As open and relational or process philosophers, we, Farhan Shah (Muslim) and Jay McDaniel (Christian), draw inspiration from the philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead and Muhammad Iqbal. In this spirit, we share our reflections on suicide, hoping to provide some solace to those considering it as well as their friends and family members. We are mindful that our ideas may not offer solutions to all problems or be applicable to everyone, but our aim is to offer support to those in need. Our philosophy finds relevance when it addresses urgent existential situations, such as suicide and suicidal ideation. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or is in crisis anywhere in the world, please refer to the following resources:
The International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) provides a comprehensive list of crisis centers and hotlines in numerous countries worldwide. Visit their website to locate resources specific to your location: https://www.iasp.info/resources/Crisis_Centres/
Befrienders Worldwide is a non-profit organization that offers emotional support and crisis intervention through their network of helplines in over 40 countries. Their website provides a directory of helplines accessible to you: https://www.befrienders.org/
Remember that you are not alone, and there is help available to you, whether you are feeling suicidal or have lost a loved one to suicide. Please seek support.
The Final Word is Tenderness: Journeying with a Person in Pain
Many suicidal individuals communicate a cry of pain, and this pain can emerge from being on the brink of utter despair. Soren Kierkegaard described despair as the sickness unto death, where one realizes that they can sink even deeper into the greatest sadness. I However, the suicide can simultaneously be an act of hope: a hope that things can be different, that suffering can cease, that there is an unknown ahead that can be better than what is. Suicide carries within it many contrasting emotions.
We are called to journey with the person in the pain, just as God journeys with each and all. To journey with someone through this season in hell requires our courage, listening, compassion, and hope; these are among the deepest gifts we can offer. Our journeying with them is itself an act of love, no matter the outcome.
As we journey, it is important to challenge troubling assumptions in Western culture related to suicide and suicidal thinking, such as the idea that the key to understanding someone's suffering always lies in a person’s past or in relationships in the present. There are many different causes for suicide, some of which have little to do with the past or with present relationships. Another is that treatment is about chemically removing painful emotions and moods. For some people in some circumstances, painful emotions and moods are elements in their thoughtfulness, their sensitivity, their kindness. The need is work with the pain, but not always to eliminate it, chemically or otherwise.
Journeying with a person who has suicidal thoughts does not end if they end their lives. From a process perspective, relationships do not end with death; they continue even after death. If a person takes his or her life, for whatever reason, his mind or soul continues after death, and the act of suicide is not at all the defining moment of his life. It is a moment in his or her journey.
God - a God of tenderness and love - is in the journey before, during, and after. In each moment of a person’s life, say process theologians, God is present as an inwardly felt lure toward wholeness, toward well-being, toward love, toward peace of mind, and this inwardly felt lure does not end with death. A person can be creatively transformed after death, for the good, in ways that were not possible or available in life before death.
God is also present, before and after, as a companion to whatever suffering has occurred, feeling the feelings of the person as, in Whitehead’s words, “a fellow sufferer who understands.” God is the Lure toward wholeness and also the tender Companion.
If God is present in these ways, so we can be present, even as we mourn the loss of our loved one. The Roman Catholic has a tradition of “speaking to the deceased” after they die, talking with them. Those of us who are left behind can continue to speak with our loved one, for as long as needed, trustful that our talk somehow winds its way into the mysterious place where his or her journey continues. We can rightly hope for, and perhaps help with, the creative transformation that is needed in that human journey toward wholeness. Our prayers make a difference even after death.
And we ourselves need such transformation, too. The death of a loved one from suicide is immensely painful, and there is no formula for working through the grief. We can feel anger, sadness, hope, despair, peace, frustration – sometimes all at the same time. God is working with us, too, to help bring about healing and wholeness, as is possible.
The act of suicide was not planned by God. It was not part of a game-plan that God knew in advance. And because humans have agency of their own, it was not preventable by God, either. Some things happen in the world that even God cannot prevent.
However, say process theologians, God is with those who take their lives, sharing in the suffering and their hope that it can cease, and God is with their friends and families, too. There is nothing that can stop God's withness, God's compassion. Like a womb that embraces the whole universe, divine love enfolds each and all with tender care, unfailingly and forever. Despair is never the final word, in life or in death. The final word, in this life and the next, is tenderness.
- Jay McDaniel
The Fellow Sufferer
About suicide, Simone de Beauvoir writes: 'that is what chills your spine when you read an account of a suicide: not the frail corpse hanging from the window bars but what happened inside that heart immediately before.'
Many a suicide note shows us that those dealing with suicidal thoughts communicate a cry of pain. This pain can emerge from being on the brink of utter despair. This recalls Soren Kierkegaard's description that despair is 'the sickness unto death'. That is, the realization that one is experiencing the greatest sadness but then realizes much to his or her dread that they can sink even deeper. It requires tremendous courage, compassion, and hope to be willing to journey with someone through this season in hell, but that is the power of the gift that a true fellow sufferer can offer when so many others – even our loved ones – turn away in fear.
Again, Kierkegaard can furnish a roadmap: The deeper the consciousness, the deeper the despair. One must make the terrifying descent and 'die to self' rather than literally die. Ultimately, it is the loving acceptance of the fellow sufferer that enables the suicidal individual to see that to choose life is to affirm their own life that is shot through with uncertainty, fragility, suffering but also possibilities of healing, compassion and care. It is a journey, a pilgrimage, into many mysterious unknowns. The suicidal individual may not want the past to be recapitulated, but in his/her desire for its end, there is an act of hope, a desire for deliverance and transcendence. As fellow sufferers, as companions in misery, we can meet those struggling with suicidal thoughts where they are, and say, along with them, 'let us journey through the hell together.' And sometimes, the power of human presence, of reaching out, can help us make good soil out of compost, such that even the suffering of the past can become, in time, the flourishing of the future.
There are so many troubling truisms and assumptions in current Western culture - among mental health practitioners as well as the general public understanding - related to suicide and suicide ideation: that is, among others, the key to understanding someone's suffering lies in the past. Or in their clinging to dysfunctional beliefs that are reinforced. Or in their being out of touch with their authentic self or actualizing tendency. And then there is the notion that trauma always leads to (self)destructive consequences. Or even worse that the purpose of treatment is to chemically remove painful emotions and moods, predicated on the idea that suicide is pathological.
There remains an important assumption and truism among people who believe in a divine reality. Although there is sufficient empirical data pointing toward that affiliations with faith traditions are seen as protective factors in reducing suicide, the mainstream understanding is predicated on the notion that suicide is an unforgivable sin, and those who commit suicide are punished in the afterlife, a punishment ordained by God. Is this the end of the story?
If we are shaped by open and relational and process theologies, we can stretch our imaginations beyond the mainstream understandings toward new ways of making sense of the enigma of suicide within a religious context. The Islamic process and existential philosopher Muhammad Iqbal can help us to shed new light: according to Iqbal, there is no such thing as eternal damnation understood as a pit of everlasting torture inflicted by a revengeful God.
To Iqbal, human existence is continuous. It is a perpetual march into novelty, even beyond our temporal existence. Human beings marches always onward to receive every fresh illuminations from the living breeze of Divine grace, understood as a fellow sufferer who understands, offering fresh possibilities of creative unfolding. In our turning to a God as a lure for feeling, as a fellow companion who understands, we are not really leaving God behind. Rather, we can awaken to God`s possibilities. This can be understood as a spirit of creative transformation at work in the world, which is inside us, quietly and persuasively beckoning to seek healing and the courage to be in whatever ways possible.
We need to have the courage to recognize that like Dante, we find ourselves journeying in a dark forest, not sure of our way. The uncertainty itself is a gift for we can wonder as we wander and be open to novel possibilities of being.
Muhammad Iqbal and Suicide: Sources of Solace
Muhammad Iqbal`s philosophy might furnish solace to those who are suffering due to the loss of loved ones to suicide, especially for religious people who may be grappling with feelings of guilt and intensified grief due to religious beliefs about suicide. These beliefs may be predicated on the notion that the act of suicide is an unforgivable sin, and those who commit suicide are punished in the afterlife, a punishment ordained by a God. Here are some ways Iqbal`s approach may furnish support:
Emphasis on Mercy and Compassion of God: Iqbal's philosophy highlights the mercy and compassion of God as a central aspect of Islamic theology. This can offer solace to religious individuals who may be struggling with guilt and fear of eternal damnation for their loved one who died by suicide. Iqbal's emphasis on God's mercy and compassion may provide a different perspective that allows for hope and healing, rather than on punishment and eternal condemnation in hell.
Understanding of Human Weakness and Fallibility: Iqbal's philosophy recognizes the fallibility of human beings. He acknowledges that humans are imperfect, prone to mistakes and failures. This perspective can help religious individuals grappling with guilt and self-blame for their loved one's suicide to understand that humans are not infallible, and that everyone do deal with their existential vulnerabilities. This can alleviate some of the burden of guilt and self-blame that may be associated with suicide.
Focus on Spiritual Journey: Iqbal's philosophy emphasizes the spiritual journey of individuals in their relationship with God. He advocates for self-introspection, self-awareness, and self-improvement. This perspective may help religious individuals who have lost a loved one to suicide to focus on their own spiritual journey, and to engage in self-reflection and self-improvement, rather than solely dwelling on guilt and grief.
Recognition of Human Freedom and Responsibility: Iqbal's philosophy emphasizes the concept of human freedom and responsibility. He encourages individuals to take charge of their lives, make responsible choices, and strive for self-improvement. This perspective may help religious individuals who have lost a loved one to suicide to understand that their loved one had their own existential freedom in making their choices, and that they are not solely responsible for their loved one's decision to annihilate their temporal existence. It may also encourage them to focus on their own responsibility to grieve, heal, and live their lives in a meaningful ways.
Emphasis on Hope and Meliorism: Iqbal's philosophy promotes hope, meliorism, and positive action. He advocates for resilience, courage, and determination in the face life`s uncertainties, challenges and sufferings. This perspective may provide comfort to religious individuals who are grappling with grief and loss due to suicide, by encouraging them to hold on to hope, seek support, and take positive actions towards healing and growth, rather than succumbing to despair and hopelessness.
Encouragement of Compassion and Empathy: Iqbal's philosophy encourages compassion, empathy, and understanding towards oneself and others. This perspective may help religious individuals who have lost a loved one to suicide to practice self-compassion and empathy towards themselves, recognizing that they are also grieving and coping with their own pain. It may also encourage them to extend compassion and empathy towards their loved one, understanding that distress, despair, oppressive conditions and other factors may have contributed to their decision to end their lives.
Muhammad Iqbal and Suicide: Helpful Principles
Muhammad Iqbal, a prominent philosopher and poet, emphasized the idea of human agency and the potential for change and transformation in his philosophy. His belief that the future is not predetermined, but rather an open possibility, can offer insights that may be helpful for individuals struggling with suicidal thoughts. Here are some ways in which Iqbal's philosophy can be relevant in this context:
Hope for change: Iqbal's philosophy suggests that the future is not fixed or predetermined, and that change is possible. For individuals struggling with suicidal thoughts, this perspective can offer hope that their current circumstances or emotional state can change. It can remind them that they have agency and the ability to shape their future in positive ways, even if they may feel stuck or hopeless in the present moment. This can encourage them to seek help, explore potential solutions, and work towards a better future.
Emphasis on human agency: Iqbal's philosophy underscores the idea of human agency, which means that individuals have the capacity to make choices and take actions that can impact their lives. This perspective can empower individuals who are struggling with suicidal thoughts to recognize that they have the ability to make choices, seek support, and take steps towards improving their situation. It can help them feel more empowered and less helpless, fostering a sense of control and autonomy.
Rejection of fatalism: Iqbal's philosophy rejects the notion of fatalism, which is the belief that events are predetermined and individuals have no control over their fate. This perspective can challenge the belief that suicide is an inevitable or predetermined outcome for someone who is struggling, and instead encourages individuals to consider that they have the power to shape their own destiny. It can provide a counter-narrative to fatalistic thinking and offer a more optimistic outlook on life.
Dynamic understanding of time: Iqbal's philosophy views time as dynamic and open, rather than fixed or linear. This perspective suggests that the future is not predetermined and that change is possible at any moment. For individuals struggling with suicidal thoughts, this can offer a different way of thinking about their current situation. It can remind them that their circumstances can evolve, and that their feelings and thoughts are not fixed, but can fluctuate over time. This can provide a sense of hope and possibility for the future.
Emphasis on self-realization: Iqbal's philosophy emphasizes the concept of self-realization, which involves the pursuit of one's true potential and fulfillment. This perspective can encourage individuals struggling with suicidal thoughts to reflect on their intrinsic worth and value, and to consider the potential for personal growth and development. It can foster a sense of purpose and meaning, and inspire individuals to seek meaning and fulfillment in life beyond their current struggles.
Beyond the Biomedical Model From a biomedical model to a communicative and relational perspective
Farhan Shah and Jay McDaniel
IN THE MEETING OF SUICIDE AND PREVENTIVE WORK, the biomedical disease model dominates. The strong link between mental illness/disorders and suicide - the famous 90 percent truth - has unfortunate and unintended consequences for preventive work.
The biomedical disease model is a reductionist perspective that leads to biologization and medicalization of the complexity of human life, which in a clinical context is actualized in the form of standardized risk factor-based assessments, as stated in National guidelines for suicide prevention in mental health care.
COUNTERPRODUCTIVE. With descriptions as underlying individual pathology of suicide, the understanding of persons as agents in a normative space of reasons disappears - than as pure biochemical organisms and processes in a causal space of cause and effect that must be "fixed" and "treated" by a specialized treatment regime. The spotlight and attention are directed in this way towards the individual. When suicidality becomes a mental illness that lies in the suicidal individual, the importance of contextual and relational factors in the face of suicide prevention is thus underestimated. Neglecting and rejecting these dimensions is counterproductive in suicide prevention work.
SOCIAL ILLS. It constitutes an essential difference to look at people based on biomedical understanding - and to look at people as people with life-problems in the face of the ontological facts and givens of existence. This opens up a significant structural and contextual dimension, where this is largely a question of the political conditions, of how society recognizes and serves the fundamental conditions of our existence.
The absence of this perspective calls for a psychologisation of unhealthy structural (power) conditions, understood as social ills. Social ills involve seeing individuals in the context of social, economic, cultural and political contexts. In this way, professionals and therapists can adjust their gaze to sources of life-pain and suffering that lie outside the suicidal individual, but still in his/her specific context, in order to develop and offer adequate support.
COMMUNICATIVE ACTS. Suicide researcher and professor Heidi Hjelmeland at the Department of Mental Health at NTNU, Norway, is the author of the book "Suicide prevention - To be able to prevent suicide, we must understand what suicidality is about" (2022). She writes that suicide ideation and suicide should be understood as 'communicative acts'.
Central to this teleological/intentional and existential perspective is making an effort to understand what suicidal people are trying to communicate with the outside world through suicide and suicide attempts. And if the communicative and existential dimensions of suicidality is to be understood, it should be understood from an intra-subjective and first-person perspective: that is, how suicidal individuals understand and interpret themselves and their world.
A FELLOW-TRAVELER? However, it should be recognized that no one can fully grasp and feel how the suicidal person thinks and feels. This realization stimulates an existential humility and openness, but also a courage to meet people where they are. In Soren Kierkegaard's words: "That, when one is to truly succeed in leading a person to a certain place, one must first and foremost take care to find him where he is and begin there."
The question professionals and therapists in mental health care should ask themselves is: Have they, in meeting with the suicidal person, found them where they are, and started there? This courage has more to do with one's "being-qualities" than one's "doing-qualities". One's being-qualities do not imply a focus on diagnosis, pathology or paternalism, but rather to be a fellow traveler, one who takes the time to grope with the suicidal when the black fog rises its ugly heads. To be able to step into the dark tunnel they are in, to sit down, and be a mirror and a relational home, even when everything seems without hope, direction and meaning.
TRUST IN LIFE? Through a being-with-ness and care in the form of "empathic presence", the suicidal person can feel that they are not alone with their life-pain, that one can be "alone together" in those hours and the time when we feel that the burden of life can no longer be borne: To create a healing space for the brutal. The raw. The confusing. And the meaningless. To create spaces in which the pain of life, as inevitable as a stream of tides, can be tenderly held and cared for. And in that way be a relation, an existential fellow-traveler-in-the-same-darkness that furnishes conditions for the possibilities of healing power, of re-creating a trust in life, to help them want to live. Again.
In this way, healthcare professionals and individuals may be better able to uncover the subjective attributions associated with suicide attempts and thus be better equipped to provide qualified help and support in dealing with suicidal individuals.
The time is long overdue to pay more attention to the complexity behind suicide and suicide attempts. The biomedical model is an inadequate framework which should be supplemented with relational and existential determinants if we as a society want to understand - and effectively prevent - the omnipresent possibility of suicide.