Tales of biographical disintegration: how parents make sense of their sons' suicides

Sociol Health Illn. 2008 Mar;30(2):237-54. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9566.2007.01034.x.


Suicide research relies heavily on accounts provided by bereaved relatives, using a method known as the psychological autopsy. Psychological autopsy studies are invariably quantitative in design and their findings reinforce the medical model of suicide, emphasising the role of mental illness. They largely ignore the meanings that narrators attach to events, the nature of the sense-making task and the influences bearing upon it. This study drew on psychological autopsy data but used qualitative analytic methods. Fourteen semi-structured interviews with the parents of young men aged 18-30 who had taken their own lives form the basis for this paper. Some parents represent their sons as victims who were cruelly destroyed by external forces, while others portray them as agents of their own destruction. Either way, their narratives are dominated by moral rather than medical categories and by questions of personal accountability. We show how the parents use the interview to perform a complex reconstructive task, striving to piece together both their son's and their own shattered biographies and repair damage to their moral identities. We argue that their stories represent survival tools, enabling them not only to make sense of the past but also to face their own future.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Bereavement*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Parents / psychology*
  • Suicide*
  • United Kingdom