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 33,000 suicides a year. That averages out to 90 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 toward understanding it more empathically?
Understanding suicide more compassionately won’t take away its sting, nothing will, except time. However, our own long-term healing and the redemption of the memory of the one who died can be helped by keeping a number of things in mind.
Suicide, in most cases, is a disease, not something freely willed.
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 door, shut out 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.
Ron Rolheiser is an Oblate Father who is serving as President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. This column first appeared on Rolheiser’s website and is used with his permission. He can be contacted through his website, RonRolheiser.com.
A Missionary Oblate priest who serves as President Emeritus of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio.