Privacy and Completed Suicide – Does It Matter?

Privacy and completed suicide - image of phoenix feather

Content warning: As the title says, I will be talking about privacy and completed suicide, and whether it’s appropriate to publicly release someone’s personal diary or other writings after their death. Please consider skipping this post if it could be triggering for you.

The book Suicidal

I recently read and reviewed Jesse Bering’s book Suicidal: Why We Kill Ourselves. One of the chapters included excerpts from the diary of a teenage girl who had died by suicide. She kept the diary on her laptop computer, and in it, she was very open about the thoughts and feelings she was having leading up to her death.

Of course, the girl’s parents provided the diary to the author and consented to its publication; to me, though, it still feels intensely disturbing. This girl did not in any way consent to this, despite the author’s interpretation that it was written as though she expected someone to read it. Her most private, personal words were all of sudden out there for the world to see.

What happens to privacy post-suicide?

What happens to privacy when there is a completed suicide? Is that automatically forfeited? Do personal writings suddenly shift into something that can be freely brought into the public domain?

Obviously, there aren’t any privacy laws around this, but it feels wrong not to allow the person who died some modicum of privacy.

My own experience

On a personal level, it makes me sick to think of people reading my private unfiltered thoughts. A few years ago, when I was having very intense thoughts of suicide, I threw the years’ worth of journals I’d kept in the trash because I was adamant that no one should be able to read them after I was dead. Logically, I know it doesn’t make a difference at that point because hey, I’m dead; still, that doesn’t at all lessen the heebie-jeebies factor.

At the same time, I password-protected my computer, something I’d never done before. I’ve kept the password protection ever since, with that same reason hovering in the back of my mind.

My last suicide attempt was the only one for which I had written a suicide note. The police took the suicide note and gave it to the hospital. It was read aloud by my hospital psychiatrist during a review panel hearing, in which I was challenging my involuntary commitment. It was strange to hear him read it, and somehow, it felt extremely invasive.

Loss of control

The reality is that if someone becomes desperate enough that they attempt and complete suicide, they no longer have control over anything they’ve left behind. Loved ones are obviously going to want to try to understand what motivated the act, and there’s no question they’ll be reading anything written that was left behind. That makes sense and I would never expect that a loved one would choose not to read journals and that type of thing.

Yet it still disturbs me. Now that the thought is in my mind, I don’t know that I would ever be able to push it out. Maybe that’s morbid, maybe I don’t know what it is. But for me, it’s real.

Is this something that you’ve ever thought about?

Straight talk on suicide - graphics of phoenix and semicolon

The Straight Talk on Suicide page has crisis and safety planning resources, along with info on suicide-related topics from the perspective of someone who’s been there.

33 thoughts on “Privacy and Completed Suicide – Does It Matter?”

  1. When I used to be very depressed and suicidal at university I would mentally write long suicide notes because I wanted to express what I felt, but didn’t know how. But I guess that’s a different scenario.

    I also feel uncomfortable with the idea of reading stuff posthumously. Charles Dickens’ biographer Peter Ackroyd found evidence about Dickens’ extra-marital affair and spoke about it on a TV documentary and the novelist and newspaper columnist Howard Jacobson got quite annoyed about in his newspaper column, saying Dickens wouldn’t have wanted this publicised and just because it was so long ago doesn’t mean it’s alright to do it now.

    Actually, when my grandmother died (from natural causes), my Dad found her diaries and he wouldn’t read them. I don’t know that I would have had that self-control. And I guess suicide just complicates matters more, because you would want to know why the person had killed themselves, could you have done anything to help and so on.

    1. It seems hard to imagine that anyone wouldn’t read diaries and the like after a loved one’s suicide, but publication of a deceased person’s private writings seems like a step too far.

  2. I have a good friend who knows where my journals are hidden and has promised to either destroy them or send them to a certain individual should anything happen to me.
    I cannot for the life of me imagine strangers reading things I’ve written. For the most part, it’s deep and disturbing private thoughts. If they were meant to be shared, I’d have written my own book.

  3. The last time I was having deeply suicidal thoughts I tore out and threw away anything I didn’t want read or made viewable to everyone else in the family. This is definitely something I think about.

  4. When I was about 19, my mother found my journal and read it. It was a private diary, but that didn’t stop Ma from reading it and then to add insult to injury, EDITING it. I threw it away and never EVER put anything down (in writing) that I didn’t want someone else to see or read. I still tend to sometimes hide my true light because I’m worried a friend or a relative will see something and misinterpret it, BUT I’m getting better at being bald faced about things..what one sees is what they’ll get. When I attempted suicide, I didn’t write any note and my husband forced me to go in to my therapist, who committed me. In the psych ward, we were required to keep journals and the doctors and whatnot would gather them each evening and go over them in group the next day. Again…no privacy. I’ve never thought much about what will happen to my written words, should I succeed if I try again; and in my own belief system, I won’t care either. God is the only one I’ll worry about ‘offending’ and He is compassionate beyond my ability to realize how much. I don’t think He’ll be too concerned, or maybe He will, either way. I’ll hope that I’m understood at last and there will be no need to hide any more.

  5. I have many years worth of journals from when I was younger where I expressed a disdain for living and wrote frequently about how much I wished I was dead. I can’t imagine if someone read my private thoughts, much less thousands of strangers if it was published in a book. I still have those journals and don’t know if one day I should destroy them or not… I don’t know why I kept them. They are memories of pain that in a twisted way are still part of me today because I meant the words I wrote at the time I wrote them.

  6. I’ve similarly chucked out diaries and “sanitised” my computer the last time I was seriously suicidal. I can understand people who are close to the one who committed suicide wanting closure of a sort, but I’m not sure that diaries can always give that anyway. Sometimes they might just make things worse for the people left behind.

    For one thing, diary or blog entries freeze little moments in time. The way I saw things and felt about things a year ago, or even a few days ago, is not how I see and feel right now. That information is really useful for the person who wrote it, if they want to look back and see recurring patterns or perhaps see progress – it’s one thing that makes me regret all the throwing out I have done in the past – but it’s not so useful for outsiders. Reading an entire diary might give an overall sense of what was going for the person, but you can’t give too much weight to any one thing (except perhaps the very last entry, and even then …?). The proof for me that this is a very real problem is how I feel about people commenting on old blog posts – especially if it is an issue which I feel I have already resolved or my feelings have changed, for example if I’ve had a rupture with my therapist which has since been repaired – it does feel intrusive and kind of annoying. It’s the main reason I close comments after a certain period.

    Another important issue is that diaries aren’t only about the people who write them. Writing is a way to work things through in your own head, including how you feel about other people. I know that some of what I’ve written on my blog, the people concerned would be very hurt, and perhaps unnecessarily, because my feelings may have changed since whatever I wrote.

    So my vote would be no, don’t publish stuff unless the person had given permission while they were still alive.

    1. That’s a good point about things changing after the’re written. I sometimes write nasty things about people and then just the act of writing makes those thoughts instantly go away.

  7. very interesting!
    as a younger person, i used to keep a diary. as a married person i kept the same diary & it was used against me when i separated from the husband. so i never kept another diary for years … until i starts my blog.
    i decided when i started that that if i didn’t want anyone to know something then i wouldn’t put it in my blog. i’ve done the same with how i speak, what i write down & what i keep, as in what gets left behind for my kids & grandkids. if i can’t say something to their faces or write it for the world to see, then i don’t keep it tucked away somewhere for them to discover later on. & I’ve seen to many horror scenarios ( my sister included) where all the wishes of the dead are not respected & their ‘privacy’ is completely annihilated. for me, this is my ‘safe guard’ & the only thing that doesn’t make me feel violated – as OTT as that may sound.

  8. I have struggled for some time with actually hanging onto my journals. Most of what I write about, I don’t want anyone reading…though I no longer pour my heart and soul in the writings anyways. So, I don’t know what it really matters to me. I do see where loved ones would want to read things to see what signs they missed, etc. but for now, I just write for awhile, then destroy the journal. While I am not currently struggling with the suicidal thoughts, that is subject to change day by day….depends on the stressors.

  9. Inspector White Tip

    Diaries have always felt personal but for someone to use that as an instrument of evidence is unconscionable. Gossip would be treated as unfactual. I think for loved ones it can feel like a connection to their lost loved ones, but it can lead someone down a dangerous path of longing for answers especially when penning down suicidal or any mental health related thoughts because the person was unwell when they wrote it. I think you were wise to password protect your computer if you don’t want your thoughts to be made public.

  10. for me I think Id like people to know why. And for my children maybe it would help them understand it wasn’t about them…there wasn’t any thing they could have done…it was all my inner struggle with the awful things that happened to me.

  11. I’ve never heard suicide notes read out loud in the various settings i have worked in, but that has to be horrifying.

    I know exactly how my friend died by suicide but out of respect for him I don’t tell. Only my former therapist, my husband and my closest friends know because they were there in the immediate aftermath for me.

  12. I can understand you. I think it’s okay that loved ones read stuff after one committed suicide to know what the person was thinking and feeling. However, I don’t think it’s okay when a person just publish the stuff without the concern of that person who committed suicide…

  13. artandhealingheart

    I haven’t read the book so I’m not speak to that but if it was a case where the suicide was seemingly out of no where, I would want to have closure and at the same time, what if I discovered they were being horribly bullied? I’ve attempted before and didn’t give a thought to it but tbh idk how I’d feel. At that point it isn’t hurting anyone but could help raise awareness depending on the content and help someone else. Then again it’s making a decision for another person about the most intimate thing they possessed- their thoughts. I just don’t know.

  14. Interesting post. On a related context, I have read qualitative research papers where they analyzed contents of blog posts (without revealing the identity of the blog). Some believe that because these blog posts are in the public domain, it is not necessary to seek informed consent and ethics clearance. Personally, I am inclined to seek consent first. What would be your thoughts or how would you feel if someone were to use your blog as their research data without your knowledge?

    1. I guess I would probably think the researcher was being lazy. It’s usually not difficult to contact a blogger, and when getting consent is possible, it’s probably the right thing to do.

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