[Special notice: Dr. Shneidman passed away on May 15, 2009. Please see “Suicide Prevention Pioneer Edwin Shneidman Dies at 91.”]
By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor
I invoke the name of Edwin Shneidman almost every time I speak publicly about suicide–which is quite often–and in fact have saved a special place for him in the midst of a particular section of the ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) workshop I’ve delivered dozens of times in the past three years.
I look out at the workshop participants as I begin to explain the unbearable pain that is experienced by victims of suicide, and I say, “Edwin Shneidman, the father of modern suicidology in America, created a word to describe that kind of pain: He called it psychache.”
Then I refer to Shneidman’s “Ten Commonalities of Suicide” and define psychache as “intolerable psychological pain.” We discuss what it must feel like to be someone who is thinking of suicide, how that sort of pain might make a person feel so desperate for relief or escape that he or she would lose contact with the natural–and powerful–human urge to stay alive and might kill himself or herself.
Whether I am speaking to ASIST trainees, to survivors of suicide loss attending a support group, or to community coalition members planning local suicide prevention initiatives, I refer to Dr. Shneidman in that way — as “the father of modern suicidology” — and such scenes as those came to mind this morning as I read a wonderful article by Thomas Curwen in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times.
Curwen’s article is a meditation on death, with its subject being one of the world’s foremost experts on the topic.
He lies on the side of the bed, sleepy, unshaven, his hair mussed. He never asked to live to be 90, to see the breadth of his life diminished, the allure of the world fallen further out of reach. He is ready to die.
All his life he has studied this moment — from those who killed themselves and those who tried, from philosophers and colleagues, students and intimates — and its lessons hold no real surprise.
The article is enriched by an illuminating photo-audio essay by photographer Liz O. Baylen, in which Shneidman–in his inimitably straightforward way–shares his view of the nature of death:
There is no spirit or soul. I will be dead, get that through your thick head. I will be dead, and I “live” in my children, in my DNA, in my books, in my reputation: It’s as simple as that.”
Curwen looks back at Shneidman’s early writings on death, beginning with his 1973 book Deaths of Man, which challenged the views of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross:
The end of life isn’t, as she proposed, defined by a succession of stages, one following the other, denial to acceptance, but instead a “nexus of emotions … a hive of affect, in which there is a constant coming and going.”
It was an auspicious moment. “Deaths” was a finalist for a National Book award in science. He was celebrated and feted. But the momentum faltered. Placing mental anguish in a social, cultural or familial context fell out of vogue. Prescribing pills became easier.
While the L.A. Times article is framed by Shneidman’s anticipation of death, it is just as much a meditation on life:
No one has to die, he is fond of saying; it will be done for you. It’s living, however, that takes effort — to weather the sleeplessness and worry, the relinquishing of pride, the dependency upon strangers, the plea for respect and the struggle to remember …
Death is quite simple. Life is more mysterious, and he never tires of its wonderments: How he — a Jew at that — survived the war, how he and a girl from the corn country of Illinois fell in love and married and had four children and such a long and happy life …
The night stretches before him with so many endless hours, and sleep will come, if at all, in the early dawn. Until then, there is some writing he would like to do.
Shneidman’s latest book is A Commonsense Book of Death.
For more on his concept of psychache, see the 2001 L.A. Times article by Curwen titled “Psychache,” in which Shneidman says,
“Suicide is a complex malaise. Sociologists have shown that suicide rates vary with factors like war and unemployment; psychoanalysts argue that it is rage toward a loved one that is directed inward; psychiatrists see it as a biochemical imbalance. No one approach holds the answer: It’s all that and much more …”
“For me, today, the central data to elicit from a potentially suicidal person are not a family history, a spinal tap assay, a demographic accounting or a psychoanalytical session,” he says. Rather, his approach is to listen closely while asking a patient two basic questions: “Where do you hurt?” and “How may I help you?”
[The abridged URL for this post is bit.ly/edshneidman .]