Death is always painful, but the pains are compounded considerably if its cause is suicide. When a suicide occurs, we aren't just left with the loss of a person; we're also left with a legacy of anger, second-guessing and fearful anxiety. Each year I write a column on suicide, hoping it might help produce more understanding around the issue and, in a small way, offer some consolation to those who have lost a loved one to this dreadful disease. Essentially I say the same things each year because they need to be said. As Margaret Atwood once put it, some things need to be said and said and said again, until they don't need to be said anymore. That's true of suicide.
What needs to be said and said again about suicide? First of all, it is a disease : and perhaps the most misunderstood of all diseases. We tend to think if a death is self-inflicted, it is voluntary in a way that death through physical illness or accident is not. For most suicides, this is not true. A person falling victim to suicide dies as does the victim of a terminal illness or fatal accident : not by his or her own choice.
When people die from heart attacks, strokes, cancer, AIDS and accidents, they die against their will. The same is true of suicide. Except in the case of suicide, the breakdown is emotional rather than physical : an emotional stroke, an emotional cancer, a breakdown of the emotional immune system, an emotional fatality.
This is not an analogy. These two kinds of heart attacks, strokes, cancers, breakdowns of the immune system and fatal accidents are identical in that in neither case is the person leaving this world on the basis of a voluntary decision of his or her own will. That's why we speak of someone as a victim of suicide.
Given this fact, we should not worry unduly about the eternal salvation of a suicide victim, believing (as we used to) that suicide is always an act of ultimate despair. God is infinitely more understanding than we are, and God's hands are infinitely safer and more gentle than our own. Imagine a loving mother having just given birth, welcoming her child unto her breast for the first time. That, I believe, is the best image we have available to understand how a suicide victim : most often an overly sensitive soul : is received into the next life.
Again, this isn't an analogy. God is infinitely more understanding, loving and motherly than any mother on earth. We need not worry about the fate of anyone : no matter the cause of death : who exits this world honest, sensitive, gentle, over-wrought and emotionally crushed. God's understanding and compassion far exceed our own. Knowing all this however doesn't necessarily take away our pain (and anger!) at losing someone to suicide. Faith and understanding aren't meant to take away our pain, but to give us hope, vision and support as we walk within our pain.
Finally, we should not unduly second-guess when we lose a loved one to suicide: "What might I have done? Where did I let this person down? If only I had been there! What if...?" It is too easy to be haunted with these thoughts. Rarely would this have made a difference. Most of the time we weren't there for the exact reason the person who fell victim to the disease did not want us to be there. He or she picked the moment, the spot and the means precisely so that we wouldn't be there.
Perhaps it is more accurate to say suicide is a disease that picks its victim precisely in such a way so as to exclude others and their attentiveness. This should not be an excuse for insensitivity (especially toward those suffering from dangerous depression}; but it should be a healthy check against false guilt and fruitless second-guessing. We are humans, not God. People die of illness and accidents all the time. All the love and attentiveness in the world cannot prevent a loved one from dying. Suicide is a sickness; there are some sicknesses that all the care and love in the world cannot cure.
A proper human and faith response to suicide should not be horror, fear for the victim's eternal salvation, or guilty second-guessing about how we failed this person. Suicide is indeed a horrible way to die. Yet we must understand it (at least in most cases) as a sickness, a disease, an illness, a tragic breakdown within the emotional immune system. Then we must trust in God's goodness, God's understanding, God's power to descend to hell, and God's power to redeem all things, even death : even death by suicide.