Intro: In this post, based on Eric Marcus’s presentation, current Oral History MA student Lizzie Li discusses suicide loss and oral history’s healing process.
“They can not only survive the suicide of a loved one, they can go on, and thrive. They can live again.”
Suicide is a heartbreaking thing. According to Preventing Suicide: A Global Imperative, released by the WTO in 2014, more than 800,000 people end their lives every year. Behind this shockingly large number, in addition to focusing on the victim: "why did they choose to commit suicide" or "what have they experienced", those who have experienced their beloved one’s suicide are also worth noticing.
Suicide brings a more complicated grief, often accompanied by shock, confusion, anger, jealousy and so on. They linger in people's lives for a long time. Eric Marcus, the author of Why Suicide? Questions & Answers About Suicide, Suicide Prevention, and Coping with Suicide of Someone You Know, also experienced these intricate emotions. Having lost his father in 1970, Marcus started to live in a sense of fear that he would also kill himself when he became 44 years old. In his early years, he refused to talk about his father’s suicide, and never mentioned this grief to any of his friends. At the age of 44, Marcus looked back and discovered his father’s life stories: “Where was dad at this point of his life? What was in his mind when he was at the same age I was at that time?”. This exploration ended with his finding compassion for his father.
When writing the book Why Suicide, Marcus researched suicide-related questions that people often ask, including questions he had about his father’s suicide. He interviewed many people who have experienced struggle in the aftermath of a loved one’s suicide, or who have had suicidal thoughts. Marcus aims to give other adults the resources to deal with a 12-year-old child whose father has just taken his own life, because when he was at that age, no one explained this to him, no one told him what happened to his father.
Writing this book not only gave him the opportunity to find the answers to his questions about his father’s suicide, but also the opportunity to recover from grief, which thus raised a question: can an oral history project help in the process of healing?
This question can be discussed from two perspectives: the healing impact of oral history project on interviewees and on interviewers. Oral history is not therapy, but the two practices do share some common ground. During an interview, the oral historian will ask questions step by step, starting from very basic questions that may lead the interviewees to tell their own stories they have kept deep inside. By sharing and digging up their “buried” stories, people who have experienced suicide loss can sometimes move forward in a healthier, more optimistic and hopeful manner. Just as Marcus said during his presentation, “oral history can be a healing process, it also can be difficult, but I found in my professional works in interviewing people about their lives, that (the interview) it’s always a positive experience for my interviewees.”
Just as the interview is an interactive activity, this healing process is bidirectional as well. Although as the interviewer, the oral historian is one who listens to other people’s stories, we still can find answers to our own questions in other people’s experience, and discover many details we seldom notice in our own lives. In 2008, Marcus’ sister-in-law jumped to her death, and this made Marcus decided to reopen the book and continue his research in suicide loss. “By rewriting the book, it really helped me to deal with her suicide”, said Marcus. When talking about the experience in interviewing people who lost their loved ones, Marcus shared:
“I think the most important thing I learned from writing the book, from interviewing lots of people who lived through the suicide of a loved one, was that I wasn’t alone. A lot of us who’ve been through the suicide of a loved one feel that we’ve the only ones in the world, and we’re often reluctant to speak about it. But by talking to people who’ve been through the suicide of a loved one, I realized that my experience was fairly common, and there was comfort in that.”
Suicide is a heavy topic. It brings pain and confusion that can haunt people for a lifetime. The questions it raises are in a sense unanswerable. However, through Marcus's work and research, we learn that people can still find ways to gradually recover from sorrow and return to real life. This takes time. Yet as Marcus said, “they can not only survive the suicide of a loved one, they can go on, and thrive. They can live again.” And one day, it will not be as painful as it was.
Lizzie Li is a current OHMA student who came from China. With her background in Anthropology, Lizzie Li hopes to apply the knowledge and skills she learned from oral history into anthropological research. This semester she is working with the Queer Newark Oral History Project.