Wheaton College professor John Walford gave a passionate testimony about his brushes with suicide at a recent Wheaton chapel service. There have been three recent alumni suicides in the past year, and the university is rightly concerned about a trend that reflects an alarming three-fold increase in youth suicide.
While I commend both the university in its desire to address the issue with a strong exhortation and Dr. Walford for his transparency, the message fell short in that it lacks the expert advice that might have provided students with consolation, deeper understanding and tangible help.
Today I’d like to commend to you InterVarsity Press editor and Christianity Today columnist Al Hsu’s excellent book, Grieving a Suicide. I met Al in February at the National Pastors’ Convention and noticed this book on a display table. After Gabe’s death and before we left for the services in New Jersey, I asked him to send me a copy. It was waiting for me when we returned to California. I’m reading it for the second time and ordered 10 more copies for family and friends. (I received the shipment yesterday and will distribute the books forthwith.)
Al’s book is dedicated to his father, Terry Tsai-Yuan Hsu, an accomplished electrical engineer who took his own life after a debilitating stroke. Al brings to the topic both a survivor’s understanding and good scholarship.
The book is divided into three parts:
- When Suicide Strikes—Shock, Turmoil, Lament, Relinquishment and Remembrance
- The Lingering Questions—Why Did this Happen? Is Suicide the Unforgivable Sin? Where is God When it Hurts?
- Life after Suicide—The Spirituality of Grief, The Healing Community, The Lessons of Suicide.
In Part I, we learn that “the grief that suicide survivors experience is described by psychologists as ‘complicated grief.’ … Those of us who experience complicated bereavement are actually grappling with two realities, grief and trauma. Grief is normal; trauma is not. The combination of circumstances is like a vicious one-two punch. We are grieving the death of a loved one, and we are reeling from the trauma of suicide. The first is difficult enough; the second may seem unbearable.”
Al categorizes the resultant turmoil as follows:
- Shock, disbelief and numbness–“‘The immediate response to suicide is total disbelief,’ writes a suicide survivor. ‘The act is so incomprehensible that we enter into a state where we feel unreal and disconnected.'”
- Distraction—“Friends of survivors may need an extra measure of patience … traumatic grief has caused an inability to focus.”
- Sorrow and Despair—“Survivors often fall into a state of melancholy and depression … In some ways we may unconsciously identify with the hopelessness that precipitated our loved one’s death.”
- Rejection and Abandonment—“Suicide feels like a total dismissal, the cruelest possible way a person could tell us that they are leaving us behind … So we feel abandoned. Our sense of self-worth is crippled. All our doubts and insecurities are magnified a hundred-fold.”
- Failure—“Feelings of failure may surface any time a survivor had a caretaking role … Our feelings of regret and guilt may seem overwhelming, but they eventually subside as we realize the death was not our fault.”
- Shame—“Beyond the combination of normal grief and traumatic grief, survivors of suicide suffer an additional insult to injury—the societal stigma that surrounds suicide.”
- Anger, Rage and Hatred—“We may hate our loved one for doing this to our loved one. We grieve the suicide and rage against him simultaneously.”
- Paralysis—“A simple phone call had triggered an anxiety-filled reaction.”
- Sleeplessness—“We lie awake, with our thoughts flying in all directions.”
- Relief–“About half of suicides are at least somewhat expected due to ongoing depression or patterns of self-destructive behavior. In our sadness, we are shocked to discover that we are glad it’s all over.”
- Self-destructive thoughts and feelings—“One danger of being a suicide survivor is the possibility of falling into suicidal despair.”
In the chapter from Part II on remembrance, Al offers this helpful advice:
“Because of the corrosive, personality-altering nature of suicidal depression, ‘by the time suicide occurs, those who kill themselves may resemble only slightly children or spouses once greatly loved and enjoyed for their company.’ The days, weeks and years following a suicide may be a time of gradually recovering the memories of our loved one, of discovering true and lasting remembrances of their life.”
The chapter I have most marked up is the Why chapter. From our first conversation at 5:00 in the morning after Gabe died, Aaron Kheriaty gently but firmly instructed us that the suicide will never make sense. And yet we try …
Al writes, “We must make a distinction between causes and triggers. Suicide might be triggered by divorce or the loss of a job, but those may not be the actual causes … Suicidal desires run much deeper, and if one event does not trigger the suicide, another might.”
Nonetheless there are some defining characteristics:
- Medical and biological factors—“Studies show that about two-thirds of suicides had suffered from clinical depression or had a history of chronic mental illness.”
- Psychological factors—“Psychiatrist Karl Menninger suggested that suicides have three interrelated and unconscious dimensions: a wish to kill (the self), due to some degree of self-hatred; a wish to die, arising out of a sense of hopelessness; and a wish to be killed, coming from a sense of guilt. … The agony of depression is so great that the suicide musters the resolve to do away with the pain, at the expense of his or her own life.”
- Sociological factors—“In the last quarter-century, society has tilted toward the individual rather than the communal … The glue that holds communities and families together is disappearing … [Suicide] rates among the young, more socially alienated generations have tripled … The more socially isolated we become, the higher our risk.”
Al mentions other factors like suicide as philosophical protest, the higher tendency toward depression/suicide in those with artistic temperaments, suicide because of grief (eg. 9/11 survivors) and suicide as atonement.
He says we may be asking the why question when what we really want to know is How could they do this to me? For him, it is helpful to realize that his father “did what he did to end his pain, not to cause pain for me.”
Each life and death is both common and unique. Dr. Walford’s experience with the temptation toward suicide sounds familiar and yet very different from Gabe’s. He communicated it in his chapel message through the lens of spiritual battle. That is one lens. The context of Gabriel’s death reads to me like a perfect storm of contributing factors. I see his suicide through a compound lens.
Walford chose a route to suicide that allowed him the opportunity to come to his senses. Gabe did not. Is one man more spiritual than the other because of method or outcome? I think not.
In Part III of Grieving a Suicide, Al talks about life after suicide. In the chapter on the healing community, he gives good advice on the language we use to describe suicide. Instead of saying someone “committed suicide” as if the victim were a criminal, we can say they died by suicide or they took their own life.
The final chapter offers five lessons we can learn from suicide:
- Suicide reminds us that we live in a fallen world.
- Suicide teaches us that life is uncertain.
- Suicide reminds us of our mortality.
- Suicide shows us the interconnectedness of humanity. Al was surprised to discover how well regarded his father was by his peers and what a profound impact his good gifts had on them. He and his family were comforted by the outpouring of support they received. We’ve had these experiences as well.
- Suicide demonstrates the necessity of hope. Amen and amen.
Our family has been mercifully spared much insensitivity and ignorance in the wake of this tragedy. I can’t imagine going through this without the wise counsel of those who’ve walked the road before. Grieving a Suicide is a book I don’t ever want to recommend again because doing so would mean someone else enduring this type of senseless tragedy. And yet, a suicide occurs every 17 minutes in the United States.
If you are a pastor or lay minister, prepare yourself with knowledge before you try to minister to the grieving and confused. This book will help you do that; it includes a helpful appendix of suicide prevention/survival resources. If you are a survivor, it will be a balm to your soul.
[photo ©cas 2007: sunrise at Mustard Seed Ranch, Warner Springs, CA]