Relating suicide: bringing the body back in

By | February 23, 2023

Guest post by Anne Whitehead

Seed heads cyanotype, © Anne Whitehead

Suicide is a subject that is still not often talked about. When it is, we tend to focus the conversation on mental health. This is both understandable and important; a better understanding of mental health can help us to prevent further deaths. But having lost my sister to suicide twenty years ago, I have long felt that what is not often discussed – and what I have struggled to find represented – is the way in which, for those left behind, suicide is a profoundly embodied experience. The immediate shock of the death is viscerally felt – a heightened sensitivity to sound and an involuntary and painful spasm of the esophagus were two bodily responses that marked my own reaction in the days and weeks following my sister’s death. We navigate grief through an attachment to, or avoidance of, objects and places that are associated with the dead: in the case of suicide, this can include the place where the death occurred. Suicide is a sudden and often violent death, and many deaths by suicide mean that a family member identifies the body, followed by a post-mortem examination and an inquest.

The classic detective story has been described as a genre in which the dead body provides the occasion for an investigation into intention or motive. Books about suicide often feel like its equivalent: starting from the death, evidence is followed back to find out why the suicide happened, locating its cause either in individual mental illness, or in broader contextual factors. These studies are valuable, but they tend to be silent on what comes after the death. I have written Relating Suicide to reflect on my own experience of suicide’s aftermath, and on what others have said about it. I hope that the book might open a broader conversation. I also hope that it might help others who have lost a loved one to suicide, even if their experience differs from mine. I have written the book that I would have liked to have been able to read.

Dune Grasses, © Anne Whitehead

One of the aspects of suicide that I found least represented was an ongoing relation to the place where the death occurred. For me, this place was loved and familiar, and from first hearing the news of what had happened, I was fortunate to be able to associate the death with a landscape that was meaningful to me. My sister walked into the sea on a stretch of beach in the north-east of England that we had known since childhood, and we had often been there together. She loved to walk there with a friend and his dogs. Set against the backdrop of Middlesbrough, with steelworks looming behind and the port on the river Tees in view, it is a heavily industrialized landscape. It is also a resolutely ordinary place, populated by runners and dog walkers. I have, nevertheless, experienced an ongoing difficulty in negotiating between this humdrum place and my sister’s death. Any act of commemoration there feels out of place – either too much or too little – and I can still struggle at times to relate the event to the place where it happened.

I preface each of the chapters of the book with a photograph. These offer prompts for the writing that follows, as well as wordless pauses for the reader: a form of emotional punctuation. Some of these photographs are of objects: my sister’s watch, and a tide clock that hangs on the wall of my kitchen. Others were taken on the beach at Redcar: a couple of snaps of my sister a decade before she died, and a view out to sea taken after her death. My sister is marked as a presence or an absence in these pictures: she is there, and then she is not. This is how suicide is: the person is there, and then they are gone. They slip away from you when you are looking in the wrong direction.

I speak in the book of going to another beach, Crosby Sands near Liverpool, to visit Antony Gormley’s Another Place: a sculptural installation of one hundred figures advancing into the sea, which are covered and revealed by each incoming and retreating tide. I talk about how visiting Crosby beach has helped me to bring together my sister’s death and the place where it happened. The sculptures gave me a way to bring her body back into view, and to orient myself in relation to it.

Feather Cyanotype, © Anne Whitehead

On more recent visits to the beach at Redcar, I have experimented with a different way of relating to this place. I have gathered materials on my walks – scraps of seaweed, a flower or grasses from the dunes, a feather. This is what I used to do with my sister when we went there as children, pocketing mundane but precious treasures to take home. I have then recorded these findings using an early photographic technique called cyanotype, which entails placing the object on chemically treated paper and leaving it in the sun to expose. Once developed by rinsing the paper in water, the image reveals a trace of where the object has been. The cyanotype records the body’s contact with a surface; although now gone, it leaves behind the imprint of its passing.

My book compares the stretch of beach where my sister died to the thin places: portals that act as sites of transition and where, in Celtic tradition, the boundary between the living and the dead is especially porous. The cyanotype images of objects found at the beach convey how it feels to walk there now. My sister has gone, but there is something of her there, something that I can – almost – reach out and touch. The surface that separates us is as thin as a sheet of paper.

On the most recent anniversary of my sister’s death, I went out to the water’s edge at Redcar to see if I could cyanotype the sea. Dipping the treated paper into a retreating wave, I recorded the tide’s pull on the chemicals; their shift and movement as the water ebbed away. The paper dried to reveal the sea’s mark, to preserve a fleeting impression of the tide’s wake. In the blur and bleed of the cyan blue, I could see something that was unsettled, displaced; something too, perhaps, that wept.

Sea Cyanotype, © Anne Whitehead

Throughout my book, I discuss the importance of objects in helping us to find our way through grief.  These bodies often substitute for the absent body of the dead. They act as concentrates of place. They anchor the extraordinary event of the death in the everyday and the ordinary. They offer ways to make the loss tangible, to ourselves and to others. In closing this blog, I accordingly quote a passage from the end of the book, which reflects on the archive of objects that has been assembled in its pages. I hope that they might find their equivalents for those who read the book.  

This book has attended to the ways in which grief is registered and experienced through the coming together of this body and this object. Suicide, I have suggested, takes shape in our ordinary interactions with benches and tables, with watches and barometers and letters: in the ways in which these objects touch us even as we touch them. The relating of suicide is accordingly not only a matter of who we are related to, but also of what objects we claim or count as being amongst our kin. (Relating Suicide: A Personal and Critical Perspective, p. 94)

Poppies Cyanotype, © Anne Whitehead

Anne Whitehead is Professor of Modern and Contemporary Literature at Newcastle University, UK. She is the author of Trauma Fiction (2004), Memory: New Critical Idiom (2008) and Medicine and Empathy in Contemporary British Fiction (2017) and she was co-editor of The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities (2016). Relating Suicide: A Personal and Critical Perspective is part of our Critical Interventions in the Medical and Health Humanities series.

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