Today we celebrate the birthday of our second daughter. She was born on this day in 2003. Exactly one year earlier, on the same day, we lost my mom. God took away one year and gave the very next — we do bless his Name. Someone wrote me on Facebook the other day asking me how to comfort someone grieving the loss of a loved one to suicide. I passed on to him this article and it seems like a fitting day to share it here. I share, not to elicit sympathy for myself, but so that you can comfort others in a helpful way should the opportunity ever present itself.
For many years, the subject of suicide has been virtually taboo in our circles. It has happened that a person passes away and only many years later is it disclosed that he or she took their own life. Part of this has to do with what seems to be a left-over from Roman Catholic teaching, namely that suicide is an unforgivable sin. In our churches today, there are still people who doubt and question the salvation of one who has taken their own life. Being open about the fact of suicide inevitably means that the tactless will hurtfully air their doubts and questions. So, it is always easier to keep it quiet. But thankfully, we live in times where depression (which is behind most suicides) is more commonly addressed and has less stigma – as a result, suicide is also being addressed more openly.
I have had personal experience with the fact of suicide. It is one of the most painful experiences of my life to think about. Having had a loved one take her own life has changed me forever. I had opportunity to think about this further when a quarterly magazine from Wycliffe Canada arrived in my mailbox.
The Spring 2004 issue of WordAlive features the story of David and Henny Thormoset, Wycliffe linguists who work in the African country of Cameroon. On a September morning they received the phone call which makes you fall over in grief. Their son, Andreas, had taken his own life. He was back in Calgary, struggling with depression, while they continued their work in Cameroon. Suddenly, their lives were turned upside down. Within hours, they were on a plane back to Canada. Along the way, they struggled with the same issues that everybody who experiences the suicide of a loved one does.
I would like to share with you those issues in a frank way. I would like to share with you the way that believers can support and encourage one another when a tragedy like this strikes. I would like to share what “suicide survivors” such as myself have learned.
Family and friends who experience the suicide of a loved one feel many different emotions. The experience tears you apart. One of the most difficult aspects is the uncertainty. You are filled with doubts and questions, especially about the spiritual life of the deceased. You ask yourself, “If he was a Christian, why would he do something like this?” Answers which focus on depression as a disease do not satisfy everybody. Everything is up in the air. Everything is uncertain.
Accompanying this uncertainty is sometimes a feeling of anger. You get angry at yourself: why didn’t I see it coming? Why didn’t I say things differently the last time I saw her? You get angry at other family members or friends: If only they had done this differently or said that! You get angry at the deceased: how could he do this to us? I thought she loved us! This is the most selfish thing that she could do!
The anger and uncertainty are only compounded by a feeling of being misunderstood. Suicide is not the same as other deaths. When well-meaning people offer platitudes like, “Well, we know where she is and we can take comfort in that,” you want to scream. Or when people pretend that the suicide is not real… “She would never do something like that, how can you say that?” Being misunderstood and feeling alone are difficult aspects of grieving the suicide victim.
In every way, a suicide is much different than a normal passing away. You cannot comfort the same way – any joy in the passing is hidden deeply behind a seemingly frowning providence. In fact, the best comfort you can offer, especially in the heat of the loss, is no comfort at all. The people who will be appreciated the most are those who say nothing and just listen. Those grieving a loved one lost to suicide do not need your words – they need your presence. They need you to listen as you sound out your uncertainty, confusion, anger, sadness.
The Thormosets’ experience with their son taught them to find comfort in God’s power and strength. David Thormoset said, “Andreas’ death abruptly brought me face to face with what I am – weak and dependent. Every day I need to lean heavily on Christ, to experience his power, rather than trying to work from my own minute strength.” These are certainties upon which you are forced to rely in the midst of a loss due to suicide. You are forced to think about the things that you know for certain. You are forced to consider God’s covenant promises and his overwhelming grace and mercy for sinners (even sinners who take their own life!). Rather than finding your comfort in what people have done, you have to think about who God is and rest in that. I have learned that my only peace and comfort are in God – I cannot find those things in weak and sinful man.
The Thormosets, myself, and other Christian “suicide survivors” have learned what it is to wrestle with God. When you lose a loved one to suicide, there are no pat answers. There is a sense in which there is no closure – at least, not yet! It leaves you feeling that there has to be something more. There will be… At the end of the struggle, our only conclusion can be to let God be God. As his infantile children, we have to rest in the undisputable biblical fact of Father’s goodness. There is nothing else to hold on to.