By Ed Coet
I am a suicide survivor
I am also a Christian. This article explains how anyone, but especially people of faith, can survive or help others to survive the tragedy of a suicidal death of a family member or close friend. My father committed suicide with an overdose of prescription medicine taken in conjunction with alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant that exacerbates suicidal tendencies in those who are prone to such self-destructive acts. I was 16 years old at the time. I was wrongly ashamed of my father’s suicide for most of my life. In fact, that feeling of shame is one of the great regrets of my life. With the combination of drugs and alcohol my dad might not have even intended to take his life. It could have been an accident. Their was no suicide note. He had no previous declaration of intent to commit suicide. The answer to that mystery we will never know. Still, officially his death certificate declared it a suicide.
If someone asked how my father died, I would say that he died of a heart attack. That is the response my mother repeatedly instructed me to say. The manner in which my father died was not about him in her mind. Rather, it was about us. My mother was concerned about what others would think of us if they knew my dad had committed suicide. Perhaps, she thought, they would blame us. They might suggest that we drove him to it. They might suggest that we failed to appropriately respond to his suicidal tendencies. In short, my mother worried that they might blame us for my father’s suicide.
Thoughts of if only we had done or said this or that constantly crept in to our minds. It was an emotionally destructive self-imposed guilt trip. Guilt can cripple. When guilt is unjustified it is especially damaging.
The Christian approach to guilt, real and imagined, is in recognition and confession of sin, and faith in the love, goodness, and power of God — “casting one’s cares upon him,” not — in no way– upon the probability of one’s own, or the suicide’s, lack of, or diminished-under-the-circumstances (mental illness), guilt. To cope with suicide one must dump their guilt. It doesn’t belong in the grieving process. Grief is plenty enough to cope with without the burden of unnecessary and undeserved guilt.
Even in cases where no guilt is present the conscience will find occasion for and evidence to accuse. It’s a struggle I call the blame game. The blame game is a method of coping by blaming someone else for the suicidal death that torments you. Sometimes you blame another relative. Sometimes you blame the person who committed the suicide. Often it’s a combination thereof. This venting of anger on someone else tends to provide some measure of relief in the short term. It doesn’t work in the long term. Blaming anyone for suicide is wrong most of the time. Where metal illness is the culprit, nobody and nothing except the mental illness itself is to blame. The sooner people come to terms with this truth the sooner they’ll be on the path to recovery.
How people feel about suicide
Most people are ignorant about suicide. That is why they often shy away from family members or friends who are struggling with suicide. It is wrong to be ashamed of or by the suicidal death of a family member or friend. It is cruel to desert those who are suffering. Feeling uncomfortable with suicide is never an excuse for rejecting those who struggle with this most tragic of deaths. Ask yourself, would you desert them if the person died of a heart attack or cancer? How can you desert them if their loved one died from suicidal mental illness?
Mental illness can kill just like cancer and heart disease. In suicide, most often it is the mental illness that kills, not the person. A mentally stable person does not react to angry words or events by killing themselves. Only mentally and emotionally sick people do that. That is why their response to anger or any other stimuli is irrational and illogical. If they were healthy it is unlikely their response would be suicide.
Depression affects your mental and emotional state of mind but it has a biological origin. Depression can be triggered by anger and resentment which have physiological effects. While the anger can elicit an emotional response, it is the biological mental illness (depression) that is the culprit. People get angry everyday but they don’t kill themselves because they are mentally healthy. Hence, you ought not blame or exculpate the person who committed suicide. This brings us to the mercy of God. He knows all, He is just and He is merciful. Take comfort in Gods mercy. Also take comfort in understanding that with few exceptions suicide is faultless and blameless.
Some 20 years after my fathers death I had to cope with multiple suicide attempts by my brother. It was scary and emotionally draining. My brother is still living – thank God. However, he had a lot of close calls. More than once death was knocking at his door. The family was notified to get to the hospital quickly. Doctors doubted my brother would survive his latest suicide attempt. After every
attempt he would be grateful for his life. He would also feel incredible guilt for the fear and heartache his suicide attempts brought on his family. Then he would get depressed and regress. Eventfully, like a vicious cycle, he’d attempt it again and again.
My brother is a Viet Nam veteran. Like so many vets who endured that conflict, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He is designated as a service connected 100% disabled veteran. Depression is a consequence of PTSD. Fortunately my brother came to terms with his mental illness and sought treatment. I have no doubt that treatment, medication, and prayer are what saved
his life. It has allowed him to live a mostly productive life although he still struggles with his illness. Treatment, medication, and prayer are the difference between my brother and our father. Our dad had none of these and, of course, he died.
A little over 20 years after my father’s death I had to deal with the suicidal death of the 14-year-old son of very close and dear friends. It was shocking and traumatic. Losing ones child unexpectedly is about the worst heartache one can ever endure. To lose that child as a result of suicide is far worse; it is indeed grief to the extreme.
Symptoms and suicide warnings
There were warning signs, but they were not apparent to his parents. He experienced slight personality and behavioral changes that were more observable at school and with his friends, especially his girlfriend, then at home. That’s why it’s important to communicate in the family setting. Depression is often difficult to see if you are not looking for it. School officials and friends either didn’t know the warning signs or they disregarded them. Families can’t rely on others to inform them.
Symptoms of depression or suicidal feelings may include a change in eating or sleeping habits, withdrawal from friends and family, giving away valued possessions, rebellious behavior, running away, drug and alcohol abuse, unexplained obsessions, decline in the quality of work or school work, and marked personality changes. It is important that parents, teachers, counselors, and pastors know and recognize these signs. It could save someone’s life.
Everything seemed normal that evening. Nothing seemed different or peculiar. It was a pleasant evening until his mother heard the gun shot that would be the beginning of grief on a huge scale. This would be compounded by the prevalent why questions. It would be accompanied by the expected guilt and blame which his family didn’t deserve to feel. It wasn’t their fault. Nor was it his fault. His
mental illness killed him as surely as cancer takes its victims if left untreated. But a parent can’t seek treatment or medication for their child unless they know that the child is sick.
It was difficult to go through this ordeal with them. I genuinely felt their pain and shared their grief. Still, it was important to be there for them. It cemented our friendship and even took it to a new level. That is something to remember if you know someone who is trying to survive suicide. Be there for them. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the Christian thing to do. Don’t just offer help and wait for a call that never comes. Insist on sharing their grief. If nothing else be there to sit with them, hold them, listen to them, or just silently occupy space with them. They will gain a measure of comfort just from your presence. They will know you are genuinely there for them if the grief becomes too much for them to bear alone.
Our most recent loss was the suicidal death of my niece. This was especially difficult to cope with. My mother is not very stable and I already explained my brother’s history. This was his daughter, his first-born. Worrying about how grief would impact them while dealing with my own grief was a monumental emotional undertaking. It took the saying be strong for them to a new level.
I watched my niece grow up in to a gem of a woman. She was as pure as the driven snow. She was devout in her Christian faith. She was a registered nurse who took pride in providing for the health care of others. She served her country honorably as a commissioned officer in the US Air Force. She was only in her early thirties but she was very sick. She was mentally ill.
My niece was bipolar. She had the most severe form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that her psychiatrists had ever seen. She also suffered from schizophrenic episodes and severe clinical depression. As an RN she understood her condition. She wanted to live but she didn’t know how to with so much mental anguish. Nobody could help her. No medications sufficed. As a woman of faith she struggled desperately and prayed continuously, on her knees, for hours at a time.
She had several suicide attempts that failed. It was destined that she would succeed at some point. When people are that sick they are unable to reason. They can’t think clearly or rationalize effectively. All they do is suffer. It’s not surprising that they are focused on placing an end to that suffering. Mental illness can be very deadly.
Healthy people do not kill themselves
A person who is depressed does not think like a typical person who feels good. They live in the here and now. Depression keeps them from looking forward to a better time. They can’t comprehend positive thinking. Sometimes they don’t even realize they are sick much like my dad and our friend’s son. Sometimes they are very much aware of their mental illness like my brother and my niece. They seek help and struggle as best they can but sometimes nothing works for them. Not medication, not therapy; absolutely nothing helps them. These are the most severely afflicted with suicidal mental illness. My niece was one of these. They will continue to attempt suicide until they succeed. You cannot help them. You cannot save them. All you can do is pray for them.
It is disturbing when some so called experts say that suicide is preventable. It suggests that everyone who ever committed suicide could have been saved. While it is true that suicide is often preventable it is like wise true that sometimes it not. Suggesting otherwise can lead to endless suffering and needless guilt by suicide survivors. The reality is that in sever cases of metal illness nothing short of divine intervention can save a suicidal person.
Remember, nobody who commits suicide asked for their depression. They would do anything to rid themselves of it. Being depressed isn’t the result of life choices any more than catching a cold is. Some people get it, and some don’t. Such is life.
It is hard to imagine suicide being a sin in these clinically depressed people. One cannot offend God by involuntarily contracting an illness, regardless of what the illness may be. If suicide in such a circumstance constituted sin, then it would be sinful to catch the flu or die of pneumonia. It is comforting to know that most mainstream religions understand and share this viewpoint, especially Christian denominations. The Catholic church of my faith was once notorious about guilt associated with suicide. It taught that the commission of suicide was a mortal sin. This explains why my mother is still living a lie about her husband’s death. However, the Catholic Church has since clarified their position on the issue of suicide. The Catechism of the Catholic Church plainly states, “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who take their own lives…” (2282 – 83).
This does not mean that suicide is never sinful. If someone is of sound mind and premeditatedly acts to kill himself/herself for the purpose of punishing or harming another, that would be a sin. If they avoid deserved punishment by the state for a criminal conviction by committing suicide that is arguably a sin. Anyone who commits a suicidal act with malice aforethought for evil purposes is at grave risk of mortal sin. That is tantamount to murder, which is a crystal clear violation of Gods commandment: “Thou shall not kill.”
If a person, because of mental illness, sincerely believes with their heart and soul that dying will somehow end the suffering and anguish of others, regardless of how wrong they may be, who could doubt that it is nonetheless a selfless act in the eyes of God. Remember, “No greater love has a man than to give his life for another.”
Some people who commit suicide exhibit enormous courage in the undertaking. Consider the soldier who deliberately throws himself on a hand grenade or a land mine to save the lives of his comrades. Did he knowingly kill himself (i.e., commit suicide)? Yes, of course he did. Was it also a courageous and self-less act of courage? Absolutely! It was courageous and selfless. We correctly label this soldier a hero. People who commit suicide are not cowards as some suggest. Jesus serves as a perfect example of one who suffered immensely and sacrificed his very life for the salvation of others. Sometimes we do need reminding.
Depression is usually a treatable disease. Most people who are depressed do not commit suicide or even attempt it. But they are more vulnerable to the risk of suicidal thoughts and they and their family members should be aware of this. Most people, who suffer from mental illness, unless it is extreme, will benefit from therapy, medication, or a combination of these. In the case of depression medication very often can permit these people to live completely normal and happy lives. The key is first to recognize the problem and then obtain treatment as soon as possible.
Some people are more prone to suicide than others
They should be particularly alert to the warning signs of depression. Suicide tends to run in families. My family is living proof of this. Suicide most often results from brain disorders such as clinical depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar illness, schizophrenia, and severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. All of these brain disorders have a genetic component that, if left untreated or mistreated, can result in suicide. The risks of suicide increase considerably the longer a person goes without treatment. That is why it is dangerous for a depressed person to avoid treatment for fear that he or she might be labeled as being crazy. We are living in modern times. We are way beyond such foolishness; at least we ought to be.
If you suffer from depression don’t take a chance – get help. If your child is depressed, get your child help and do it quickly. Do this even in the face of resistance. You just might be saving their lives.
It is estimated that mental illness is the cause of 95% of all suicides. The #1 cause of suicide is untreated depression. Ninety-five percent of all suicides are the direct result of the aforementioned brain disorders. According to the National Mental Health Association the teen suicide rate has risen an astonishing 200% in the last 40 years. That is a rate three times what it was in 1960. Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for 15 – 24 year-olds. About five thousand 15 – 24 year-olds kill themselves every year. These are alarming figures.
In conclusion, it is important to point out that maintaining your faith will increase your rate of recover from the tragedy of suicide. Don’t pray less. Instead pray more. Your faith will be your greatest source of comfort. Don’t be mad at God. God did not betray you by letting your loved one die. He understands the pain of death. He endured it with the sacrificial death of his only begotten son for your sake and everyone else’s. Jesus understands the pain of death. Remember how He wept for Lazarus. Remember how He suffered in His own blameless death. Remember how His blessed mother Mary suffered when He died. Remember the painful deaths of His Apostles.
Remember, everyone dies of something; it’s preordained. We cannot escape death, at least not in this worldly life. Your loved one just happened to die of mental illness that resulted in suicide. Even in this worldly death we still remain spiritually linked. You have not lost your loved ones. You have merely postponed being in their company until such time as God calls you home. He will do that plenty soon enough so don’t try to rush the process. Remember it’s about His will, not yours.
If ever you have to endure being a suicide survivor take comfort in knowing that you can survive even though the anguish of your loss may at first seem to be insurmountable. Everyone must go through a grieving process when a loved one dies. The grief associated with the suicidal death of a loved one is manifestly more difficult to cope with than other types of death. But, it is also similar in that it will likewise end. You don’t necessarily get over your loss; that void is always there. However, you do learn to cope and deal with it. Your pain will go away. You will come to understand that your loved one remains with you in spirit and you with him or her. You will laugh again. You will experience love and joy. You will obtain peace of mind even though you’ll always have the sorrow associated with loss. But we feel sorry when we lose our youth and vitality too. That doesn’t mean that we stay miserable because of it.
Let go and let God
Definitely grieve, but also let go. Get professional, spiritual, or other help if you need it. Accept the fate that you are dealt just as Jesus and his blessed mother accepted the fate of the Holy sacrifice at Calvary. Jesus, while suffering the pains of crucifixion asked of his heavenly father, “Why hast thou forsaken me.” Even the Son of man asked why. He also said “Thy will be done.” Our Lord in faith accepted his fate and in so doing taught us to do the same. We don’t have to know and understand everything. In faith we must just believe, as Jesus did, that God understands and knows what is best. He will take care of things, perfectly. Accept, as Jesus did, the fate you are dealt no matter how much it hurts at the time. After all, you can’t change it and you are not responsible for it.
Understand the difference between holding on to a memory and clinging to a soul. Release the soul from your mind so that your loved one can be with our Lord where he or she will prepare a place for you when your time comes. You will be together again and the next time it will be for all eternity. That will be a joyful eternity with God almighty. Trust in God and maintain your faith. God will make it right. You will survive.
Ed Coet is a retired US Army officer, a professional educator, and a widely published freelance writer and poet. Ed has had numerous articles published on a variety of topics.