Suicides in Wemotaci: Collective Grief

By Alexandra Grenier

Michel Tousignant is a retired associate professor in the psychology department at UQAM. He is a specialist in suicides in different communities around the world, but particularly in indigenous communities. The Social Eyes interviewed him to get his observations on the way that grief is experienced when there are several suicides in one community.

In 2002, Prof. Tousignant, who has credentials in both psychology and anthropology, spent some time in Wemotaci, an Atikamekw community in the Mauricie region of central Québec. Over the course of his research he studied the tragedy unfolding in this community: a wave of suicides (eight) among youths ranging in age from 11 to 22.

Prof. Michel Tousignant

“A series of suicides is also a collective grieving. Everyone is affected,” says Prof. Tousignant. He explains that grieving experienced after a suicide is particular in its “unifying” nature. According to the professor, the attendance at funeral rituals is greater after a death by suicide. “Usually, the wake, or viewing of the body, takes place in the home of the deceased. There might be 30 people there at a time, if not a more.” After a suicide these numbers increase. Prof. Tousignant remembers one gathering of 700 people at a Lac-Simon wake.

What explains these impressive reactions is clear to the specialist: “Suicide always elicits very strong demonstrations of emotion, because people are traumatized. They need to get together.”  This is not a characteristic unique to indigenous communities, since Prof. Tousignant has also found the same behavior in other places where he’s conducted researched, notably in Quebec’s non-indigenous communities.

 According to the expert these large gatherings, which he qualifies as “extreme,” don’t necessarily involve grieving, but rather serve for the community to reassure itself. “People search to alleviate any guilt over the death of a youth. Why did this happen? What did we do for this to happen? So it will stir up much stronger emotions than if the person had died by accident or even by negligence.”

A Plague Still in the News

Even though the beginning of the 2000’s was one of the worst periods ever for suicide in Wemotaci, there are still one of two every year. “That’s considerable for a population of 1,500. It’s much higher than the Québec average,” says Prof. Tousignant.   

If you were guessing that the number of suicides increased during the pandemic, you would be wrong. Prof. Tousignant observes: “The pandemic offered an occasion for everyone to get closer. I didn’t expect that there would be more suicides during this period.” He explains that since everyone had to obey health measures, people had to pull together and cooperate. Several villages refused all access to anyone who didn’t live there. “Maybe that softens people, it changes things around. We’re obliged to roll up our sleeves and face down the challenge. Often it’s after these periods that you see a lot of suicides, for several reasons, but mostly because those collective bonds are dissolved.”

After Death

A major wave of mutual aid follows a suicide. The family has to bring the body to the nearest health care centre (in the case of Wemotaci it’s in La Tuque, 115 km away by road). That’s so the death can be officially declared. While this is going on volunteers, often loved ones, prepare the house for the family’s return. Decorations can include religious objects, flowers and candles. A meal is prepared.  

There is no particular food to prepare in these circumstances. In general, they make do with whatever is available on the day. The deceased’s whole family is invited. “The family has nothing to do, they just have to concentrate on their mourning,” Prof. Tousignant explains. A place at the table is left for the deceased, to show that he or she is also taking part.

Prof. Tousignant says that after a suicide it’s forbidden to drink alcohol during the entire wake, which can go on for three days and three nights. “The police don’t have to check. It’s spontaneous. People stop drinking, and there is no alcohol sold during this period.”

In Wemotaci, people have a close bond with the soul of the deceased. After the wake they go to the cemetery. “Generally they have a vision of the deceased’s spirit. I don’t know if this observation is also made in the other villages, but it shows how close people feel to the deceased’s soul.”

Prof. Tousignant adds: “It’s more intense in the days and weeks after the death. Sometimes, in the case of spectacular deaths, people can have visions of the soul even years afterward, especially if it’s associated with a particular place like a river, for example.” Prof. Tousignant has also witnessed this phenomenon in Mayan communities in southern Mexico.    

Precious Memories

The photo of the deceased becomes very important after their death. It will be plastered almost everywhere, and even printed on t-shirts. “That’s in contrast with how photos are usually used in the community. In homes, you rarely find photos of people still living.”

The cemetery is very important, but you won’t find extravagant monuments here. Simple crosses mark the gravesites. “People leave a lot of flowers, generally plastic ones so that they’ll last the winter. You can see piles of flowers long after someone has died. It’s something you don’t really see anywhere else,” Prof. Tousignant says.

Over the course of his research the professor realizes that suicide has a similar echo no matter where one takes place, whether the community is indigenous or non-indigenous. The major difference lies in the link with the deceased after their death. “In indigenous communities, people don’t have the impression that the person leaves to get lost in the stars. It’s as if they’re still side by side. The rupture is less harsh than it is in the Judeo-Christian tradition, where the soul goes to heaven. The transition between life and death is much more fluid.”

– As seen in Reflet de Société, Vol. 30, No. 4, April 2022

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