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Keywords:

  • narrative reconstruction;
  • suicide;
  • lay explanations;
  • moral tales;
  • parental bereavement

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Parental accounts of a son's suicide
  6. Discussion
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

Suicide research relies heavily on accounts provided by bereaved relatives, using a method known as the psychological autopsy. Psychological autopsy studies are invariably quantitative in design and their findings reinforce the medical model of suicide, emphasising the role of mental illness. They largely ignore the meanings that narrators attach to events, the nature of the sense-making task and the influences bearing upon it. This study drew on psychological autopsy data but used qualitative analytic methods. Fourteen semi-structured interviews with the parents of young men aged 18–30 who had taken their own lives form the basis for this paper. Some parents represent their sons as victims who were cruelly destroyed by external forces, while others portray them as agents of their own destruction. Either way, their narratives are dominated by moral rather than medical categories and by questions of personal accountability. We show how the parents use the interview to perform a complex reconstructive task, striving to piece together both their son's and their own shattered biographies and repair damage to their moral identities. We argue that their stories represent survival tools, enabling them not only to make sense of the past but also to face their own future.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Parental accounts of a son's suicide
  6. Discussion
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

Suicide rates among young men are a major concern in all Western nations. In England and Wales during the last quarter of the 20th century, the suicide rate in young men more than doubled, while that of almost every other population group fell (ONS 2002). Since 2000 there has been a slight fall, but suicide remains the leading cause of death in this group. In 2004, nearly twice as many males aged 15–34 took their own lives as died in road traffic accidents (ONS 2005). These unnecessary deaths of physically healthy young people represent a significant loss to society and have far-reaching consequences for the health of others. Those who are bereaved by suicide often develop mental health problems and lead permanently shattered lives as a consequence of their loss (Clark and Goldney 2000).

Numerous studies have been conducted to try and understand what drives young people to suicide (Brent et al. 1993, Lesage et al. 1994, Appleby et al. 1999, Hawton et al. 1999, Houston et al. 2001). Reviewing this literature, Beautrais (2000) concludes that, while a wide range of social conditions, personality factors and adverse life events contribute to the aetiology of youth suicide, psychopathology plays the major role and clinical detection and treatment of mental illness represent the most fruitful preventative strategy. This is consistent with the wider literature, which has long emphasised the role of mental disorders in suicide.

Suicide research relies heavily on a method known as the psychological autopsy. Developed in the 1950s, the method uses interviews with surviving relatives to generate detailed pictures of deceased individuals’ lives and the events leading up to their deaths (Shneidman 1981, Beskow et al. 1990, Hawton et al. 1998). The painful subject matter and the vulnerability of informants make it a delicate procedure, but it is often justified on the grounds that it can be therapeutic (Runeson and Beskow 1991). It is usual to follow a semi-structured interview format, with open-ended questions that encourage the informant to talk freely about the person who died and to ‘tell the story’ of the suicide and the circumstances surrounding it. Gentle probing is used to elicit specific data, and a range of standardised instruments is included to assess the deceased's mental state and other factors of interest.

The psychological autopsy yields rich and complex data, not only about the lives of suicidal individuals but also about how these were construed by those around them. The process results in a wealth of material that is essentially narrative and is shaped by the informant's personal struggle to understand why the person elected to die. Previous studies have treated the data as purely quantitative and their analysis has been driven by the background and interests of the investigators. Quantitative methods are ill-suited to analysing stories, however, and by their very nature suppress, albeit inadvertently, the meanings attached to events by their narrators (Mishler 1986, Riessman 1989, 1993). They also ignore the nature of the sense-making task and the influences bearing upon it. While relying on third-person testimony, psychological autopsy studies have disregarded the nature of that testimony and the conditions under which it is given. As a consequence, the ‘voices’ of those who knew the deceased and were caught up in events surrounding the suicide have been absent from the literature. Gavin and Rogers (2006) have drawn attention to this and to the privileging of psychiatric explanations within the literature, and have called for a shift of focus.

This study drew on psychological autopsy material and analysed it using qualitative methods in order to understand suicide from the perspective of those who knew the deceased and were caught up in events surrounding the death. Writing in this journal, Lawton (2003) identifies a shift within medical sociology in the last 25 years from an ‘outsider’ perspective to one that focuses on people's subjective experience of illness and the ways in which they understand its causation and manage its disruptive effects on their lives. At the heart of this development lies an interest in narrative and its role in meaning-making and ‘identity work’ (Hyden 1997). This literature, shaped powerfully by Bury's (1982) concept of biographical disruption and Williams's (1984) work on narrative reconstruction, has focused mainly on first-person accounts of chronic illness. Fewer papers have explored how significant others account for critical health-related events or reconstruct the shattered biographies of those for whom they care, although Chamberlayne and King (1997), Hinton and Levkoff (1999), Pejlert (2001) and Harden (2005) have analysed caregivers’ tales using a narrative approach. Nor, despite a sizeable ‘sociology of death’ literature (Exley 2004), has there been much interest in how significant others make sense of death and dying. Seale's writing is notable in this area, highlighting both the role of biographical restructuring in grief work (Seale 1998) and the skilful way in which speakers manage their own identities when reporting instances of ‘dying alone’ (Seale 1995). Walter (1999) also draws attention to the process of ‘writing the last chapter’, in which the bereaved reconstruct how and why the person died and resolve difficult emotions associated with the death.

The present paper contributes to the literature on biographical reconstruction by exploring parents’ accounts of their sons’ deaths by suicide. Both Seale and Walter note that the work of reconstruction is particularly difficult in cases of suicide, and our data bear this out. A number of features distinguish these accounts from straightforward illness narratives and mark them out as extraordinarily complex reconstructions. In the first place, they are third-person accounts, at least on the surface, in which the task of the narrator is to impute meaning to events that happened in the life of another. Furthermore, the events of the life must be construed in such a way as to explain the decision to die. The stories show parents struggling to understand what went so wrong in their sons’ lives that death came to be seen as preferable to living. As such, they are tales of biographical disintegration, chronicling lives that ‘fell apart’ or became unliveable. At the same time, they are narratives of the self as well as of the son. For the bereaved parent, it is impossible to disentangle the events leading to the son's death from the impact of that death on their own life and on their identity as a parent. The story of the son is thus set within the context of the profoundly disrupted biography of the surviving parent, who is trying to understand not only ‘Why did that happen to him?’ but also ‘Why has this happened to me?’ They are thus performing a two-fold reconstructive task. In the course of a single account, they must make sense not only of their son's elected death, but also of their own tragic loss and the destruction of their life's work as a parent.

Central to the latter endeavour is what Seale (1995) terms ‘the transcendence of shame.’ Despite its decriminalisation, a self-inflicted death can still be perceived as shameful and deeply stigmatising, staining the identities of both the deceased and those who were close to him/her. Studies of those who are bereaved by suicide have found a sense of stigmatisation to be common (Dunn and Morrish-Vidners 1987, Wertheimer 2001). While individuals will experience courtesy stigma in different ways (Gray 1993), it seems reasonable to assume that the stigma of suicide will pose particular difficulties for parents whose children take their own lives while young. Harden (2005) has drawn attention to the understanding of parenting that characterises late modernity, in which the creation of a happy, healthy, well-socialised child constitutes a major project. The performance of the child and his/her passage to successful young adulthood are key measures of success for any adult who is a parent. Parents whose child decides that life is not worth living may well feel that they stand accused of not doing enough to ensure the child's happiness and protect against the loss of hope. The reconstruction of events surrounding a suicide must therefore perform the vital function of defending the moral reputations of both the son and the self. Writing about the functions of support groups for the bereaved, Pietilä (2002) noted how members used talk to construct themselves as morally adequate family members. The stories presented here are also fundamentally moral tales (Baruch 1981), in which parents seek to demonstrate that they fulfilled their responsibilities as well as circumstances allowed; that, although they may have made mistakes, they were at least ‘good enough’ parents, and that they were ultimately powerless to control their child's destiny.

Methods

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Parental accounts of a son's suicide
  6. Discussion
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

The accounts presented here were given by parents of males aged between 18 and 30 whose deaths had been recorded as suicides or open verdicts. They form part of the data collected during a case-controlled psychological autopsy study. The design and methods of the original study have been reported in detail elsewhere, together with the results of quantitative analysis (Owens et al. 2003, 2004).

Interviews were conducted in informants’ homes by CO, five to 41 months after the deaths in question, using a semi-structured interview schedule covering social and personality factors, life events and difficulties, history of physical and mental health problems and contact with service providers. As part of a subsequent study of lay understandings of suicide, interview tapes were transcribed and subjected to qualitative analysis (Owens et al. 2005). In the original study we collected data on 100 cases of suicide, of which 20 were males aged between 18 and 30 years. In 17 of those 20 cases, the informant was a parent (9 mothers; 6 fathers; 2 both). Three interviews could not be transcribed, leaving 14 cases to form the basis of this paper. Their socio-demographic characteristics are shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Socio-demographic characteristics of sample
PseudonymInformantAge at deathMarital statusAccommodationEmployment statusSocial class
  • *

    Students’ social class is based on occupation of main-earning parent.

  • All but one were of white ethnic origin.

JonathanFather18SingleParental homeStudentIII-M*
LukeFather18SingleParental homeEmployedIII-M
CarlMother19SingleRented accommodationUnemployedIII-N
AdamMother20SingleStudent accommodationStudentII*
TomFather20SingleParental homeEmployedIV
DarrenMother21SingleParental homeEmployedIV
RichardBoth parents24SingleRented accommodationUnemployedIII-M
StevenMother24SingleHomeownerEmployedIV
FrancisMother25SingleParental homeEmployedIII-N
PaulMother25SeparatedRented accommodationEmployedIII-M
NevilleMother27SeparatedRented accommodationUnemployedIV
JasonMother29SingleParental homeEmployedIV
MartinFather29SingleRented accommodationUnemployedIV
JoeFather29SeparatedHomeownerEmployedIII-M

The human tendency to make sense of events through telling stories is universal and is evident in almost all interview data (Mishler 1986, Riessman 1989, 1993, Orbuch 1997, Bury 2001). The informants in this study were no exception. They all told stories and embedded within them their beliefs about what or who was responsible for the suicide. Moreover, they required little encouragement to do so. The taboos surrounding suicide mean that those affected by it have little opportunity to reflect at length with anyone outside the immediate family (Sanborn and Sanborn 1976, Dunn and Morrish-Vidners 1987). The effect of this deprivation was clear. Their ‘need to tell’ was overwhelming and their stories came tumbling out, often with little or no prompting, sometimes before the interviewer was able to take off her coat and switch on the tape-recorder. On other occasions, the interviewer began by asking scheduled questions and continued until the informant felt sufficiently at ease to embark on the telling of their story. There was a moment in every interview at which this happened and the informant effectively took control. One mother began her tale after only the second question, pouring out an uninterrupted narrative that occupied more than 10 pages of single-spaced transcript and broke off only when she became distressed and the interviewer stopped the recorder.

The purposes of the original study, which was quantitative in design, could have been achieved more quickly had the interviewer interrupted her earlier and guided the interview back to the scheduled questions. Mishler (1986) notes that researchers have many opportunities to suppress people's stories at different stages of the research process, and that narrative material can easily be dismissed as irrelevant if it fails to address the investigator's questions directly. The human dynamics of these interviews precluded this, however. Just as the informants needed to tell, so did the interviewer feel compelled to listen and to hear ‘the whole story’, spontaneously told. Given the painful nature of the subject matter, she was also concerned to allow informants maximum control over the manner in which information was presented (Cannon 1989, Lee 1993). In most cases, therefore, once the story-telling moment arrived, verbal interaction between interviewer and informant was suspended and the story emerged, often in full in a single instalment.

Many of the stories seemed well-rehearsed and a process of co-construction (Holstein and Gubrium 1997) is not readily apparent from the transcripts. By interrupting the flow as little as possible, the interviewer appears to be colluding with the speaker's interpretation of events, rather than collaborating in its production. The informants’ status as active creators of meaning or ‘sense-makers’ cannot, however, be in any doubt. It is clear that their stories are highly sophisticated and selective reconstructions, designed to serve strategic purposes both within the research interview and beyond. The speakers’ non-neutrality, their anger and their pain are unmistakable, as are their efforts to manage their identities during what must have been for them an exceptionally challenging social encounter. All these impact powerfully on the way in which they reconstruct their son's life and account for his decision to die.

Parental accounts of a son's suicide

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Parental accounts of a son's suicide
  6. Discussion
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

The focus in all the parental accounts is on moral accountability. The parents’ primary concern seems to be to determine whether their son was responsible for the disintegration of his own life or whether that responsibility lay elsewhere. Thus the stories fall into two broad types. Some parents represent their sons as victims who were cruelly destroyed by forces outside themselves, while others portray them as agents of their own destruction. There are variations within each story-type. Victim stories divide broadly into those in which the son is knowingly persecuted by a malevolent other and those in which he is the victim of social injustice or a cruel and arbitrary fate. Agent stories locate the root of the problem in the son's own character and values, attributing it to either a deficiency or an excess of conscience. Not all stories fall neatly into a single category, a few sons being portrayed as part-agent, part-victim. Here we illustrate the salient features of each story-type.

The son as victim of malevolent intent: ‘She drove him to it’

Breakdown of a personal relationship is well known to be associated with suicide and is central to the accounts given by several parents. If we were processing the data quantitatively, we would simply tick a box for ‘interpersonal difficulties’ and move on, but attention to the narrative reveals that, for parents, there is far more to it than that. In five accounts, parents present highly defamatory portraits of their son's female partner as a malevolent other who knowingly hounded an innocent young man to his death.

Steven1 killed himself at the age of 24. Two minutes into the interview, the interviewer asked his mother where he had been living at the time of his death, and she took this as her cue to tell the story of his disastrous involvement with a manipulative young woman who, she maintains, exploited his good nature, trifled with his emotions and steadily drove him to despair:

He went out with her I think when he was about 17 at first and then it finished and he went out with other girls. [ . . . ] But it was a case of whenever he had another girlfriend she wanted him back. And that's how it continued. [ . . . ] Um and when was it, in the February he was very quiet and very upset and he broke down in tears one day and apologised to me and I'm saying, ‘What on earth's wrong?’ and he said, ‘Laura's pregnant’. And I said, ‘Well whose is it?’ And he said she didn't know, cos um the other boyfriend had left her. So I said, ‘Well what are you going to do, Steven?’ So he said, ‘Well stand by her’, because he was that sort of boy. So of course I wasn't very pleased about it. He said when she had the baby she was going to have the tests done to see who was the father. But I said, ‘Well Steven, you know that probably won't happen, because she knows what you’re like and as soon as you see the baby, you know, you’re going to believe it's yours whether it is or not’.

From the start, Steven's mother establishes both her son's and her own moral integrity and contrasts this with the unprincipled character of his girlfriend. Laura is portrayed as promiscuous and scheming, whilst Steven is loyal, sincere and ready to do the honourable thing in accepting responsibility for Laura and her child. She makes it clear that he stood by Laura ‘because he was that sort of boy’, not because of any extrinsic pressures and even despite his mother's expressed disapproval and her warnings regarding Laura's likely duplicity. His steadfastness reflects positively on his mother and helps to establish an image of satisfactory parenting. Later on, Steven's mother questions whether she and her husband might have contributed to the tragedy by teaching him to be too dutiful and thus laying him open to exploitation:

I do wonder whether we brought them up to be too . . . (pause), I know it sounds silly but um, what's the word I'm looking for? Wanting to do the right thing.

Framing her question as to her own involvement in the tragedy in this way is perfectly safe, since it poses no threat to her moral and social standing and actually serves to reinforce it.

She goes on to tell how he bought a house, they moved in together and Steven accepted the child as his own. His mother, notwithstanding her misgivings about the girl, accepted her son's decision and threw herself into the role of grandmother although paternity had never been established. She states clearly that, in doing so, she was fulfilling what she believed to be her parental duty:

It was very difficult but I felt this was what he wants and it's what you’re supposed to do, just back your children whatever they decide. You can't – however you feel, you've got to do what they want.

Here she conveys a sense of powerlessness to intervene, but also identifies herself with an imagined community of ‘good parents’ who support their children in the right manner. Such parents, she claims, face the same agonising situation, namely that once one's children reach adulthood one cannot make their decisions for them; one has to stand by and watch them make mistakes, in this case with tragic consequences.

Almost immediately after the birth, it was apparent to her that the relationship was in serious trouble. Laura continued to sleep with other men, repeatedly threw Steven out, then begged him to come back when it suited her or when jealousy prevailed:

And then it was obvious things weren't going right. [ . . . ] She'd thrown him out of the house. Apparently she'd been having an affair while he was working away and she told him to get out and he got out and moved in with [his brother] for some months [ . . . ]. And then he moved back. She said he could move back so he moved back. Oh no, it was the second time. She'd thrown him out again, and of course he went. The next thing, she's on the phone. She'd heard that he'd walked a girl home, so he could come back. And this is the way it was. Then when we went up there, there's a mattress in the living room and he said he'd been told to sleep on the mattress.

According to Steven's mother, she ‘goaded’ and ‘badgered’ him, pushing him to breaking point and finally, knowing that he had acquired the means of suicide, failed to seek help and even challenged him to use it. The girl's degeneracy and weakness of character are absolutely confirmed for the mother by this:

I want to know what we ever did and what Steven ever did for her to be able to act like that. [ . . . ] Wicked, wicked. I’ll never come to terms with it. She obviously knew how he was feeling [ . . . ]. Why didn't she have the sense to tell us, and worse than that, why phone him up and goad him into doing it?

Laura is portrayed as the key player throughout this drama. She remains firmly in control, whilst Steven progressively loses his grip. This is typical of this story-type, which, by focusing on the partner's acts and omissions, seeks to establish the son's innocence. The son emerges as a pawn whose every move was controlled by his partner, so that, notwithstanding the verdict of suicide, he cannot be held responsible for his own death. Another mother tells an almost identical story involving her son Paul and his wife, whom she refuses to name but refers to throughout as ‘the-daughter-in-law-from-hell’. At several points during her narrative, Paul's mother corrects herself, tellingly shifting the action from her son to the daughter-in-law in order to emphasise her part in bringing about the events in question:

. . . a month or so before he left (brief pause) – no, not left her, she threw him out.

Paul's mother goes further, explicitly constructing her son's death as a case of indirect murder:

I never met anybody as cruel as her and I never want to again. She destroyed my son [ . . . ] I truly believe she murdered him.

We might reasonably assume that this story is a product of a mother's inability to accept the other woman in her son's life, but two fathers also reconstruct events in much this way. One begins his tale by observing tersely:

Well, I think Mandy was being, um, a bitch to him.

Later on, he offers corroborating evidence that supports his assessment of the girl:

We found all the letters that she wrote to him in his room afterwards, you know. I mean, we just couldn't believe that anyone could write those things [ . . . ] We've got copies upstairs that we could show you if you wanted, just to see an example of what she was like.

This strategy is used frequently by parents telling persecution tales, and not only to reinforce their low opinion of the girl. They also produced cards, letters and tributes testifying to their son's blameless character. The girl's behaviour after the death is also cited as confirmation of her callousness. This includes various forms of alleged ‘money grabbing’, failure to attend the funeral and refusal to have any further contact with the family, all of which are presented as demonstrating complete lack of remorse. Paul's mother says of her daughter-in-law:

She had to be contacted to see if – what she wanted to have done with the body, because it didn't belong to me. And she said, ‘I don't want anything to do with you. You do what you bloody well like with him’.

She goes on to tell how the girl continues to make her life difficult and to compound her misery by denying her access to the grandchildren.

In these stories, both son and parent emerge as victims of a malevolent other, with the desecration of the parent's domestic world constituting a secondary narrative. All the parents in our study used the interview as an opportunity to recreate their domestic world. Those in this subset present a socially normative vision of the home and family as a safe, wholesome, nurturing environment, and portray all threats to the wellbeing of family members and to the integrity of family life as coming from outside. Steven's mother is again typical. In her account, the family home is depicted as a warm, secure base from which her adult sons still came and went, where there was always a hot meal on the table and a ready welcome for any of their friends. Steven himself is portrayed as an archetypal ‘home boy’:

He used to come home here for his dinners a lot. Well, he always used to come home a lot anyway.

Central to the story is the construction of the girlfriend as an outsider. This is achieved by emphasising her deviance from the values held by the parent and purportedly shared by the rest of the family. Promiscuity and materialism are chiefly cited as evidence of the girl's lack of moral fit. A number of parents, including fathers, also point to the girl's lack of even the most rudimentary domestic skill. Neville's mother says of his wife-to-be:

She lived in a most filthy house. [ . . . ] I'd learned my housewifery skills from my mother, but she hadn't. I don't think she had any.

In identifying the girl as the cause of the tragedy, positioning her firmly outside their own domestic sphere and showing how she violated their sense of decency and pattern of stable family life, the parents are able to defend their moral integrity and preserve a mental image of the perfect home and family that was destroyed by an alien force.

The son as victim of social disadvantage: ‘The system let him down’

A second type of victim story blames no-one in particular. It is a classic tale of the individual crushed by the social system and by the hand of fate: inexorable, impersonal forces against which he stood little chance. There is one outstanding example, namely Carl, while two other parents combine elements of this story with those of another.

Carl was only 19 when he killed himself. His mother tells a powerful story of social injustice, in which deprivation and disadvantage play a key role. In it, she reconstructs her own struggle as a lone parent on benefits to get a decent deal for her kids and shows how, despite her efforts, the family as a whole, and Carl in particular, was repeatedly failed by the welfare system. His story begins in early childhood. Having answered a few preliminary questions, his mother plunges into a tale of unremitting hardship. Throughout her tale, the problems faced by her son are inseparable from her own struggle as a parent to get her voice heard:

Well he left school um, school was a problem for him. He was dyslexic. He had um, he found education very difficult. [ . . . ] He was, you know, quite a bright enough lad but he just had real problems with um reading and writing and stuff because of his dyslexia. It was quite severe and he had very low self-confidence, no self-worth, not enough support from the right kind of people. I mean at the age of five I questioned whether he was dyslexic or not and was told, ‘No, don't be silly’, and eventually I contacted educational welfare and took him along and demanded that they test him at 13. Then they discovered, yeah, he was dyslexic which I'd known all along because I'm dyslexic, but there was no help. The school was hopeless, the educational authority was hopeless, the health authority was hopeless, nobody wanted to know. I was just classified as a fussy mother, you know, but um, they were all wrong and I was right. They don’– they don't trust you to have enough knowledge to be able to say these things for them to believe you. They think that because you’re just a parent, because you’re not a trained expert, you don't know what you’re talking about, you know. That might be so in some cases but in mine it wasn't. I'm not stupid. I feel that Carl was let down badly by a lot of people. I'm sorry . . . (crying).

She presents herself here as a highly competent mother, who understood her child's needs perfectly, but whose concerns went unheeded for far too long by those who thought they knew better. Other parents describe similar experiences of service providers who ignored their appeals for help, but lack the heroic quality of this particular story.

This mother depicts herself as a fighter, battling to get help for her failing child, and thus establishes her absolute moral integrity. Her son, on the other hand, emerges as utterly defenceless, lacking the will to survive in this harsh world and gradually giving up. Carl's mother tells how, in his early teens, his life began to fall apart. He began truanting, drinking heavily, engaging in antisocial behaviour and acts of violence against his mother and siblings, and eventually against himself. His mother defends him to the last, making it clear that he was not to blame for what might be seen as moral failings:

He wasn't a bad person. [ . . . ] He really was a nice, nice lad. [ . . . ] He had a lot of problems but they weren't his fault. He was just very unlucky.

She sees it as part and parcel of his misfortune to have been denied the inner resources that he needed to overcome the odds and make something of his life. His is essentially a hard luck story; life dealt him a poor hand and he never really stood a chance:

He just didn't have that strength or whatever it is that you need – that you have to have to cope with a hard life. [ . . . ] It's just one of those things. People are different and um, sadly for Carl but he was always vulnerable.

There is no idealised portrayal of family life here, and Carl's mother is candid about her own mistakes. Unable to cope with his deteriorating behaviour, she expelled him several times from the family home and admits that this cannot have helped his fragile self-esteem:

He went into foster care for a while, which was a terrible experience and it shouldn't have happened really, but at the time I didn't know what else to do. [ . . . ] I thought that if he went into a family situation where there was a strong male figure, you know one that he could relate to, that it might help him to turn his life around a bit but um, it didn't really work.

I imagine that he felt we all let him down actually. [ . . . ] He must have felt pretty pissed off with me because I made him move out of the home and stuff like that, but I had to think about all of them, not just him. [ . . . ] Obviously to Carl it was the ultimate rejection.

In this tale, the son is cast as the outsider, whose behaviour cannot be accommodated within the family and who has to be ‘othered’ for his own good and for that of the whole. His mother protests that she always had the family's interests at heart and was simply doing the best she could in difficult circumstances. Again, both mother and son emerge as victims. This is a tale of her personal hardship as well as her son's: an alcoholic and violent husband, poverty, poor health and the struggle to bring up her children on a run-down estate and to counteract the negative influences of their environment. Her defence of both herself and her son rests on her representation of her family as being at the bottom of the social heap. Both she and Carl emerge as well-meaning but powerless in the face of social inequalities and the seeming indifference of welfare agencies towards their plight.

The son as agent of his own destruction: ‘He ruined his own chances’

Other parents locate the seeds of the tragedy within their own son and show how even the most diligent nurture proved powerless to counteract a perverse and self-destructive nature. Those in this first subset portray their sons as ‘bad lads’: wastrels, who, despite their parents’ best efforts, went off the rails at an early age and recklessly threw away their life chances. There are three clear-cut examples.

Richard killed himself at the age of 24. He had a criminal record, was single, unemployed, lonely and apparently in despair at his lack of prospects. His parents allege that he had sabotaged his own prospects and had only himself to blame for the situation in which he found himself.

Some way into the interview, having struggled to make elements of her story fit the interviewer's questions, his mother abandons the attempt and asks to be allowed to tell it in her own way. She immediately homes in on what she believes to have been the nub of the problem, namely her son's wayward nature:

I mean, perhaps it might be easier if we started at the beginning, you know, it's quite a long story. Um well, most of his life Richard has always been the odd-one-out (laughs), for want of a better expression. Richard always did what Richard wanted to do and it didn't really matter what the repercussions were. Whether it was lawful or not didn't really make any difference to Richard.

Delving back into his past, his parents recount how, even as a small child, he had exhibited the character traits that they believe were responsible for his ultimate downfall: impulsiveness, an inability to conform, a wilful disregard for others, a need for immediate gratification and a complete lack of ‘sticking power’. Before the age of 10, he was stealing from his mother's purse, truanting regularly and disregarding all forms of authority, including their own. All parental efforts to keep him under control failed and their appeals for professional help, like those of Carl's mother, went unanswered. So he continued on his self-destructive course, spiralling downwards into a life of petty crime and serving repeated prison sentences.

These parents, unlike Carl's, cannot claim social disadvantage, nor do they seek to excuse his behaviour in any way. They make it clear that, whilst friends may not exactly have been good influences, they did not lead him astray. He is portrayed throughout as a free agent, responsible for making his own moral choices, landing himself in trouble and shaping his own destiny. Like Carl, he was expelled from home, but these parents show how, through his independent choices, he exiled himself from the family circle and made himself an outsider:

Mother: And then when he was 16 he left to live at his friend's house.

Father: I chucked him out as much as anything.

Mother: Yeah, yeah, because he was just splitting the whole family, wasn't he? He didn't have any regard for anybody's property. He would come and go as he pleased. [ . . . ] And we said to him, ‘Well, you don't want to be part of this family. It's obvious you don't, because you wouldn't be doing the things you’re doing’. So he went to live with his friend for a while.

The threat to the parents’ moral identity from his life, quite apart from his death, was acutely felt. They strove to dissociate themselves from his moral shortcomings by taking a tough, uncompromising stand towards his delinquency. Martin's mother tells a strikingly similar story of her struggle not only to control her errant son, but also to maintain her own sense of moral integrity:

I was summoned to his school and I thought, ‘I'm losing this. I'm going to have a son in real trouble soon’. So we put him on a rein and held on to it really tightly, so that if he wanted to go anywhere he had to be taken and we had to fetch him. [ . . . ] Then I had a phone call from my mother-in-law who lives nearby to say that while she had been away somebody broke in her house and stuff had gone missing there. [ . . . ] And I had to be Judas and shop my son to the police. Because I had to know, had he done it?

What comes through in these stories is a genuine sense of puzzlement and of personal injury. The parents are clearly wrestling with the unspoken question: ‘Why, despite all we did for him, did he do this to us?’ They leave their audience in no doubt that he abused them, their love, their trust and their property. He caused them endless grief, in life as in death, and he was morally in the wrong: on this they refuse to budge. At no point do they condone his conduct. They also repeatedly emphasise its unwarrantedness. Recounting how he stole her handbag, containing vital medication as well as money, Richard's mother comments:

We felt so abandoned and let down, didn't we, because I don't think as parents we deserved – we hadn't done anything to deserve that really. [ . . . ] How old was he then? Twenty-one, twenty-two? I mean, he wasn't a child. He was a fully-grown man. He should've known the distress he was causing. He shouldn't have done it. I mean, there was no two ways about it.

Both families cite the well-adjusted nature of siblings as evidence that their childrearing practice was not at fault. They present themselves as decent, honest, hard-working folk, who did their utmost to provide a stable home and impart sound values to their children. Richard's mother says:

We’re nothing particularly outstanding or whatever. We’re just, well I think we’re just a typical family. You know, we work, we have good times and bad times and normally do our best, don't we?

This claim to normality and lack of pretension appears in several parents’ interviews and plays an important role in highlighting both the incomprehensibility and unmeritedness of the tragedies that befell them. At the same time, it is a device for defending their status as ‘good enough’ parents, who did possibly no more but certainly no less for their child than the average parent.

The parents in this group set themselves a supremely difficult task, for they choose to show that, through their own moral deficiencies, their sons were responsible for wrecking their own lives and profoundly disrupting theirs. The challenge is to accomplish this whilst maintaining their self-respect and sense of parental competence, and without appearing callous and unloving. Richard's parents are helped by their joint presence during the interview. They constantly look to each other for confirmation with the words, ‘didn't he?’ and ‘wasn't he?’ Richard's mother also works hard to keep the listener on her side through repeated use of the phrase ‘you know’, appealing to intersubjectivity or a shared reality (Baruch 1981). Several other parents explicitly made such an appeal by interrupting their stories to ask the interviewer, ‘Do you have children?’, thereby seeking acknowledgement of the difficulties and dilemmas facing parents even at the best of times.

Parents in this group face the challenge of having to account for their son's life, as well as his death. It is the life that is presented as the real puzzle. The suicide makes sense to them when set in the context of a long history of aimlessness and anomie, but the question of why, despite their love and care, he was unable to carve out a meaningful path through life remains largely unresolved. Finding no other satisfactory explanation, Richard's mother finally settles on Nature as the culprit, deciding that there must have been some innate flaw in his psychological make-up that no amount of parenting could rectify:

I think there was part of his personality that was missing. There was something missing, for him to do the things that he did.

The son as agent of his own destruction: ‘He pushed himself too hard’

The sense that their son was ‘not like us’ is shared by parents in the final subset, but these parents place their sons at the opposite end of the moral spectrum. Far from wasting talents and opportunities, their sons are depicted as overachievers, who drove themselves to the limit of their abilities, and beyond. Two stories are unequivocally of this type, whilst a further three contain some elements.

Perfectionism is a personality trait that is well known to be associated with suicide, particularly in students (Blatt 1995). Adam is a classic case. A final-year university student and brilliant young international sportsman, he is portrayed by his mother as a high achiever who put himself under extreme pressure to succeed in both work and sporting activities:

Everything he played he won. He always wanted to win. [ . . . ] His nan said to him, ‘Adam, it's only a game’, and he said, ‘No, it's not a game any more’. [ . . . ] He was too strict with himself.

Her account focuses on her son's internal driven-ness and his inability to accept anything but the best from himself. She tells how, although clearly on course for a first-class degree, he misjudged, fell behind with his coursework and apparently panicked at the prospect of failing to meet his final deadlines. Clearly there were some external pressures, but his mother leaves us in no doubt that the problem lay within her son, in some defect of nature:

There was obviously something that was not quite right somewhere.

Jonathan's father tells a similar tale of a model student who took excessive pride in everything he did and who collapsed under the weight of his own expectations:

Everything he did had to be done right, you know. He was a perfectionist, no doubt about that. His work and even if he washed the dishes. He wouldn't even let me wash dishes.

Unlike the previous group, these are ‘home boys’ and exemplary sons, but this does not make the parents’ task any easier. They still wrestle with the question of whether, as parents, they contributed to the tragedy and take pains to exhibit themselves as normal, unassuming folk who did not exert undue pressure to succeed. Jonathan's father states:

I never, never pushed him. I've often said to him, ‘If you want to drive a truck, Jon, or go on a building site, you do it’. [ . . . ] But he said, ‘No, I want to go to university, it's something I want to do’. [ . . . ] My wife, she hasn't tried to push him. His sister, she was completely opposite. All she wanted to do was leave school and get a job.

Adam's mother tells how she worried about him all along and often urged him to ease the pressure on himself. Like Steven's mother, she appeals to a shared parental reality in which one has to accept that, as a parent, one cannot make their choices for them:

He'd achieved all his life. He should've had a year out and relaxed and wound down from the system. Picking potatoes or anything. It would've made him more ordinary somehow. But no, he went straight from A-levels.

These parents are in an odd situation. It is usual for parents to bask in the reflected glory that comes from having a high-achieving child. They cannot do that. Their son's prodigious talent turned out to be a poisoned chalice, destroying his life and theirs and leaving them wondering where on earth it came from. In an effort to preserve their self-respect, they seek to rule out the possibility that he inherited it from them. Adam's mother insists that, while she too is a meticulous type, she is nonetheless at a loss to understand her son's fanaticism. Like those in the last group, these parents can only point the finger at Nature and charge her with having made a fatal error.

Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Parental accounts of a son's suicide
  6. Discussion
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

Our findings reveal how parents of young men who took their own lives have come to terms with this most devastating of losses and dealt with its potentially stigmatising effects. We have identified four modes of explanation for a son's suicide, which present different challenges for speakers but also offer opportunities to defend their parental competence in different ways.

Somewhat surprisingly, since existing literature indicates consistently that mental illness plays the major role in youth suicide (Beautrais 2000) and quantitative analysis of our data largely supports that position (Owens et al. 2003, 2004), these are not illness narratives. The parents all resist drawing on an available medical discourse in order to account for the disintegration of their sons’ lives, employing instead a moral discourse that relies heavily on notions of agency and accountability. As they struggle to work through their intense pain and question whether they were in any way to blame for what happened, their stories focus not just on what took place but on who played the decisive role. There is an overwhelming concern with the moral integrity of key players.

Within this framework, individuals are portrayed as playing either active or passive roles in the events leading up to the tragedy. Some parents chose to construe their son as an innocent victim whose demise was the result of others’ actions. Blaming is endemic in families after a suicide (Dunn and Morrish-Vidners 1987) and performs a number of important psychological functions, providing a mechanism whereby the bereaved are able to displace anger and guilt, exonerate themselves and regain a sense of control. In both types of victim story, blame for the tragedy is located firmly outside the immediate family, with both parent and son being portrayed as powerless in the face of external social forces over which neither had any control.

Other parents adopted the much riskier strategy of portraying their son as agent of his own destruction, whose free moral choices, whether good or bad, were his undoing. The danger in this is that it would seem to imply that the destructive force originated within the family and thus to implicate the parent. In order to defend their own moral status and preserve a vision of their family as benign and wholesome, these parents must find some means of distancing themselves from their sons, to the extent of casting them as ‘not one of us’. The distinction between nature and nurture serves them well, allowing them to admit responsibility for the latter and demonstrate the adequacy of their parenting, whilst disclaiming liability for the former and representing the fatal flaw as the product of a genetic aberration that was beyond their control.

The quality of home life, and the soundness of the values underpinning it, serve as a vital indicator of parental competence, and efforts to exhibit these are evident in all accounts. Parents use the storytelling to reconstruct their domestic worlds, shattered by the death of the son, and to re-affirm and defend their ‘family values’, casting as morally suspect any who failed to subscribe or conform to those values, including, where necessary, their own sons. Individuals are positioned strategically inside or outside the closed world of the home and family, depending on their degree of fit with its core values and their perceived culpability, in an effort on the part of the parents to restore a sense of order and ontological security.

Walter (1999) notes how, in the light of a sudden, violent or problematic death, the entire life both of the deceased and of those who survive him/her has to be rewritten. A parent whose child has taken his/her own life has surely the most difficult task of all. Our findings show parents struggling to reconstruct their own lives and identities in the light of this hideous event. Although asked explicitly to account only for the actions of their son, they clearly felt called upon to account equally for their own actions and to explain how, within the context of the family that they created, such a thing could have happened. The stories they told in their interviews with us are snapshots of a long and arduous process of self-examination and self-exculpation.

Their ultimate task is to come up with a version of events that enables them both to make sense of the past and to contemplate the future. Seale (1998) draws attention to the role of post-mortem narrative reconstruction in restoring the survivor's orientation towards living, and Wheeler (2001), writing about the challenges facing bereaved parents, notes that the search for meaning in death involves finding reasons to reinvest in a world without the child. It is well known that those bereaved by suicide, particularly that of their child, frequently consider taking their own lives (Wertheimer 2001). They in turn become an ‘at risk’ group. This throws their stories into sharper relief. The events surrounding the deaths of the young men in this study could probably have been interpreted in many other ways. What seems clear is that the parents have settled on a version of events that enables them to go on living. The stories they have woven around their sons’ deaths represent survival tools, preserving their sanity and giving them permission to carry on.

Stories like these are collected in all psychological autopsy studies but rarely find their way into the suicide literature. That literature has no place for personal accountability, nor any interest in the morals and motives of individuals, and its reliance on quantitative methods has ensured that these elements are systematically stripped from the data albeit for good reason. Psychological autopsy studies are driven by the need to inform the development of suicide prevention strategies. They do so by de-personalising their data and distilling from them a set of universal factors that will identify those at risk and that are amenable to intervention: mental disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, social isolation, unemployment and other macro-social factors. In the process, individual players and the dramas in which they are caught up are lost to view. As Abbott (cited in Orbuch 1997) observes:

Our normal methods parse social reality into fixed entities with variable qualities. They attribute causality to the variables – hypostatized social characteristics – rather than to agents; variables do things, not social actors. Stories disappear.

Treating the stories as stories, rather than simply grist for the epidemiological mill, serves to remind us that, far from being straightforward factual accounts of what led these young men to take their lives, they are highly sophisticated and selective reconstructions that are designed to serve the needs of the narrator as much as those of the researcher, and that can tell us as much about the state of mind of the bereaved as about the life of the deceased. ‘Topicalising’ the accounts (Silverman 2001), by choosing to look at how speakers present themselves and manage their spoiled identities, does not preclude using them as a resource for finding out about the lives of those who died, for there is no reason to suppose that the events recounted do not have a basis in fact. It is likely that Steven and Paul really were experiencing significant interpersonal difficulties; Carl's mother did live on a ‘shitty estate’ (her words), and Richard's criminal behaviour and Adam's high grades will doubtless be on record. The value of the narrative approach, however, lies in its ability to shed light not on events leading up to the suicidal act, i.e. the influences upon it, but rather on the ramifications of it, and thus to inform the work of postvention rather than prevention.

Shneidman (1972) drew attention to the fact that every suicide is a dyadic crisis involving both the person who dies and the significant others who survive him/her, and coined the term postvention to refer to the work of helping those affected by a suicide to deal with its psychological sequelae and manage its social stigma. Our findings will be relevant to all those engaged in this work, highlighting the intense private suffering of parents whose child has elected to die.

I believe that the person who commits suicide puts his psychological skeleton in the survivor's emotional closet – he sentences the survivor to deal with many negative feelings and, more, to become obsessed with thoughts regarding his own actual or possible role in having precipitated the suicidal act or having failed to abort it. It can be a heavy load (Shneidman 1972:x).

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Parental accounts of a son's suicide
  6. Discussion
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

The study was funded by the NHS Executive South West Region. Thanks are due to Valerie Beardsworth who transcribed the interviews, Nicky Britten who commented on an earlier draft of the paper and peer reviewers for their constructive comments, but above all to the parents who shared their personal stories.

Note
  • 1

    We have used pseudonyms throughout and changed certain personal details to protect individual identities.

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  7. Acknowledgements
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