Some things need to be said and said and said again until they don’t need to be said anymore. Margaret Atwood wrote that. I quote it here because each year I write a column on suicide and mostly say the same thing each time because certain things need to be said repeatedly about suicide until we have a better understanding of it.
What needs to be said again and again?
- First, that suicide is a disease, something that in most cases takes a person out of life against his or her will, the emotional equivalent of cancer, a stroke, or a heart attack.
- Second, that we, the loved ones who remain, should not spend undue time and energy second-guessing as to how we might have failed that person, what we should have noticed, and what we might still have done to prevent the suicide. Suicide is an illness and, as with a purely physical disease, we can love someone and still not be able to save him or her from death. God also loved this person and shared our helplessness in trying to help him or her.
- We need a better understanding of mental health. The fact is that not everyone has the internal circuits to allow them the sustained capacity for steadiness and buoyancy. One’s mental health is parallel to one’s physical health, fragile, and not fully within one’s control. Moreover just as diabetes, arthritis, cancer, stroke, heart attacks, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and multiple sclerosis, can cause debilitation and death; so too can mental diseases wreak havoc, also causing every kind of debilitation and sometimes death by suicide.
- The potential role that biochemistry plays in suicide needs more exploration. If some suicidal depressions are treatable by drugs, clearly then some suicides are caused by biochemical deficiencies, as are many other diseases that kill us.
- Almost invariably, the person who dies by suicide is a very sensitive human being. Suicide is rarely done in arrogance, as an act of contempt. There are of course examples of persons who are too proud to endure normal human contingency and kill themselves out of arrogance, but that’s a very different kind of suicide, not the kind that most of us have seen in a loved one. Generally, our experience with the loved ones that we have lost to suicide was that these persons were anything but arrogant. Rather, they were too bruised to touch and were wounded in some deep way that we could not comprehend or help heal. Indeed, often times when sufficient time has passed after their deaths, in retrospect, we get some sense of their wound and their suicide then no longer seems as surprising. There’s a clear distinction between being too bruised to continue to touch life and being too proud to continue to take one’s place within it. Only the latter makes a moral statement, insults the flowers, and challenges the mercy of God.
- Suicide is often the desperate plea of a soul in pain. The soul can make claims that go against the body and suicide is often that.
- We need to forgive ourselves if we feel angry with our loved ones who end their lives in this way. Don’t feel guilty about feeling angry; that’s a natural, understandable response when a loved one dies by suicide.
- We need to work at redeeming the memory of our loved ones who die by suicide. The manner of their death may not become a prism through which we now see their lives, as if this manner of death colors everything about them. Don’t take down photos of them and speak of them and their deaths in hushed terms any more than if they had died by cancer or a heart attack. It’s hard to lose loved ones to suicide, but we should not also lose the truth and warmth of their mystery and their memory.
- Finally, we shouldn’t worry about how God meets our loved one on the other side. God’s love, unlike ours, can go through locked doors, descend into hell, and breathe out peace where we cannot. Most people who die by suicide awake on the other side to find Christ standing inside their locked doors, inside the center of their chaos, gently saying, “Peace be with you!” God’s understanding and compassion infinitely surpass our own. Our lost loved ones are in safer hands than ours. If we, limited as we are, can already reach through this tragedy with some understanding and love, we can rest secure that, given the width and depth of God’s love, the one who dies through suicide meets, on the other side, a compassion that’s deeper than our own and an understanding that surpasses ours.
Julian of Norwich says, in the end all will be well, and all will be well, and every manner of being will be well. I shall be, even after suicide. God can, and does, go through locked doors and, once there, breathes out peace inside a tortured, huddled heart.