Native American Spirituality: Different perspective on suicide
If you follow my site’s Facebook page, you know that I am currently doing course 4 in my certificate on Aboriginal psychotherapy and complex trauma. I absolutely love this program and recommend it to anyone who will listen! It is a very nontraditional program in which traditional ways of healing such as using the land and Mother Earth to heal, using our connection to nature, using the ancestors to guide and help us. It is very much an experiential program in which we do try on ourselves what we would do with clients. As much as I love it, I am typically exhausted by the time a course is over. But it is a wonderful experience! So I thought I would share and write about a topic we discussed today: suicide. Yes not the most uplifting topic, I agree. I did not mean to be a bummer. BUT, actually the perspective I want to share is a different one in which suicide is seen, in a way, as having had an adaptive function over time. Stay with me and you will find out what I mean. Let’s look at Native American spirituality and suicide.
A Native American perspective on suicide
In today’s day and age, suicide has a negative connotation. We tend to skirt the topic and pretend suicide does not exist. Or we tend to reassure loved ones of those who have committed suicide by saying things such as “she does not feel pain anymore” or “she is in heaven now”. Well, let’s think about this for a sec. So the one who committed suicide does not feel pain anymore? Well I want that too then. I mean, although it is meant to be reassuring, it almost makes suicide attractive here. “Who wants to stay alive and feel pain?” “Who wants to die and not feel pain anymore?” That is quite a restrictive view of suicide. I get that those words are meant to reassure those left behind but they portray suicide in a light that might not be accurate. This is not a tampon commercial, we are not all running in a field to go to a better place.
What else are we supposed to say you ask? Well, let’s think about it for a second. Within the Native cultures (yes there is more than one), the connection to Mother Earth, to the land is strong. We connect with the ground beneath our feet, with the wind in the Father Sky, with the warmth of Grand-father Sun, with the water of Grand-mother Ocean. We feel all of this on our earthly body. Because our life as we know it is our “earth time” in which we are in our physical form. We return to our spiritual form in the spirit world at death. So how about saying “she will never feel the wind on her face again” or “she won’t be able to feel the sun on her skin” instead? To remind us that we also need to be thankful for our bodies, for our physical side. We need to embrace our life on Earth before we go to the Spirit world. Because once we have crossed, our earth time is over and that comes with aftereffects that are rarely mentioned.
But wait suicide has always been present
Yes it has. It was present before the colonization of Turtle Island. Our ancestors committed suicide. They died for their land or their community. For example, older people would go off to die rather than slow down a nomadic tribe. Not as a sacrifice but rather as a way to serve the land or their community. If their earthly body was failing them, if they were in pain, if they believed that their family or community would do better that way. In a sense, it had an adaptive function. Kids would kill themselves if they saw their family struggling to eat so that the family could survive. This is still seen at times today, except that it is called an accident. I know some of you might be scratching their head, but suicide has always been and remains an option. It has always been there in the life of Indigenous people and will remain there. Suicide then has to be perceived as being normal. We all have our own different relationship with suicide. We sit beside it, we look at it, we explore it.
For some I can understand that what I just said might be scary. Because suicide is often considered to be a taboo. But suicide is present so we might as well talk about it. In numerous nations, on numerous reserves, suicide rates are high, higher than in the general population. Suicide and self-inflicted injuries are indeed the leading cause of death for First Nations youth and adults up to 44 years of age. It does not mean that every community has a high suicide rate. It means, however, that on average, the suicide rate is higher in Aboriginal youth than non-Aboriginal youth in Canada (5 to 1, up to 11 to 1 for Inuit youth). You will also see cluster suicides, of teens at times, where a teenager commits suicide and then a few follow suit. Or an echo suicide, i.e. suicides that take place after an extended period of time after the first one (e.g. on the anniversary of the death).
So yes we need to talk about it
Talking openly about suicide is what is done in Aboriginal focusing oriented therapy (AFOT, the program I am taking). We go toward suicide, we do not run away from it. We have an open discussion about it, we do not shame those who are thinking about dying or have tried to kill themselves. We respect and recognize that part of them might feel like dying. And then we can explore which part that is. And very importantly, if there is a vicarious or intergenerational component to that feeling. What do I mean by that? Well we explore whether that feeling is theirs alone or if part of it might belong to past generations. Was it the client’s mom feeling the same or the grand-mother maybe? Are clients carrying their ancestors’ experiences within themselves? Yes they are. Their body carries it. Their body carries the memory of what happened to their ancestors. And we need to be mindful of that reality.
So yes talking about suicide might be scary. When I first heard that suicide was and always is an option, my stomach churned. I was not comfortable with that. But then you have to look at it this way: suicide might be an option but it might not be the one I am taking right now. I am comfortable talking about suicide. I have done it many time in my work in jails. Detailed and intimate discussions about the client’s thoughts, feelings, actions. And what I found is that most individuals will find it reassuring to have those conversations. That someone can hold all of that. Because as therapists that is what we do, we hold. We serve as the container for the client to safely empty what makes them feel uncomfortable. We sit with it.
And that is not always easy. Cue Mother Earth. Yes we need to use the land to hold the client’s feelings. The land can do that. Imagine you are standing up and the space in front of you can hold what makes you uncomfortable, what hurts you, what scares you. Well in AFOT, that is what is done. The space, the land serves as a space to put the client’s feelings so they can be observed and discussed from a safer distance. The land will hold them so that it can feel safer to discuss them. The land is strong, solid (rocks do not move, we can count on them) while also offering fluidity (the fluidity of water, water washes the rocks).
So here we have it: suicide. A topic that is uncomfortable for many. But it is a reality and not talking about it won’t make it less a reality. So we might as well talk about it. Sit with it, have a conversation with it, a relationship to it. Normalize the whole thing so that people can speak more openly without feeling shame. While remembering that we are not alone as Mother Earth is there to help. What are your thoughts about suicide? Anyone offended by what I said? Anyone agrees? Comment below and I will answer 🙂
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