perhaps if there was a greater appreciation of beauty, difference, justice, and joy… Perhaps… If we had been allowed to build the world we wanted, instead of spending all our time on making money, and all our money on making weapons of war–or paying for another set of bloody diamonds for the necks of the ultra rich–my friends would have found some room to breathe and be.
Queer people in particular seem to discuss suicide without so much of the dominant culture’s shame and stigma. Rather than a sign of personal weakness, my suspicion is that queer people see trauma and oppression as the true cause of death. Bruce S. McEwen, PhD, writes of the contribution of oppression to a “high allostatic load”—a term describing the costs on the body of enduring near-constant high stress levels. Whereas “homeostasis” is the system’s effort to stay the same, “allostasis” is the effort and stress of adapting to adversarial circumstances, such as working for survival and managing threats to the self. The stress hormones secreted to manage these threats has short-term protective benefits, but over the long run wears down the immune system, the adrenal system, and can significantly damage the parts of the brain and nervous system involved in identifying and processing threats.
In his essay “Allostasis and Allostatic Load: Implications for Neuropsychopharmacology,” McEwan notes “early childhood experiences of abuse and neglect […] increase allostatic load later in life and lead individuals into social isolation, hostility, depression, and conditions like […] cardiovascular disease.” The experiences Coyle talk about all contribute to high allostatic load. They barrage our wellbeing, coping strategies, support networks, and resilience and make us increasingly more vulnerable to other stressors and personal assaults.
As Coyle notes above, marginalized people in the United States know what it’s like to grow up in a society that says they are sick, aberrant, unnatural, disgusting, unwanted. We know how much effort it takes to cultivate lives of joy and pride in the face of that. We know how hard it is to simply maintain our lives when families cut off support and kick out their queer children, or when workplaces actively or passively discriminate against us. Nearly every queer person I spoke with noted that they too had considered suicide at some point in life, and didn’t blame our friend for making that choice. This particular friend was white, but being of color would add a whole host of additional political, social, and economic stresses.
Supporting the Loved Ones of Those Who Died by Suicide
A person who completes suicide leaves behind friends and family who have to work through feelings of guilt, shame, anger, confusion, betrayal, and abandonment. Suicide continues to be highly stigmatized, particularly in the culture of the United States where it is associated with weakness or selfishness. Families may choose to lie about or minimize the causes of death to avoid stigma, which, while understandable, makes it difficult for the larger community to process the loss and discuss the problems that contributed to the suicide.
Anger and sadness are normal experiences in grief, arising even the most “natural” of deaths. When I was training in grief therapy we learned that if a person seemed “stuck” in either, we could support them by helping them access the other emotion. Allowing ourselves to vacillate between anger and sadness helps us grieve, release, and heal. Maybe I’m angry at the person who died for not doing enough; or the doctor who failed to save them. In the case of suicide, it makes sense to feel both sorrow at the lost loved one and anger at the person who killed them, though they are the same person. What is important, in my opinion, is to honor the feelings of anger and try, as much as possible, to avoid getting caught up in stories of blame.
Angie Buchanan supports families of suicide by treating it like she would any other cause of death: “In my tradition and community, there is no real difference in the Death Rites for a suicide versus any other death. We would, with the permission of the family, acknowledge the cause of death, just as we would with a murder victim, a car accident victim, or the victim of an illness. Death claims us all and we all deserve the most loving send off possible.”
Priest and spiritual counselor River Devora says that this support comes, “Relentlessly, thoroughly, continually and forever.” They note that this support takes many forms: “prayer with or on behalf of family and friends of the deceased, being available to talk, helping organize grief and mourning rituals, taking someone out to dinner, showing up to help with practical things like house cleaning or childcare, referring folks to local counselors or groups.”
Spiritual Contexts for Suicide
As a witch, I have learned to watch for synchronicities and regard them lightly but consciously. Weighting things too much with meaning becomes quickly overwhelming. Living without the meaning keeps me from seeing what I have to offer in the moment. It’s what I can hold in these moments when there’s no clarity and nothing makes sense. The coincidences around my friend’s suicide made me wonder if I was playing a small role in a series of events meant to unfold as they did. I thought of that expression, “everything happens for a reason.” Those who have grieved a painful loss often remark on how invalidating and hurtful it is to be told that platitude. For me, that saying felt true, but its truth was not comforting.
When I shared these thoughts with Syren Nagakyrie, she agreed that “everything happens for a reason” is an unhelpful thing to say to a grieving person, “and yet... if I believe there are Powers that influence our lives, and that we do live in an interconnected web—whatever you want to call that thing—then yes, there is a reason.” My experience of Paganism is highly Existential, in that I have learned that it is my job to generate meaning from my experiences. At the same time, the Gods and other spirits have agency and influence the web of experience with their own apparent agendas. Perhaps some larger entity was at work, or perhaps my friend’s suicidal ideation was powerful enough to influence events in such a way that things could work out as they did. These may be the “reasons” things happened as they did, but I don’t have to like or agree with that meaning.
As for the condition of the soul after suicide, Ylva Mara Radziszewski, a former social worker and folk witch with twenty years of experience, offered her thoughts: “I find that two things are the primary cause of suffering after death. One is an unclear or dissonant cosmology of death, the other is the nature of death. Not all traumatic death results in suffering in the deceased, and for that matter, death from suicide doesn’t necessitate a traumatic death. … I think that, in general, the relationship one brings to their death is more important than the cause itself.”
River Devora offered a perspective that complements this view: “Sometimes I have found that the spirits of those who took their own lives elevate quickly; they didn’t want to be ‘here’, and found their way into a more peaceful place fairly quickly once they’d passed on. Sometimes I have found that the spirits of folks who died that way have needed more love and prayer and care and resolution with the living in order to get settled post-death. I think each death is as unique as each life, including what happens to folks after they’ve passed.”
The shaman who died had planned a huge fundraiser for their gender affirming surgery, which was scheduled to happen less than a month after their death. Family and friends decided to proceed with the event as a memorial and fundraiser for funeral costs, with extra money going toward an appropriate charity. On the bus ride down, I texted the friend who called me with the news to see how he was doing. I didn’t hear back until I was at the event. He was on the other side of the country dealing privately with his grief, but his spirits had unexpectedly lifted, and then he saw my text. He realized his relief came when the memorial began. I, too, felt that the event helped me release the weight I still carried. I spoke with friends, drank a touch more than I needed, and left an offering at the altar.
A strong theme in the shaman’s artwork are images of sadness, struggle, and transformation, in which the bodies of people locked in expressions of pain or ecstasy are erupting with flowers or turning into plants. At their apartment, I had noticed the care they had taken in making sure their plants would survive, and thought bitterly, They cared more about plants than people. After the anger wore off, I felt comforted to think their body would be cremated and distributed, able to become the plants they loved. Since their death, I have had moments of feeling connected and contacted by them. Their voice sounds strong and confident. I am willing to acknowledge this might be wishful thinking. I pray, however, they are free of suffering.
As I finish this work, a quote from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land has been echoing in my head: “We think of the key, each in his prison / Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison.” When life feels like a prison, it is tempting to imagine the key that will release us, and to seek out all the possibilities for that key. We might imagine the key to be a perfect job, a perfect lover, the right medications, the right diagnosis. We might imagine the key to be something we know to be impossible, like a different childhood. In the greatest moments of despair, suicide might look like the key. I will not begrudge anyone their choices, but my belief is that the key is within the prison walls, within our hearts. We become free when we stop seeking the key and stop viewing our lives as a prison. Thus I recommit to my work—to help others become free of suffering while alive, to help them taste joy in this world.
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.