Rebecca McIntyre

Anthony McIntyre remembers his sister Rebecca who died last December.

Suicide is the death of hope as well as the extinction of life. Perhaps the religious type who opts for it has a hope that something better exists. My youngest sister, Rebecca, had no religious belief, and for her there was no consideration given to the matter of afterlife around which a hope could be constructed.

It, to a greater extent than other types of death, can leave families devastated. In particular, parents who might never understand how the sum total of their emotional investment can be erased in an instant. An irreversible act that reverses the order of things. I found respite in the fact that my parents, more so my mother, had long since died and that they were spared the suicide of their youngest child.

Last December, Saturday the 2nd, I took a call from one of my sisters with the news that Rebecca had ended her own life. She had sent a text to my brother Martin asking him to make sure that the police entered her home before anyone else. It was that closely thought through. She had been a psychiatric nurse in London and had worked some of the city's toughest wards, returning to Belfast eight weeks prior to her death with the intention of ending her life. There was speculation that she had absorbed the problems of her patients but there was also a history of intermittent depression. There was no way she could be sectioned, she knew all the tricks, the answers to give or not to give.

On receipt of the news, I was stunned and saddened, unsteady and uncertain. It is easier to be contemplative about these matters from a distance. Emotional proximity has its own way of shading the judgement. Only after time elapses does clarity gain traction. 

To the extent that it may be said to exist I do not share society's abhorrence of suicide, while recognising the complexities, associated trauma, the often fragile state of mind that informs the decision, and the devastation that it wreaks. Perhaps being of the school of thought which holds that autonomy over one's body and person is an indispensable ingredient of liberty, I cannot work up the view that suicide is a consciously selfish act. No more than I can see as wanton selfishness a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy or a patient's right to assisted dying. I think it might be more selfish for a person to insist on another holding onto a life they do not want,  for no reason other than to assuage the feelings of those who feel that life should be lived under all circumstances until expiry by involuntary means.  Camus long struck me as having something truly worthwhile to say on suicide.
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards.

At the same time, being of the humanist perspective, I value life as being better than death and feel that as a society we could do much more to enhance an ethic of life while not transgressing the ethic of human autonomy.  And of course I dearly wish Rebecca had chosen differently.

Rebecca was a sister I never got to know very well. She was three when I first went to prison in 1974. In the early part of that year she saw more of British soldiers raiding the family home than she saw of me. When I came out 18 months later she would hide away from me in the house, or peer out at me from behind my mother, viewing me as a stranger. When I returned to prison less than four months after my release, she could never relate to me on the earlier visits, dropping her eyes or burying her head in my mother's lap. 

On my first weekend release in 1989 she was 18. She and I went out to the Felons the night before my return to prison. It was a beneficial experience, a delayed bonding of sorts. When she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer a few years later, I spent a lot of time with her. My friends were charmed by her and the fighting spirit she exhibited. The medical advice from London was to remove her leg: Rebecca's answer was that she could live with her cancer but not without her leg. She held out on the basis of some pioneering techniques developed in Sweden and survived. 

I hadn't seen her since she went to work in England. The last occasion I spent any prolonged time with her was during my mother's time of dying in 2007. She and two other sisters with medical experience tended to my mother's palliative needs. As she lay dying, her eyesight failing to the point where she could no longer read, Rebecca read her The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. When the undertaker arrived from a unionist area of the city, he assumed that in Twinbrook the family was Catholic and so in a display of misplaced sensitivity produced a coffin lid with a crucifix adorned on it. I mentioned it to Rebecca who said politely but firmly, "Get it off."

The last time I saw her alive was when she came to visit us in Drogheda the Christmas after our mother had died. A decade later, in Belfast as I looked down upon her reposing in a funeral parlour in the East of the city, I could not help but feel the order of things had been reversed again: the oldest sibling gazing on the lifeless body of the youngest.

A long time friend, Sean Mallory, very graciously wrote an obituary for Rebecca last Christmas on TPQ. I was immensely grateful as were my other siblings. Now that a year has passed, with time to reflect, I felt I would share my own thoughts. If there is anything that gets to grips with suicide in a non-judgemental fashion and which locates the aspect of "selfishness" that so many are willing to attribute to the author of the act it is the thoughts of Stacy Pershall:
Nobody would commit suicide if the pain of being inside herself, the agony of the sleepless, tortured hours spent watching the world get smaller and uglier, were bearable or could be relieved by other people telling her how they wanted her to feel. A depressed person is selfish because her self, the very core of who she is, will not leave her alone, and she can no more stop thinking about this self and how to escape it than a prisoner held captive by a sadistic serial killer can forget about the person who comes in to torture her everyday. Her body is brutalized by her mind. It hurts to breathe, eat, walk, think. The gross maneuverings of her limbs are so overwhelming, so wearying, that the fine muscle movements or quickness of wit necessary to write, to actually say something, are completely out of the question.

Anthony McIntyre blogs @ The Pensive Quill.
Follow Anthony McIntyre on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

14 comments to ''Rebecca McIntyre"

  1. Highly poignant writing as always when it comes to subjects like this AM, especially the line "parents who might never understand how the sum total of their emotional investment can be erased in an instant." I can relate to how the age gap plays a role in sibling dynamics, leading to two sibling being complete strangers. On one hand, I am saddened by it but, on the other hand, differing times and circumstances can be unavoidable.

    On the topic of suicide, I am also of the persuasion that suicide is an issue far too complex to be dismissed as merely "selfish." In fact, it's the people who claim it to be selfish that are the selfish ones, as they present themselves as noble people with boulders on their back, shouldering the weight of reality but coming across as smug, out of touch and insensitive.

    I have known quite a few people who have succumbed to suicide over the years, and they were people from different social stratas and and differing temperaments. I don't pretend to know their struggles or their reasoning for doing so, but I don't think they took the option lightly. Often, people in such circumstances feel they're doing their family a favour by removing themselves altogether. What that implies about their state of mind is horrendous.

    The right to die with dignity is something I support, especially after seeing a relative become ravaged with MS and reduced to someone who had trouble holding a cup of tea.

  2. Generous, thoughtful and thought provoking piece.

    Thank you AM.

  3. Love and respect from Omagh a chara. Though grief remains, it is the manifestation of the love between you and your sister — which will never die. In that sense, there is no death — only endless love. Rebecca’s pain is over and her soul now at peace. One day you will be joined again in the life to come, when the wretched pain that overwhelmed your beautiful sister is at last no more.

  4. Powerful piece a chara , life is a journey and your sis must have reckoned that was her stop.she is at ease now and I hope you are at peace with that ,life can be a shit sandwhich and every day just another bite,

  5. Your article is very moving Anthony and presents the reader with a more compassionate alternative view on suicide. My sincerest condolences.

  6. AM

    The above is easily the most affecting thing you've ever written. As someone who was on the verge of committing suicide in 2017, I've been through a hell similar to your sister's. The pain of losing my wife, my kids, the house, our dog was a crushing weight, and while driving around Leitrim in a hire car, I began to feel this creeping and familiar shame maker in the gut, the one that convinces those of us afflicted by manic depression that the pain will never, ever end. We scream inside, "Fuck off, go away, go away or give me a way out!" Back in the states, I had a total nervous breakdown and could not work, let alone get out of bed. Those who have not suffered from serious depression or suicidal ideation cannot really understand. Your sister knew, and I'm so sorry Mackers. You're right, she was not selfish at all. She wanted peace. All the best to you and yours, may 2019 bring joy and fulfillment, satisfying scraps and lots of laughs too.

  7. Christopher/Henry Joy/Sean/Unknown - thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  8. AM

    Very powerful piece, Anthony. I am very sorry for the loss of your sister Rebecca and your brother Martin.

    I would never condemn anyone or judge anyone who feels that the only way out of the hell that is severe and enduring mental illnesses is to seek release in the ending of one's life. Suicide has not touched any of my close family circle but six years ago a good friend and fellow Leeds United supporter with a PhD from Essex University Dept of Psychoanalytic Studies took his own life (he stabbed himself in the heart). I will never know the full circumstances of Paul's death; was it rejection by his birth mother (he was adopted) or being told to come off his medication (he was affected by schizophrenia) by a "friend". I did witness Paul at some of his lowest webs and I always dreaded that he would depart from us in the way he did>

    But who are any of us to judge?

  9. Michael - your own experience is harrowing to say the least. You survived to tell the tale which is to be heartily welcomed.

    Barry - the manner of your friend's death is shuddering. There was intense anguish and desperation at play.

  10. I am so grateful to have read that. Many thanks. I knew her beautiful soul for a few years on Nantucket but she will be in my memory forever.

  11. Brutiful. I knew beautiful Rebecca for a short bit, but I will never forget her. Your story is so well written and opened my heart.

  12. Only seeing this now AM....heartfelt sympathies

  13. very sorry to hear about Martin and Rebecca's deaths Anthony. I always find your end of year obituaries very moving and thought provoking. May 2019 be a much happier year.

  14. meghanoncapecod - thank you for remembering her.

    Niall, as ever thanks.

    Ryan - thank you. Over time the end of the year obituaries have become a strong feature of the blog. I think it might be because they are often addressed to the everyday people who go about their lives anonymously but diligently.


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