Suicide among children younger than 16 years of age is a very rare event and is not yet fully understood. In a period spanning 1993 to 2004, the number of suicides among children of 0–14 years of age in Norway was zero to six per year (Freuchen, Kjelsberg, Lundervold, & Grønholt, 2012). In the time span from 2013 to 2017 there were 14–37 suicides in the age group 0–19 years per year in Norway (Norwegian Institute of Public Health, 2018). Previous studies have shown that the majority of child and adolescent suicides do not differ much from the suicides of older adolescents (Freuchen et al., 2012, p. 99). However, it seems that both the symptomatology and risk factors for suicide are not as clear as those described in older age groups (Freuchen, Kjelsberg, & Grøholt, 2012). Thus, it may be difficult to recognize the factors underlying suicide among youths. It may be equally difficult to recognize those individuals at risk. The suicide of a child is a deeply tragic event and leaves many questions unanswered because the child is no longer present to answer any questions.
One way of trying to access and understand what may have led to the suicide is through autopsy studies. These studies rely mostly on secondary sources of information (e.g., interviews with family members or friends of the deceased, police reports, and medical reports). Another way to gain insight is by studying the content of the suicide notes. These notes provide first-hand access to what the deceased wanted to express to friends and family as a final act of communication. Thus, we find it reasonable to assume that these notes may shed light on the background behind the note writers’ decision to commit suicide.
An unfortunate lack of research exists on suicide notes written by children and adolescents. However, quantitative studies have documented that between 10% and 45% of child and adolescent suicide victims leave suicide notes (Hokans & Lester, 2007; Posener, LaHaye, & Cheifetz, 1989; Mendes et al., 2015). Grøholt, Ekeberg, Wichstrom, and Haldorsen (1998) found that 14% of suicide victims under the age of 15 and 39% of those between the ages of 15 and 19 left a note. Bhatia, Verma, and Murty (2006) investigated eight notes written by 11- to 20-year-olds. However, none of the notes written by the younger victims were analysed or described separately. Further, the study focused on quantifying and describing the sociodemographic and psychiatric profiles of the note writers. Posener et al. (1989) investigated 13 notes written by 10- to 19-year-olds and quantified the characteristics of the note writers, the suicide methods of the note writers, and the items in the notes. These researchers concluded that the notes left by younger adolescents, whose age was not further specified, were not only less specific than the notes left by their older peers but also seemed more likely to suggest the presence of some form of psychotic disorganization in the writer. The notes were addressed to the parents, explained the reasons for committing suicide, and made references to an existence after death. Leenaars, de Wilde, Wenkstern, and Kral (2001) studied 80 suicide notes, including 20 notes from youth ranging in age from 12 to 18 years. The analysis revealed that the writers of these notes seemed to be characterized by tunnel vision and were singularly obsessed with a specific traumatic experience. The act of suicide seemed to be linked to this tunnel vision; death was their way out of a situation they could not otherwise solve.
We found very few qualitative studies of suicide notes written by children and adolescents. In the study by Olson, Wahab, Thompson, and Durrant (2011), three notes written by 13- to 16-year-olds were included. These notes seemed to express alienation on behalf of the writer. The families did not know the writer well enough on a deep level and therefore could not recognize or help them address their problems. Thus, there is an apparent lack of qualitative research on children’s suicide notes, and we need more knowledge of the thoughts and hardships experienced by a child prior to the suicidal act (Zhang & Lester, 2008). To help prevent tragic suicides, we need to know what is at stake in the victims’ lives prior to their death.
Through textual analysis of children’s suicide notes, we aim to provide further knowledge of the central themes that emerge in these notes. Thus, as acts of communication, these notes provide knowledge of what the note writers wanted to communicate to family and loved ones prior to death.
Materials and method
From 2007 to 2009, we conducted a psychological autopsy study on 42 11- to 15-year-old Norwegian suicide victims who died in the period 1993–2004. The procedures used in this study and its findings are described in a previous paper (Freuchen, Kjelsberg, Lundervold, & Grøholt, 2012). During that autopsy study, 18 (43%) of the participating parents entrusted us with a copy of the suicide note(s) left by their child. The notes were analysed with a quantitative approach and the results were presented in a previous paper. That paper concluded that the note writers present themselves as fully responsible for their action, failing to seek advice or help from their parents in the process leading up to their suicide. The notes of children and young adolescents have more similarities than differences in comparison to notes written by older age groups, and they are equally informative (Freuchen & Grøholt, 2013).
In the present paper, we analysed the same sample of notes. However, our aim and method of analysis was different. Through a qualitative analysis of the notes’ content, we aimed to analyse the central themes as they emerged across the suicide notes. The notes were written in Norwegian, and we translated the quotes presented in the text into English. Any translation raises a hermeneutical challenge because the signs and symbols of language are not necessarily easily transferable from one language to the other. However, these texts are not linguistically complicated; they are fairly short notes written by children. In order to identify hermeneutical challenges in the translations, we reviewed and adjusted the texts until we could no longer identify any translational challenges in the translations presented.
We read these notes as acts of communication in a situation of deep emotional turmoil and personal tragedy. Most of the notes have specific addressees, and they exhibit similar formats and contain many of the same elements. However, many of them are brief, and the background data are insufficient to allow, for example, a narrative analysis of the respective letters. Even though the data in this study are texts suicide victims left behind, and not from interviews to be planned, held, and analysed, the principal steps of qualitative thematic analysis can still be used. Thus, our study is an attempt to interpret these notes in order to shed some light on what that the writer wanted to communicate before committing suicide.
We chose to use a systematic text condensation (STC) method (Malterud, 2012) and applied the steps described in Malterud’s systematic text condensation procedure, which is a modified version of Giorgi’s phenomenological method (Dahlberg, Drew, & Nystrom, 2001). To allow for critical focus on the tragic themes described in these notes, we found it necessary to take steps to bracket both our preconceptions and the emotional effect these notes had on us as researchers. This necessity led to a long, time-consuming, arduous process of reading the texts, confronting both our preconceptions and our emotions, and discussing and working with the texts before we agreed that the work could be published. Our main concern was to balance the necessary critical focus on the analysed themes against our deepest respect for both the deceased and the next-of-kin who gave us permission to use these letters.
A preliminary reading of the notes showed the emerging themes to be existential in character, as we shall see below. According to Malterud (2003, 2012), the STC method is well suited for the decontextualization, coding, synthesis, and recontextualization of existential and phenomenological experiences across cases, as described in these notes. The clear-cut and step-wise procedure also contributed to both the transparency and the internal validity of such a thematic cross-case analysis.
The underlying epistemological position of this study was informed by social constructionism (Alvesson & Sköldberg, 2017, p. 41). We viewed both the texts and our interpretation of them as perspectives on what was at play in these young lives when they decided to communicate through a note before committing suicide. Thus, we recognized the different hermeneutical layers and challenges; between what was actually at play in the note writers’ lives, what is displayed in the texts, and finally, our interpretation of the texts. These hermeneutical challenges do not allow for interpretative certainty, especially given the inner turmoil the writers may have been experiencing at the time of writing. Further, we recognize that our textual interpretation does not depict reality as such. The perspectives of next-of-kin and friends on the tragic suicides may e. g. be otherwise.
However, both our reading and our analysis of the notes were guided by the facts of what we actually do know: these notes were the children’s last written words and thus contain what they decided to communicate to their loved ones shortly before their suicide.
Cross-case analysis involves an analytical comparison between, in this instance, the different notes and the specific text units within these notes. This analysis entails a decontextualization that may mask crucial contextual elements. However, due to the rather limited number and length of these notes, the risk of losing important contextual elements can be countered by the careful reading of them in the phases of both phenomenological reduction and decontextualization (Malterud, 2012). Furthermore, as we mentioned above, we do not have sufficient knowledge of the broader context of the notes in order to establish a sufficient psychological autopsy that could serve as an analytical frame of reference for, as an example. a narrative analysis.
The STC procedure entailed four steps. In the first step, which Malterud calls From chaos to themes, the authors read through the texts to get an overall impression of the content. We performed this preliminary reading as open-mindedly as possible, searching for the existential themes without letting either preconceptions or our own affects, theories, or thematic categorizations interfere with our reading. After numerous readings and discussions, we identified what we believed to be the most important phenomenological themes, but we did not systematize these themes (Malterud, 2012, p. 796–797). The following themes were identified: a) declarations of love, affection, or friendship; b) offers of forgiveness and consolation; c) statements of guilt, shame, and aggression; and d) statements of last wills and testaments. There was little discussion regarding which themes would be followed up on in the later analysis, because the identified themes seemed to emerge both in a certain order and across the notes. This initial reading also revealed that many of the notes were rich in phenomenological descriptions compared to other shorter statements with fewer emerging themes.
In the second step, which Malterud calls From themes to codes, we reviewed the notes line by line in light of the abovementioned themes. We did so to identify and code the text units relevant to our initial research questions. This step included identifying, classifying, and sorting units with a meaning potentially related to the previously negotiated themes. In this way, we proceeded from raw data to themes in step 1 and then from themes to coded text in step 2. We found a small number of text units that could be categorized under more than one theme. In these instances, we chose what we found to be the most likely interpretation in light of the context of the text unit. These units are not quoted from or referred to in the present article and served only as part of the empirical backdrop of the project.
The third step entailed condensing the coded text within each code group (theme). By both condensation and abstraction, we reworked the text units within each code group into condensed, decontextualized, and differentiated units of meaning. These units were then categorized under five themes (the code groups) in readiness for recontextualization and analysis.
In the fourth and final step, the different themes were analysed. This analysis aimed to establish new recontextualized descriptions in order to answer and elucidate the research questions being asked (Malterud, 2012, pp. 796–801).
An overriding ethical consideration has been whether it was possible to publish a critical qualitative study of these texts without adding too much to the vulnerability and grief of the next of kin. This deliberation is partly the reason for the time delay between the main project and this article. It is our hope that the present article shows both the deepest respect and compassion for both the deceased and next of kin as well as sufficient critical focus to add to a field of study were knowledge is lacking.
All required permissions were obtained from the Norwegian Directorate for Health and Social Affairs, the Norwegian Social Science Data Services, the Director General of Public Prosecution, the Directory of Residents, and Statistics Norway. The Regional Committees for Medical and Health Research Ethics approved the study. The procedures for obtaining consent and the suicide notes are described in a previous paper (Freuchen et al., 2012). All parents provided written consent for participation in the study and allowed us to analyse the suicide notes and quote their contents in this paper. However, to protect the deceased, their parents, and other parties mentioned in the notes, we removed any identifying information. One parent did not consent to the publication of quotes from his child’s note but allowed us to use the note otherwise in the analysis. We honoured that request and thus did not quote it in the present text.
As mentioned above, this study is exploratory and aims to map the themes at play in the suicide notes of children and early adolescents. We defined a suicide note as any written item relevant in time and content to the suicide. Thus, our material included 15 notes and three homework essays. All the notes were handwritten, with one computer-written exception. The notes differed substantially in terms of length (the mean word count was 47 and the range was two to 144 words, the homework essays excluded). Only four of the 15 notes (excluding the essays) were dated, and eight were signed. The language used in the notes was simple and straightforward. Among the 18 (100%) note writers, 13 (72%) were boys and 5 (28%) were girls. One boy left five notes addressed to different people. We chose to include all five notes in the first step of the analysis, but we later used only the one addressed to the parents. That is because as the contents in the five notes did not differ in any significant way (Freuchen & Grøholt, 2013).
An initial and relevant question is how representative the children and adolescents who write suicide notes are. In our study, the incidence of leaving a suicide note was 43%. Thus, it is important that the notes examined are from a minority of the victims. Hence, we cannot generalize the findings.
In our analysis, we present samples from the notes. However, it needs to be said that the analysis rests on a far larger data set than that which can be presented within the constraints of an article.
The notes share some common features. First, they describe the intolerable situation the child faced at the time of the suicide. Even though no sadness or depression is stated explicitly, these notes express an overwhelming inner pain related to a situation that is no longer bearable. Second, these notes seem to be characterized by both planning and elaboration. The overall impression is that both the suicide notes and the subsequent suicides they refer to are not the results of sudden impulses or a sudden strong negative affect. Rather, the notes and suicides reveal situations that have become unbearable over time. Third, there is also a surprising similarity regarding the thematic structure of the notes, as we have already mentioned. Both the thematic order and the themes themselves show deliberation and a preoccupation with many of the same items. According to our analysis, these themes can be subsumed under the headings below.
Declarations of love, affection, or friendship
Most of the letters had a formal opening statement that assured the addressee of the note writer’s love, affection, or friendship. The addressees were mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, or friends. The note writers tell the addressees in different ways to remember that they loved them. Two of the letters start with “Dear all of you!” and “Dear (the name of a friend)!” Three notes open with the word “Hello” and subsequently proceed to declarations of love. After an introductory declaration of love, one note continues with these words: “It is true, I love you all very much (the names of seven people, including the mother and father).” One letter expresses the writer’s affection for his friends in the neighbourhood and his love for his mother and father, stating that he would miss them all. Another letter says the following: “I’m very fond of you all equally. You mean everything to me.” One boy writes the following to his girlfriend: “I love you more than anything on earth, apart from my mother and my father.” Other notes express the writers’ affection for friends at school, wishing them all the best in life. For example, one girl writes the following to her friend: “Can you please take care of (four names plus mom and dad)? (…) Tell them I’m very fond of them.” Reading across the notes, we determined that these declarations are more than general greetings to family or friends. They appear early in the notes, and as we read them, their intention to proclaim and secure the love, affection, or friendship the writer has for the people mentioned, perhaps as intentional preparation for what is to come later in the note, stood out.
Offers of consolation and forgiveness
Most letters sought to offer some sort of consolation for the loss and grief that would come to the addressees. One note says this: “However, I’m better off this way, much better. Please don’t be angry with me because of this.” A boy writes the following: “If you get sad, then think I’m better off now.” One girl wrote the following: “I know you love me, but I’m better off this way.” Other letters convey consolation by setting the addressee(s) free from possible guilt: “The reason for what I’m about to do has nothing to do with you.” In the same vein, statements like “You have always been so kind to me” or “You mean all to me” are found. One letter, an essay written by a boy, offers what we read as a consoling and apologetic explanation for what is about to happen: “The road is at the end; I am at the end of the road of life. There is no way back; I have to continue.” And, “If life is part of death, death must be a part of life.”
The theme of forgiveness seems to be intertwined with the theme of consolation in many of the notes. One girl writes to her female friend asking for forgiveness for her suicide: “Please forgive me for what I’m about to do; I just couldn’t continue living the way I do.” Another note offers this explanation: “I hope you can forgive me, but I just couldn’t live the way I do.” And, “Sorry it had to end like this; I will miss you.” In one note, a girl weighs the burden of pain, reminding the readers that her pain will be as great as theirs because she knows how much they care for her. This note may be read as both asking for forgiveness and offering some sort of consolation through mutual love.
Feelings of guilt, shame, and aggression
We mentioned above that these notes suggest that suicide is the only possible way out of an unbearable situation. More specifically, the notes connected the coming suicides closely to overwhelming feelings of guilt and possibly feelings of shame that these children could not ameliorate in ways other than by ending their lives.
In some notes, a feeling of guilt was the dominant theme as we read them. A boy wrote the following: “I’ll never steal again, and that is for sure” and left money to be paid back to the owner of a store from which he had stolen candy. Another wrote that he had slapped a boy at school on the ear, and the other boy claimed to have lost his hearing because of the slap: “This made me very nervous, and I told the teacher I was sick; I took the bus home.” The specific feeling of guilt tied to this episode also proceeds to a more general description of guilt: “I am sorry for all the bad things I have caused you.” This boy went home and sadly shot himself. Another boy wrote the following: “You were a real friend. I’m sorry I was so mean to you,” thus both expressing his guilt and stating the reason for it. However, it is unclear whether or how this apology ties in to the suicide. This text may also be read as a parting apology to a dear friend.
There are also notes in which, according to our reading, some form of shame reaction seems to be a dominant theme.1 One boy wrote the following: “I suppose I’m too stupid, ugly, and mean for my family,” and he continues, “It costs too much to keep me.” He goes on to express his low self-image: “I felt like a thing that everybody was free to hit, yell at, harass, and torment,” and “I don’t think the teachers liked me.” Another boy writes the following in his note: “I wasn’t anyone you could be proud of.” Still another note expresses tiredness, shame, and a final tragic courage: “I am so tired of being a coward; now it’s over.” Another child expresses his shame this way: “This is how I feel: so infinitely small.” A girl writes a list of failures and regrets: she did not succeed at school, she was not happy with her appearance, and she was a burden to others. Other notes contain messages to friends telling them about troubles at school and advising them “not to end up like me.” Another note written by a girl who was probably referring to her now-dead body writes the following: “This is how you see me.” This note was found close to the couch where she was lying after having shot herself. Even though our interpretation may not seem obvious due to the lack of context, in our view this note indicated a shame-inducing discrepancy between the girl’s own self-representation and how she perceived she was being seen through the eyes of the addressees. Therefore, because of this shameful misrepresentation, it is not unreasonable to interpret this note as also containing a certain degree of anger directed towards the addressees.
A few notes expressed anger directed towards other people. In one note addressed to a friend, a boy wrote the following: “Give my greetings to (a boy’s name) with a punch or two to his face.” Another boy excluded a certain person from his last will. He specifically stated that this person was not to be given any of his belongings after his death, because this person had been the one bullying him. The most hostile note read as follows: “You are simply bastards, especially you, Dad. This I do for you, Dad, for all you have done to me.” This note was hidden under the body of the child. At the bottom of the note, the following was added: “Don’t show this to Dad.” It is difficult to say whether this statement was added to protect the father or whether it is an expression of an ultimate fear that reaches even into death.
There are also examples of anger directed inwards. One boy wrote: “I have a fucking life.” As we understand it, this note expresses both anger and grief over an unbearable life. It portrays an anger that points inwards as a self-reflection on a life where suicide seems to be the only option left.
Closing statements: last will and testament
Most of the suicide notes shared the same type of closing statements. First, these children ended their letters by letting their last will and testament be known. There was a certain planned finality to these statements, in which the testator distributes his or her belongings. One boy writes the following: “My family can use my boat as they please. I want (a boy’s name) to have my model car.” He then goes on to fully name one girl and two boys: “I want to leave them (a certain amount of money) from my graduation money.” He continues, “I want you to spend the rest on a computer for (a girl’s name), because she needs it.” Another boy distributes his favourite CD to one friend and his PlayStation 2 to another. One boy with a specific interest in UFO studies carefully distributes his money among his grandmother, two girlfriends, and a group studying UFOs. Furthermore, he provides money for the upkeep of his cat. He also instructs that his UFO study material is to be given to a specific friend. One girl tells the addressee to keep the ring she has borrowed. These final statements also share a commonality with the opening statements of love. The distributions seem to underscore the child’s love for those who receive these gifts. There are examples of friends, brothers, and sisters receiving gifts as symbols of love and remembrance.
Second, in addition to testaments, some notes expressed the last will of the child. A girl wants her friend to tell their mutual friends that they were not to blame for her suicide. She also tells her friend to take whatever she wants from her belongings. Another boy expressed his love to his parents and friends and gave instructions for the inscription on his gravestone: “Time is the best teacher. Unfortunately, he kills all his pupils.”
Three notes had closing statements referring to wishes for or thoughts about what is to come, such as the note of the girl who writes that she wants to explore what comes after life. A 12-year-old boy, who had lost his mother at the age of 3, wrote, “I want to visit Mommy.” Another boy wrote the following: “However, I’m sure I will meet you again.”
Notes as an act of communication
As mentioned above, the aim of this study is to explore the phenomena at play in the suicide notes of children and adolescents. And as presented above, we have identified four central themes. A suicide note is itself an act of communication: the writer communicates concerns to the receiver(s) that were important enough to be included in a suicide note. However, can these four concerns, or themes, be subsumed under a main concern? As we view it, the overarching theme is loneliness in a situation where help is desperately needed. When read as calls for help, these notes are certainly ambiguous.
On one hand, these letters express a situation of loneliness with nowhere to turn. Research indicates that when they are feeling low, adolescents tend to seek help from friends rather than from their parents (Grøholt, Ekeberg, Wichstrom, & Haldorsen, 2000). We have no information about whether these children consulted friends, but earlier studies of the same sample show that according to their parents, the note writers did not seek advice from the parents in search of alternative ways to handle the difficult situations they were experiencing (Freuchen & Grøholt, 2013).
On the other hand, these notes do not express the urgency of a cry for help. Rather, they express a type of resignation and finality. It is too late for help, and there is no way out other than suicide. Even though we find the notes clear and without prominent confusing elements, we should take into consideration the findings of Orbach, Mikulineer, Stein, and Cohen (1998). These researchers found that suicidal individuals exhibit a rigid pattern of perception and thinking, have a limited ability to solve life problems, and have difficulties in producing new alternatives to problematic situations. Thus, they end up in a situation of utter hopelessness, which is one of the well-known risk factors for suicide. However, even though the letters seem to express both loneliness and a need for help, we do not know if this combination is reflected in the note writers’ relational support systems.
The notes show, as we have mentioned above, a degree of planning and deliberation in spite of the writers’ young ages. The fact that children often seem to reach out to friends for help under normal circumstances does not warrant that they will do the same when they make their farewell. There can be many explanations for why children do not want to reach out to their parents, even though that parental relationship may be a good one. In our view, these notes reveal that these children seem to have reached a conclusion to end their struggle by committing suicide. However, such a final act carries consequences, especially for family and friends, that need to be addressed. These concerns seem to be addressed in the four themes we have identified.
Declarations of love
As we interpret these notes, the specific function of the opening declarations of love, friendship, and/or affection seem to be at least twofold. First, they serve as an emotional connection to the addressee, reminding him or her that the relationship is still intact. This assurance is probably very important for the writer, as the act of suicide can call into question the role of the addressees in the life and death of the writer. Second, these opening statements are important premises for what is to follow. When love, friendship, and/or affection are declared, and the reader is assured that the relationship is intact, only then is it possible to convey words of both forgiveness and consolation. We do not have sufficient contextual information regarding the relationship between the children and their parents to confirm this possibility. However, other studies have shown that even in cases of abuse or neglect, children often withstand repeated transgressions without losing love for the offending parent or for other close adults (van Dyke, 2007). There may also be a third function, even though we have only indirect data that support this function. The aforementioned declarations of affection can also be a way of trying to repair, or at least harmonize, difficult relationships with those mentioned in the notes.
Offers of forgiveness and consolation
We cannot say for sure whether the child/adolescent note writers use the word forgiveness in the same way adults do in colloquial language. However, the thematic structure of the notes, specifically the way in which forgiveness and consolation are linked, seems to suggest that forgiveness is referred to in an ordinary moral sense. First, the writers state the reasons for their decision to commit suicide, and the notes carefully explain that committing suicide is their only way out of an unbearable situation. Second, by stating reasons that are not related to the specific relationship between the note writer and the addressees, the writers also absolve the addressees of guilt or blame. Third, the assurances that the addressees are not to blame and the focus on declarations of love indicate a strong wish to give comfort to those left behind.
Forgiveness is an important topic both in victimology and in moral philosophy. Contemporary psychology has also addressed the possible therapeutic benefits of forgiveness (Griswold, 2007; McCullough, 2000; Shults, 2003).2 Thus, forgiveness is basically a moral concept and has its place in the moral order after wrongdoing. First, a request for forgiveness implies an admittance of guilt (i.e., someone has been wronged and someone is to blame for the wrongdoing). Second, a request for forgiveness implies seeking moral closure by restoring the relationship affected by the wrongdoing. Forgiving is both accepting the wrongdoer’s plea for moral restoration and letting go of the anger and resentment caused by the wrongdoer. Hence, asking for forgiveness and giving forgiveness are two different phenomena.
In our context, the note writers are not concerned with forgiving; they are solely occupied with asking for forgiveness. Asking for forgiveness seems to imply a recognition that one is about to commit an act that will be harmful to someone else and therefore their forgiveness must be sought. Hence, the note writers seek forgiveness in order to restore the moral imbalance their suicide will create.
This need for forgiveness points to a deep-seated moral dilemma. On the one hand, the notes describe a situation where the only way out is suicide. The note writers may have sought other avenues before deciding to take their own lives but are now in a situation in which they are faced with the final option: suicide. On the other hand, they realize that such an act will have troubling consequences for their loved ones. First, committing suicide will inflict tremendous pain and grief on the addressees. Second, this pain will be strongly enhanced if the addressees find strong reasons to blame themselves for the suicide.
How do these children solve this moral dilemma with which they are faced? The note writers are very aware of the pain their suicide will cause. As we interpret it, they resolve the dilemma by protecting the others who will be impacted. They are careful to take both the responsibility and the blame for the suicide in order to protect parents and friends from blaming themselves. By taking responsibility for what they are about to do and by asking for forgiveness for the harm this act will inflict, they both absolve the addressees of possible guilt and try to restore the morally interrupted relation.
Such protection obviously carries enormous potential for much-needed emotional relief for both parents and friends in such a situation. However, it comes with a cost for the child. First, these prayers of forgiveness cannot be answered because the child will not be there to receive words of forgiveness. As such, moral ambiguity exists in these notes. On the one hand, there is a strong need for forgiveness for what one is about to do. On the other hand, there is a certainty that the answer to the note writers´ prayers will be out of reach. However, it is difficult to assess the gravity of the moral strain and anxiety caused by this uncertainty. Suffice it to say that such doubt adds to the pain, loneliness, and anxiety that is already present in the lives of these children. A second price that must be paid is the possibility that the activation of such a protective mechanism also shuts off important avenues of help. The fact that these children did not seek help from either their parents or the friends mentioned in these notes seems to suggest that such options were somehow not available to them. It can be argued that involving parents or friends and still deciding to commit suicide would be to place these individuals in harm’s way (i.e., in a position in which they would have less protection from their own self-blame).
Guilt, shame, and aggression
As we presented above, our findings suggest that guilt, shame, and aggression are important themes in these suicide notes. As concepts, they constitute large and separate fields of research.3 However, as empirical phenomena, they are both highly complex and tightly linked; thus, they are not easily kept apart.
In our view, there is a difference between guilt and feelings of guilt. Guilt is a moral concept that implies that a person has in some way offended or violated another person (e.g., through violating norms, rules, or prohibitions) (Mesel, 2013). Feelings of guilt, however, are self-conscious emotions that involve a more articulated condemnation of a specific action or behaviour towards someone else (Katchadourian, 2010, p. 24ff.; Mesel, 2013, p. 24; Tangney & Dearing, 2002). Thus, feelings of guilt can be an adequate moral emotional response in a situation where it is reasonable to assume that one is to blame.
Both guilt and feelings of guilt are very much present in some of these notes. There seems to be an overwhelming feeling of guilt behind the decision to commit suicide. Even though the guilt expressed in these notes appears to be connected to minor transgressions, as in the case of the boy who stole candy, we find no reason to believe that these suicides were committed because of a single incident. As we have mentioned above, the notes suggest both planning and deliberation. Thus, the incident described may represent the final straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. This notion is also clearly formulated in some notes in which the writer also includes more general statements, suggesting that these feelings of guilt have pervaded his entire life.
However, in order to serve as a guiding moral response, there needs to be a certain proportionality between feelings of guilt and the offense one is guilty of (Katchadourian, 2010). Suffice it to say that both emotional inflation and deflation in relation to the situation’s facts can be ethically misleading. In what way are these emotional experiences at play in these notes? First, even though the aetiology of suicide is psychologically complex, it is striking that the note writers state the reason for their suicide is a moral one. As we read these notes, the writers do not state that loneliness or anxiety per se is the reason for committing suicide. They state a moral reason; that is, they are experiencing a situation in which the feeling of guilt rests so heavily upon their shoulders that suicide is the only way out.
As we observed above, these children admit to minor wrongdoings, ask for forgiveness, and even offer restitution (e.g., for stolen candy). Normally, when one admits to guilt and takes steps to rectify the wrongdoing by restitution, one would assume that the next steps would be forgiveness and reconciliation between the offender and the offended. However, this scenario does not occur here, because the notes suggest that only the suicide represents a final end to wrongdoing. From an ethical point of view, there is a tragic discrepancy between the minor transgressions described and the emotional response they evoke.
This discrepancy leads us to a second point. There are no suggestions in the notes as to why the children cannot see forgiveness and reconciliation as an alternative way out of their all-encompassing feeling of guilt. Considering the incidents mentioned, one would expect that minor thefts, school fights, and the other events that led to these suicides could have been resolved in the same way as any other moral conflict, especially since the question of who is to blame is not disputed. There is no indication in the notes to suggest that the note writers sought forgiveness and reconciliation for the incidents described but that such efforts have been rejected. Further, there are no indications that the note writers sought forgiveness and reconciliation at all.
In our view, we need to shift from such an intersubjective perspective on guilt, forgiveness, and reconciliation to an intra-subjective perspective. Even though forgiveness and reconciliation have been studied as intersubjective phenomena, the intra-subjective perspective is not without merit (Dillon, 2001; Holmgren, 1993, 1998; Mesel, 2014, p. 166ff.; Rangganadhan & Todorov, 2010). Hall and Fincham (2005) describe self-forgiveness as follows:
…a set of motivational changes whereby one becomes decreasingly motivated to avoid stimuli associated with the offense, decreasingly motivated to retaliate against the self (e.g., punish the self, engage in self-destructive behaviours, etc.), and increasingly motivated to act benevolently toward the self (p. 622).
Both self-blame and self-forgiveness, as intra-subjective phenomena, are morally and psychologically more complex than intersubjective blame and forgiveness. Intersubjective blame and forgiveness occur in the social space between the offender and the offended. First, this social space offers an important moral context for defining both who is to blame and the extent of blame. In so doing, this space also facilitates the necessary emotional calibration of the feelings of guilt. Second, this social context offers resources that can facilitate the processes of forgiveness as well as ameliorate the burdens of guilt. In other words, both forgiveness and reconciliation are relational moral concepts that belong in the moral context where one can receive both the correction and the support of family and friends. However, in situations of self-blame and self-forgiveness, the social space between the offender and the offended has collapsed, and the resources and support of the social context required to both calibrate and carry the burden of guilt are not as available. Thus, the role of social context in facilitating the processes of forgiveness is also lost. Hence, an apparent risk exists that note writers who hold on to self-blame instead of self-forgiveness experience increased loneliness and isolation.
The above concepts may explain why the note writers could not solve their moral dilemmas. Locked in self-blame, they could not find a way to a benevolent state of self-forgiveness. Instead, acting as a judge of their own life, they punished themselves to the ultimate sentence: death. The discrepancy between the minor nature of the transgressions and the price these victims paid is both enormous and tragic. This result is why it is so important to stress that guilt, forgiveness, and reconciliation belong in the interpersonal social context whereby inflated or deflated moral responses may be corrected and the carrying of burdens may be ameliorated.
(…) the feeling we have when we evaluate our actions, feelings, or behaviour and conclude that we have done wrong. It encompasses the whole of ourselves; it generates a wish to hide, to disappear, or even to die (p. 2).
Shame also implies an audience (i.e., that we, either in reality or in our minds, perceive ourselves as negatively represented in the eyes of another). The basic mechanism of shame is complex (Skårderud, 2001a). On the one hand, shame is deeply relational; it reminds us that we are under scrutiny by others. On the other hand, shame leaves us with an urgent feeling of wanting to disappear or flee from the scrutiny. As such, shame isolates us and pushes us away from both relationship and dialogue. Thus, as an emotion, shame is very different from guilt. Shame does not build a bridge to those we have harmed; rather, it does the opposite, leaving us in shameful isolation or projecting us into anger to escape the intense scrutiny of others.
However, shame can have many faces and functions.5 Important questions in this context are how the faces of shame are negotiated, how they function, and how they are manifested in the context of the note writers, especially regarding what we call chronic and poisonous shame. There is a profound difference between the acute but passing shame we may experience when we break culturally sanctioned rules of proper conduct and the chronic and poisonous shame that locks us into a permanent self-interpretation of inferiority or unworthiness (Farstad, 2011, p. 36ff.). Shame can be the pain of seeing oneself as someone who does not deserve to be loved. The deepest form of the shame experience may result from showing your love to someone only to be rejected (Skårderud, 2001a, 2001b).
There appear to be three faces of shame in the suicide notes. Two of these faces are connected to the culturally shaped ideals of perfection. Such a search for perfection likely creates victims. In his literature review, O’Connor (2007) found considerable evidence that self-critical concerns about mistakes and doubts about actions are correlated with suicidality. The first face of shame is connected to the cultural ideals of intellectual and physical achievement. In culture as such, but more specifically in our school system, the standards are set at a high level. Moreover, we know that the number of dropouts is high. Individuals drop out not only from schools but also from other activities, such as football or other sports activities, because they cannot meet expectations (Gustafsson, Sagar, & Stenling, 2016). Some of the note writers express what we interpret as a strong and chronic feeling of shame because “they are nothing to be proud of.” They are “stupid” or “not worth the effort.” As one boy expresses, “It costs too much to keep me!”
In other words, when self-worth is defined by standards of excellence, we can expect that many of those who struggle with the given standards will also struggle with shame. In a study of 541 children, Dry, Kane, and Rooney (2015) found that children with tendencies towards critically evaluating themselves against impossible socially prescribed standards of perfection tend to report higher levels of depressive symptoms, which, in turn, indicates a moderate association with maladaptive coping.
The other type of shame connected to the ideals of perfection concerns physical appearance.6 When ideals of perfection are expressed through bodily standards, shame can manifest itself in pathological efforts to flee the imperfect body so that the shame will go away (e.g., in the conditions of megarexia and orthorexia). This theme is very much present in the suicide notes. One boy writes about “being too ugly.” Another girl pens a note with a clear reference to her deceased body when she writes the following: “This is how you see me.” One interpretation is that this girl experienced a shameful discrepancy between how she perceived her body and the way her body was perceived by society or by those around her (e.g., as dead, devoid of life). Another interpretation is that she experienced herself as dead to those around her (i.e., invisible or simply non-existent in the eyes of others).
The third face of shame is connected to being a victim of harassment. In victim shame, the victim remembers the episodes of harassment as a reduction to powerlessness (Todorov, 1996, p. 263). A tormentor who recognizes the vulnerable and powerless face of the victim, without ever slowing down the harassment, communicates that the other (i.e., the victim) holds no moral value (Mesel, 2017; Vetlesen, 2001, p. 117ff.). Thus, there is a certain form of shame in being recognized as both vulnerable and without value. One boy writes about how he was harassed at school: “I felt like a thing, a box, that everybody was free to hit, yell at, harass, and torment.” There seemed to be no safe places at school for this boy; even the teachers did not like him. Nowhere was his worth appreciated, and he felt degraded to a shameful sub-human without value. Another boy writes the following about standing up for oneself: “I am so tired of being a coward; now it is over!” That the ultimate act of taking back one’s life implies taking one’s own life is an utterly tragic paradox.
The third concept we shall briefly comment on is anger or aggression, which is a theme present in a few of the suicide notes. There seem to be two different directions and objects of the anger or aggression that is displayed. In some notes, the aggression is directed outwards towards others. One note writer expresses anger or hostility towards his father. Aggression in the other direction and with the other object seems to be directed inwards towards the self. However, we do not have enough empirical data to offer more than speculation on this matter. The anger and aggression may be interpreted as a fulfilment of punishment directed towards others or against oneself (Leenaars, 2004, p. 18).
In their review of the literature, Gvion and Apter (2011) confirmed a correlation among aggression, impulsivity, and suicidal behaviour. In our sample, we found little evidence of impulsivity, which may explain why we also found little aggression. As previously mentioned, the notes express an overwhelming feeling of inner pain related to a prolonged unbearable situation. The question is how to understand this feeling of inner pain. Earlier in this section, we noted that guilt and shame could be transformed into both anger and aggression directed towards oneself or others. Inner conflicts can produce such reactions (Mesel, 2017, pp. 114 and 140). Shame, self-blame, and futile attempts to forgive oneself may revert to punishing oneself. In some of these notes, there are elements that point to the suicide as a final and aggressive silencing of the shameful self.
Last will and testament
The very last themes we will mention, which were usually the last topics in the notes, are the last will and testament. Other research shows that just over 20% of suicide notes contain instructions, be they last wills or testaments (Namratha, Kishor, Sathyanarayana Rao, & Raman, 2015; Sinyor, Schaffer, Hull, Peisah, & Shulman, 2015). In the research literature, we found very few discussions of these two elements. Posener et al. (1989) claim that these topics are less relevant in the suicide notes of children and adolescents than in those of suicide victims of other age groups. In our sample, however, these elements are present and seem to serve three functions.
First, the deceased victim no longer has use for what she or he cherished or was interested in and therefore decides to leave these items as gifts. The last will serves to distribute the inheritance according to the will of the deceased.
Second, when the deceased distributes cherished or valuable objects or other memorabilia to loved ones, it serves to reinforce the relationship between the deceased and those who receive the inheritance. As previously mentioned, these “testaments” contain instructions for money to care for a cat, UFO material that describes the interest and hobby of the deceased, a model car, and a boat, among other items.
Thus, third, bequeathing things that were important to the deceased serves to preserve the memory of him or her as a person. These items are more than just money or assets; they are symbols of memory that symbolize things that were important to the deceased.
A last will serves a slightly different function. It describes what the deceased would want to occur after death. A last will can provide detailed instructions (e.g., the inscription on the gravestone). In addition, it can express the intention of the deceased and thus help to explain some of the motivation behind the suicide. One example of an expressed intention comes from the boy who wrote that he wanted to meet his deceased mother.
Both testaments and last wills can be read as strong attempts to strengthen relationships with loved ones in spite of the suicide act. Therefore, these findings suggest deliberation, planning, preparation, and a lack of impulsiveness.
Limitations and strengths
Technological development has accelerated since the notes were written (1993–2004), and in 2018, their content possibly could have been communicated online (e.g., on Social Media, by e-mail, voicemail, and cell phone text message). Even though their content would not necessarily be very different, a change in openness has transpired in relation to, for example, bullying, sexuality, and suicidal behaviour. We would expect this change to be mirrored in suicide notes in 2018. The influence of social media is not discussed or taken into consideration, because it is not within the scope of this paper.
Further, as a qualitative textual analysis, our object of study is a sample of texts. Thus, the strength of the analysis lies in its ability to perform an in-depth analysis of the themes presented in these texts. The flipside is that the hermeneutical distance between the texts and the writers of these texts does not allow us to conclude methodologically that the textual themes necessarily mirror the life-world of the writers. However, the deep sincerity and gravity of the notes strongly suggest that the themes communicated are, at least, of the utmost importance for the writer. Further, as a qualitative analysis, the findings are valid only for the texts studied. However, the strong commonalities in both content and structure across the cases suggest a possible framework for both further studies and work with suicide prevention programs.
The unfathomable despair of the child who can no longer find a viable path to go forward in life and the bottomless grief of the parent who loses that child represent a moral obligation to initiate a collective research effort in a field where knowledge is needed.
The notes carefully communicate how the writers carried burdens of guilt and shame or a despair that ultimately became too much to carry. In addition, they address the grief that the impending suicides would cause as well as remove possible blame from and offer consolation to the addressees. These notes also have closing statements of last wills and testaments.
There is nothing in the notes suggesting that the writers did not want help
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- However, because shame is an elusive and often implicitly expressed phenomenon, it needs to be mentioned that our interpretation of text units as expressing some form of shame rests on the reading of the full text and on what we know of the further context. Within the scope of this article, we are limited to presenting only the text units and not the broader context.
- See also Mesel (2017) and Holeman and Myers (1998). For a critical appraisal of forgiveness and psychotherapy, see Lamb and Murphy (2002).
- Both shame and guilt have been central in psychology since the time of Freud (Tangney & Dearing, 2002, p. 12ff.). In later moral psychology research, these concepts have been studied as specific moral emotions. Haidt (Haidt, 2003) defines moral feelings as “those that are linked to the interests or welfare either of society as a whole or at least of persons other than the judge or agent.” However, these concepts are ambiguous. Shame can serve as an example; it is a concept that has been widely discussed in fields such as anthropology, philosophy, sociology, and psychology as well as within different traditions in the various sciences (Gilbert, 1998, p. 3ff.). See Pattison (2000, p. 39ff.) for a discussion of the conceptual and definitional issues with shame.
- It can be difficult to differentiate between shame and guilt, especially when they are considered as empirical phenomena. For further reading, see, for example, Allpress, Brown, Giner-Sorolla, Deonna, and Teroni, 2014; O’Connor, Berry, Weiss, Bush, and Sampson, 1997; and Tagney, Stuewig, and Mashek, 2007.
- For further reading into the many faces of shame, see, for example, Deonna, Rodogno, and Teroni (2011), Farstad (2011), and Mesel (2017).
- The shameful body is a complex topic. For further reading, see Skårderud (2001a; 2001b; 2006). See also Gilbert and Miles (2014), and Dolezal (2015). For a specific gender perspective, see, for example, Johnson & Moran (2013).