Every year I write a column on suicide because, among all forms of death, it’s still the one we struggle with the most. How can suicide happen? What makes a person take his or her own life?
Suicide, no doubt, is the most misunderstood of all deaths and leaves behind a residue of questions, guilt, anger, second-guessing, and anxiety which, at least initially, is almost impossible to digest. Even though we know better, we’re still haunted by the feeling that suicide is the ultimate act of despair, a deed that somehow puts one outside the family of humanity, the mercy of God, and (in the past) the church’s burial grounds.
When someone close to us commits suicide we feel both pain and shame. That’s why suicides are often not reported publicly. An obituary is more likely to say that this person “died suddenly”, without specifying the cause of death. This reticence to admit how our loved one died speaks deeply about both the pain and shame that we are left with after the suicide of a loved one. To lose a loved one to death is painful, to lose a loved one to suicide is also disorienting.
What needs to be said about suicide? A number of things need to be re-iterated over and over again:
First, that suicide, at least in most cases, is a sickness, a disease, a terminal illness that takes a person out of life, as does any terminal illness, against his or her will. In essence, suicide is death through emotional cancer, emotional heart attack, emotional stroke. That’s why it’s apt to say that someone is “a victim of suicide”. Suicide is a desperate, if misguided, attempt to end unendurable pain at any cost, akin to throwing oneself through a window and falling to one’s death because one’s clothing is on fire. Suicide is an illness, not a sin.
Next, those left behind when a loved one commits suicide should not unduly second-guess themselves, anxiously examining over and over again what they might have done differently, why they weren’t more present, or how they somehow failed the one who committed suicide. Part of the anatomy of the disease is precisely the pathology of distancing oneself from one’s loved ones so that they cannot be present to the illness. When a loved one commits suicide we can’t help but ask ourselves: “If only I had been there! Why was I absent just on that morning?” But we weren’t there precisely because the person committing suicide did not what us to be there and picked the moment, the venue, and the means precisely with that in mind.
Besides, we’re human beings, not God. People die from accidents and illnesses every day and all the love and attentiveness in the world sometimes cannot not prevent someone we love from dying. Suicide is a sickness and, like cancer, sometimes cannot be cured by any amount of love and care. Knowing this isn’t an excuse to rationalize our failures, but it can give us some consolation in knowing that it wasn’t our neglect or inattentiveness on a given day that led someone we love to suicide.
Finally, we should not have undue worry and anxiety over the eternal fate of our loved ones who commit suicide. Why not?
First, in most cases, as we know, suicide victims have cancerous problems precisely because they are over-sensitive, wounded, too- bruised to be touched, and too raw to have the normal resiliency needed to deal with life. Their problem is not one of pride and strength, but rather of shame and weakness. What drives them to do this act is not the arrogance of a Hitler, but the weakness of an illness.
That’s why we can make a distinction between “falling victim to suicide” and “killing oneself”. The former is done out of illness, the latter is done out of pride. On the surface they might look the same, but there’s an infinite moral distance between being too bruised to continue to touch life and being too arrogant to continue to take one’s place within it.
And God, more than anyone else, understands this. God’s understanding and compassion are much deeper than ours and God’s hands are infinitely gentler than our own. If we, in our imperfect love and limited understanding, have some grasp of this, shouldn’t we be trusting that God, who is perfect love and understanding, is up to the task and that our loved ones are safe in God’s hands and God’s understanding?
Any faith that connects itself to a God worth believing in doesn’t have undue anxiety as to what will happen when God, finally, face to face, meets a bruised, gentle, over-sensitive, wounded, ill, struggling soul. Indeed, we have many scriptural references as to what happens, namely, God, who can descend into any hell we can create, goes straight through our locked doors, enters into the hell of our paranoia, illness, and fear, and gently breathes out peace.