By Rev. Jeff Gannon –
Sisters and Brothers in Christ, one of the 75 funerals I had in Park City, Montana as a student pastor, was a man who committed suicide. The church to which the man belonged refused to do the funeral because he had taken his own life. I will never forget the widow who came to the church and asked if I would officiate. She was a Methodist who had given up on going to church regularly but was coming home for help. I officiated at the funeral, much to the demise of the pastor who had refused, and every single Sunday, almost without exception, for three years, the woman who showed up with tears in her eyes, asking if I would officiate at her husband’s service, sat in the same pew. I believe in God’s grace because I have experienced it in so many wondrous ways, perhaps most poignantly in the midst of pain and suffering.
For those of you who have been affected by the pain of suicide, I offer you the words of Fr. Ron Rolheiser. In my humble opinion, there is not anyone better to speak the spiritual and emotional sides of this tragedy.
Struggling to Understand Suicide
Sadly, today, there are many deaths by suicide. Very few people have not been deeply affected by the suicide of a loved one. In the United States alone, there are more than thirty-three thousand suicides a year. That averages out to ninety such deaths per day, about three to four every hour.
And yet suicide remains widely misunderstood and generally leaves those who are left behind with a particularly devastating kind of grief. Among all deaths, suicide perhaps weighs heaviest on those left behind. Why?
Suicide hits us so hard because it is surrounded with the ultimate taboo. In the popular mind, suicide is generally seen, consciously or unconsciously, as the ultimate act of despair, the ultimate bad thing a person can do. This shouldn’t surprise us since suicide does go against the deepest instinct inside us, our will to live. Thus, even when it’s treated with understanding and compassion, it still leaves those left behind with a certain amount of shame and a lot of second-guessing. Also, more often than not, it ruins the memory of the person who died. His photographs slowly disappear from our walls and the manner of his death is spoken about with an all-too-hushed discretion. None of this should be surprising: Suicide is the ultimate taboo.
So what’s to be said about suicide? How can we move towards understanding it more empathically?
Understanding suicide more compassionately won’t take away its sting, nothing will, except time; but our own long-term healing and the redemption of the memory of the one died can be helped by keeping a number of things in mind.
Suicide, in most cases, is a disease, not something freely willed. The person who dies in this way dies against his or her will, akin to those who jumped to their deaths from the Twin Towers after terrorist planes had set those buildings on fire on September 11, 2001. They were jumping to certain death, but only because they were already burning to death where they were standing. Death by suicide is analogous to death by cancer, stroke, or heart attack; except, in the case of suicide, it’s a question of emotional-cancer, emotional-stroke, or an emotional-heart attack.
Moreover, still to be more fully explored is the potential role that biochemistry plays in suicide. Since some suicidal depressions are treatable by drugs, clearly then some suicides are caused by biochemical deficiencies, as are many other diseases that kill us.
The person who dies in this way, almost invariably, is a very sensitive human being. Suicide is rarely done in arrogance, as an act of contempt. There are of course examples of persons, like Hitler, 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 own experience with the loved ones that we’ve lost to suicide was that these persons were anything but arrogant. More accurately described, they were too bruised to touch and were wounded in some deep way that we couldn’t comprehend or help heal. Indeed, often times when sufficient time has passed after their deaths, in retrospect, we get some sense of their wound, one which we never clearly perceived while they were alive. Their suicide then no longer seems as surprising.
Finally, we need not worry unduly about the eternal salvation of those who die in this way. 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 in the fact 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 a judgment that intuits the deepest motives of their heart.
Moreover, God’s love, as we are assured of in our scriptures and as is manifest in Jesus’ resurrection, is not as helpless as our own in dealing with this. We, in dealing with our loved ones, sometimes find ourselves helpless, without a strategy and without energy, standing outside an oak-like door, shutout because of someone’s fear, wound, sickness, or loneliness. Most persons who die by suicide are precisely locked inside this kind of private room by some cancerous wound through which we cannot reach and through which they themselves cannot reach. Our best efforts leave us still unable to penetrate that private hell. But, as we see in the resurrection appearances of Jesus, God’s love and compassion are not rendered helpless by locked doors. God’s love doesn’t stand outside, helplessly knocking. Rather it goes right through the locked doors, stands inside the huddle of fear and loneliness, and breathes out peace. So too for our loved ones who die by suicide. We find ourselves helpless, but God can, and does, go through those locked doors and, once there, breathes out peace inside a tortured, huddled heart.