I take a few days at the Outer Banks of North Carolina every year to study, plan and pray. Today was beautiful and unseasonably warm, so I took a long walk on the beach. I was thinking about some families related to the church I serve who have lost loved ones to suicide recently. The beach was empty with only a person here or there, and I thought how much it reminded me of the solitary journey many experience when a person they love takes their life. I stood on the beach, staring at the ocean, thinking about their sadness. What a terrible loss it is to endure. I have lost friends and church members to suicide over the years, and I have presided over funerals and attempted to comfort those who gathered. But I still cannot quite imagine what it is like to lose a parent, child or sibling this way.
I mulled this over, trying to imagine how hard it must be, and prayed for God’s peace for these families. When I started to walk away, I noticed that a recent storm had severely eroded the shoreline, leaving the steps from the cottages to the beach hanging in mid-air. It occurred to me that the storm that so dramatically changed that beach is a bit like the experience of losing a loved one to suicide. Even if they saw storm clouds gathering, they had no idea of their power and intensity or their capacity to sweep out a whole portion of their lives so suddenly. Families in that cottage ran down those steps for years in different months and seasons. They played on the beach, rode the waves, built sandcastles and took naps on blankets and in chairs. But the storm took their steps and cut off their access to the place where they spent that time together. Now they sit in their cottage and wonder what to do and how they will regain that space together. They have their past, but the present and future are suddenly inaccessible. That sand will not be replaced quickly. What took a few hours to remove will take months and even years to recollect. Sand fences will have to be erected. Sand bags may have to be put in place. One day they will rebuild their access and regain that space, but in many ways it will be a different beach, and it will take a good deal of time.
If you have lost someone to suicide and are still trying to figure out how you will find that space of joy again, I have some suggestions.
Hold them graciously. When a loved one takes his or her life, they leave a gash in your being that is so very hard to repair. The storm that took your loved one now seems to rage inside you. Guilt and sadness over the loss blow against the force of anger at the selfishness of your loved one’s act. We are left with the swirl of questions: “How did I not see this coming? Why would you leave us this way? Were we not sufficient? That loving family, that amazing school, this church, these friends—was it not enough? How could you do this to us?”
Before you drown in questions, recognize that you don’t know and won’t know the answers. If you could speak to the person you lost, he or she probably would not have known the answer either. I have spent time with people who have attempted to take their lives, and few can describe their actions in ways that make sense to others and even to themselves once they get some distance from the event.
I find a passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians helpful, especially when I sometimes still feel angry with friends who have left us this way:
“Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart…” (I Corinthians 4:5)
Paul is not writing about suicide, but he acknowledges that there is a part of us deep inside that is hidden from others, and in some ways, even hidden from ourselves.
I did not know the secret places of my friend’s heart. You don’t know the secret places of your loved one’s heart either. If he had shared them in ways that could be heard by us, we would have done our best to be present with him in that lonely space. There is nothing parents would not have done for their daughter. There is nothing his family or her close friends would not have offered, had she given voice to her despair. You have to hold the one you love graciously, because it feels like they not only rejected life, but life with you. If you are not careful, that will make you angry.
We must acknowledge that in despair, the one who takes his life even rejected the love and hope of God for his life. I appreciate the way the writers of the Psalms share their hard emotions, including despair, with God. Their prayers are vivid:
“Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.
Relieve the troubles of my heart and free me from my anguish.
Look on my affliction and my distress and take away all my sins.
See how numerous are my enemies and how fiercely they hate me!”
After expressing all that anxiety and sadness, look at how the psalmist turns to God in despair:
“Guard my life and rescue me; do not let me be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.” (Psalm 25:15-20)
I am sorry my friend did not turn to God in that moment. I am sorry your loved one did not either. But we can forgive them for the way their decisions brought such sorrow to our lives if we hold them graciously. If I can do that, it allows me to let them be in God’s hands and realize that I can hold myself graciously and forgive myself as well. You have to repeat over and over that you are finite. You are not clairvoyant. Not even when it matters this much.
Hold them joyfully. It is incumbent upon us to remember our loved one’s life. This means that we do not allow one decision related to death to overshadow years of decisions that were demonstrations of love and treasured existence. Speak of them fully, and speak of them proudly. And if, one day, you are describing your loved one to a friend, you can say that they ended their life, and you don’t know why. It is a great mystery, but that mystery is not a source of shame. It is a source of sadness. But that sadness over their death, even this particular type of death, does not eclipse the joy we have for who this person was in life. You know that you are in a new place when you can tell a story about them, admire them or laugh at the recollection of some funny experience you had together. Joy is one of the great indicators of spiritual health.
Hold each other gently and dearly. The closer you are to someone who takes their life, the more you will find that grief crouches in unexpected places and jumps you when you least expect it. Let’s say the person’s name you grieve is Fred. Weeks from now you go to the store. You pick up a can of beans. The label is white. When you see the shade of white, you think, “That reminds me of that sweater Fred wore when he was about 7-years-old.” Then you will miss him so much that you will cry. In the grocery store aisle. While you hold the can of beans. You will think, “Am I going crazy?”
You are not. You are just still dealing with the loss of one who was dear to you. If you keep that to yourself, you will carry that sadness all on your own. That is a terrible weight. But, if you come home, or see a friend who also holds Fred dear, and the friend says, “How was your day?” you can keep all this to yourself, mutter, “fine,” and move on to the weather. Or, you can say, “I think I’m going crazy. I picked up a can of beans and began to cry over Fred!”
Your friend will say, “Thank you for telling me that! The same thing happened to me when I heard a song Fred liked while waiting to get new tires put on my car, and I thought I was going crazy.”
So hold each other gently and dearly, and you will be a means of God’s grace and healing to each other. If you have a friend who has lost someone to suicide, by all means be patient. Ask them how they are doing, but don’t rush them. Sand returns in its season and with a lot of effort. Grief has no dump truck and no bulldozer to make it all better in a few days or weeks.
And if you feel a need to offer a negative opinion on someone’s eternity, be careful. Some people believe that if you take your own life, you won’t be received into heaven. I think this opinion is wrong. Almost every Christian I know, pastors and priests included, thinks this opinion is wrong, even if the church once espoused it in the Middle Ages. I think it is wrong because it does not seem like God to give up on us, even when we have given up on ourselves in some dark hour. Assurance of God’s love is supposed to come with the whole faith package. But we often have to be assured of assurance. We have to be reminded of the size and volume of God’s love for us.
I do not know what my friends who took their lives believed about God in their final minutes. I do know that they did not understand clearly that so many people believed in them and loved them. Their despair does not invalidate our love, anymore than it invalidates God’s.
Paul is again helpful when he writes:
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35, 37-39)
When I got to the pier, I turned around and began my walk back down the beach. There was a father there with four young children all playing in the sand. They seemed so happy together. I imagined a mother in a cottage somewhere nearby enjoying a blissful and well-deserved nap after saying, “No honey, you take them, I’ll be there shortly…” The gulls were calling. The sunlight gleamed on the water. The sound of waves was like the greeting of an old friend. I thought about how beautiful life is at such moments. The joy on the face of a child can take your breath away all by itself. All these gifts from God, like seashells on a winter’s beach all around you and beyond number.
You should never take your own life. I want to say that clearly. Your life is sacred and a gift. You are not God. And no one should ever leave a wake of such grief and sorrow for others that will take years of recovery and repair. I think people who take their life believe that everyone will be better off without them. But of course, they are wrong. It is left to us to live, to reclaim them, forgive them and hold them in the light of God’s love as we hold them dearly in our hearts, time after time, until we regain access to that blessed space that was our time with them.
If you or a loved one are struggling with thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
I am a bereaved mother (not from suicide) who is in community with other bereaved parents. Some of them have lost children to suicide. Your post is lovely and thoughtful and kind and helpful. Thank you for using some of your energy and compassion to bless others in this way. I wish more pastors spent time considering the drastic way child loss impacts those in their congregations.
May the LORD bless you and continue to lead you into truth that blesses others.
Tom, your thoughts are appreciated. My sister committed suicide. A year or so prior to her death, her only child also committed suicide. Death is surely a part of life, but suicide leaves it’s own unique shadows and pain.
I appreciated so much about this post, your insights on suicide from a pastoral perspective as well as that of a friend. Only this sentence bothered me, “Guilt and sadness over the loss blow against the force of anger at the selfishness of your loved one’s act.”
I guess from a perspective of the bereaved, their loved one’s actions could be considered selfish, but I can’t agree that the actions of the suicidal stemmed from selfishness.
Last October I came across an article on the suicide of Patti Stevens by Rudolph Bush on the Opinion Page of The Dallas Morning News. He covered the topic well and I think he got it right when he said of Patti Stevens, “She was trying, in a desperate, mistaken, terrible way, to stop hurting.” Bush’s comments were made in response to critics who contend that those who commit suicide are selfish. I also appreciate that he points out, “. . . the suicidal have fallen into a place where their sadness, fear and desperation have stripped away the ability to think and act rationally.” I added my own comments to his article in the following blog post. Not to criticize but to add an additional truth. And that is my sincere reason for sending you this comment. In fact, I think that you actually acknowledged the truth that the suicidal’s reasoning abilities are impaired in the subsequent paragraph when you said, “If you could speak to the person you lost, he or she probably would not have known the answer either. I have spent time with people who have attempted to take their lives, and few can describe their actions in ways that make sense to others and even to themselves once they get some distance from the event.”
Thank you for sharing this insightful message that I’m sure offers hope and healing to the multitude of individuals who are left reeling in the wake of the suicide of a loved one. I think they will find truth, comfort and encouragement from the scriptures you shared.
Janet, thanks for your thoughtful reply both in content and tone. We live in a time when tone matters a good deal and you model something important here. But that is another blog post. A few other folks have noted my comment, “Guilt and sadness over the loss blow against the force of anger at the selfishness of your loved one’s act.” The word “selfishness” needs clarification and I think your comment brings a good bit of it. Like you, I do not think that anyone takes their life out of a motivation of selfishness. Recently I heard someone describe it as “stage 4 depression,” to use a term borrowed from oncology and cancer diagnosis. I think we agree that someone who takes their life is not in a place of clarity. My point is that one aspect of the lack of clear thinking is the focus on self. The person lacks the ability to think of the hardship and sadness their loved ones will carry, sometimes for the rest of their lives. I believe that they think that removing themselves will be better for everyone, and end their own deep pain. This flawed empathy for others impacted by the decision is what I attempted to cover in the word “selfishness.” But I understand your point – if a person does not have the ability to think clearly, is it fair to say they were being selfish? There is probably a word that would bring more clarity here, but our conversation does raise the tension loved ones feel later in life. There are a lot of mixed emotions in the wake of suicide. Again, thanks for the comment. And thanks for the kindness in the manner in which you made the comment. In this season it is like a breath of fresh air.
Tom, having lost my mother to suicide when I was in my early twenties, I read your article with great interest. I know the deep thought and prayer you give to your speaking and your writing. The issues of “motivation” and “clear reasoning” are important in our discussion of how to supply support to the one suffering from a mental illness. My mother left us a note indicating her motivation. Seeing her own behavior and realizing how friends and family suffered under the weight of the burden she was carrying as we tried and failed to help her, she was “relieving us of the burden she was.” There was tremendous angst in that.
Some years later, a close friend to my maternal grandmother who had helped her through this loss of her only daughter told me what he had told her. He believed my mom must have concluded that “taking her life was the most loving thing she could think to do.” That rang very true to me. So, I would offer that rather than faulty empathy, it may be true empathy but faulty reasoning that can power this decision. A heart that is pure but poorly served by misfiring brain chemistry is both redeeming to embrace and actionable by our scientific and medical communities.
Again, thank you for your words. I give God every thanks for the beach retreat that the Lenten season provides for you. We are truly the beneficiaries.
Beautifully written. I have an aunt and two cousins who took their own lives. My youngest son suffers depression and walks the edge of the cliff that is suicide. I have learned the hard way to listen before I talk.
And to pray, for healing and wisdom.
We moved from NOVA to CT in 2002, and Floris and Rev Tom Berlin were some of the hardest things to leave behind. it seems his spiritual gift is in making all listeners feel that he is speaking just to them personally, and that the Holy Spirit speaks through him. You could feel it in your heart. So glad to have found a way to reconnect.
Dear Tom, You have written a very compassionate article. But, “it’s at the selfishness of your loved one’s act.”
Please know that suicide is not a selfish act. It’s quite the opposite. People who die from suicide don’t really want to end their life, they just want their pain to stop.
Ida, take a look at my response to Eva Boxx, who raised this same concern. Thanks for pointing this out. You make an excellent point and nicely.
I am halfway through Sue Kliebold’s very thorough, thoughtful and carefully researched book about her son Dylan & his role in the Columbine shootings. She learned that Dylan was suicidal in the way shooters are suicidal. Like all people who commit or attempt suicide, their thoughts are focused on their unworthiness & that the world would be better without them & that only ending their lives will end their pain. The shooter also determines that he/she is not afraid to die. A lonely shore beyond the sea of selfishness. And, in Dylan’s case, something he could never speak about.
Thank you for taking the time to think about this topic and write about it in a thoughtful and tender way. It is always helpful to hear the voice of Church leadership on uncomfortable topics. As someone who lost a family member to suicide, I appreciate those who can and do articulate words of hopefulness and comfort to this particular grief. Over the years, in talking with others who’ve lost loved ones in this way, one thing I’ve found is that they are comforted by the reminder that their loved one can (and should) be remembered for the ‘big picture’ of what was their whole life, rather than the short moment of time and sensational circumstances that surrounded their death. I’m happy to see you mentioning that idea here, as well. The author and pastor Frederick Buechner lost his father to suicide when he was a boy. In his book “Telling Secrets”, Buechner writes eloquently about how he learned to process his grief and be free of the false shame that he harbored over his ‘family secret’. I recommend the book to those who would benefit from the voice of someone who knows about the matter first-hand and who offers comfort – sans simple solutions and cliches. Thanks for adding your own voice of comfort to the matter in this post, Tom.