It’s always painful when someone close to us dies, but the pain is compounded considerably when the cause of death is suicide. Suicide doesn’t just leave us with a sense of loss, it also leaves us with a residue of anger, second-guessing, and fearful anxiety. Partly this is because we still have some unhealthy notions about it. What are these?
The first is the idea that suicide is an act of ultimate despair. We are only just emerging from a mindset that understood suicide as a final act of despair – culpable, irrevocable, and unforgivable. To commit suicide was to put oneself under the judgement that the early church pronounced on Judas Iscariot: “Better for that man if he had never been born.” Until very recently, victims of suicide were not even buried in church cemeteries. As G.K. Chesterton, the great apologist, once put it: “A person who commits suicide defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake.”
What we didn’t understand of course when we still thought those things was that the propensity for suicide, most times, is an illness, pure and simple. We are made up of body and soul. Either can snap. We can die of cancer, high blood pressure, and heart attacks or from malignancies of the heart, emotional strokes, and mortal wounds to the soul. In most suicides, just as in any terminal disease, death is not freely chosen. Suicide is a desperate attempt to end unendurable pain, much like when a man who throws himself through a window because his clothing has caught fire. That’s a tragedy, not a sin; a succumbing to disease, not despair; a real death, not intended.
Given this truth, we must also give up the mistaken notion that in committing suicide, a person puts himself or herself outside of God’s mercy.
After the resurrection, we see Christ, time and again, going through locked doors to breathe forgiveness, love, and peace into hearts that are unable to open up because of fear and hurt. God’s mercy and peace can reach through when we can’t. This side of eternity, sometimes all the love, stretched-out hands, and professional help in the world can no longer reach through to a heart locked inside a prison of pain and illness. We try to reach through but our efforts are for naught and suicide claims our loved one anyway.
God’s compassion however can reach through where ours can’t. God’s love can descend into hell, where it can breathe peace and reconciliation right into the middle of wound, anger, and fear. God’s hands our gentler than our own, God’s understanding infinitely surpasses ours, and God is not, as scripture assures us, stymied by locked doors in the same way as we are. When our loved ones die of suicide and awake on the other side, Christ is standing inside their huddled fear, gently saying: “Peace be with you.” Jesus told us that God does not promise to eliminate pain, death, and suicide in this world. These remain. What God does promise is to redeem these, to write straight with their crooked lines, and to rescue us even beyond suicide.
Then too there is the myth about suicide that expresses itself this way: This could have been prevented if only I had done more, been more attentive, and been there at the right time. Rarely is this the issue. Most of the time, we weren’t there for the very reason that the person who fell victim to this disease did not want us to be there. He or she picked the moment, the spot, and the means precisely so that we wouldn’t be there. Perhaps, more accurately, it could be said that suicide is a disease that picks its victim precisely in such a way so as to exclude others and their attentiveness.
Of course, this may never be an excuse for insensitivity to the needs of others, especially those suffering from dangerous depression, but it is a healthy check against false guilt and neurotic second-guessing. I have stood at the bedside of a number of people who were dying and there wasn’t anything I could do to stop the process. They died, despite my attentiveness, presence, and prayers. So too, generally, with those who have died of suicide. We were present in their lives to the end, though not (as we found out after the fact) in a way that could stop them from dying.
The Christian response to suicide should not be horror, fear for the victim’s eternal salvation, and guilty self-examination about what we didn’t do. Suicide is indeed a horrible way to die, but we must understand it for what it is, a sickness, and then stop second-guessing and worrying about the eternal salvation of its victim. In the pain of losing a loved one to suicide, we must affirm the bottomline of our faith, God redeems everything and, in the end, all will be well and every manner of being will be well – even beyond suicide.