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Suicide is always devastating for the ones left behind, but how can someone cope with losing an entire family that way? While cases of collective suicide (suicide involving more than one person) are still relatively rare, they do happen. Cases like this often involves a parent killing one of their children, and at times, their entire families, before killing themselves. Not far from where I live here in Toronto, a father jumped off a highway overpass while holding his young daughter in his arms (she survived, he didn't). The emotional wounds from these collective deaths can affect not only surviving family or friends but even total strangers who witness such deaths as they occur. And these wounds may never heal.
Suicide research is particularly strong in South Korea given the high suicide rate as well as the high percentage of collective suicides that take place there. One study of collective suicides in South Korea between 1994 to 2005 found that the largest number involved mother-child suicides (thirty-three percent). Though many of these cases involve children being killed by a parent without their consent, they are still regarded as collective suicides in Korean culture rather than being treated as murder-suicides as in Western societies.
To help understand collective suicide a little better, a recent issue of the journal Crisis includes a moving case study of a South Korean man whose depressed wife had committed suicide (link is external) by jumping off a building with her young son in her arms. The subject of the case study was recruited as part of a larger South Korean study of suicide survivors. The case study's authors include Robert Enright of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, one of the pioneers of the scientific study of forgiveness. Along with graduate study Eunjin Lee and Sung Won Kim of the University of Oxford, Enright's case study was intended to learn more about the process of forgiveness following such a tragedy.
To read more, check out my new Psychology Today blog post.
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