- the misunderstood death
Rev. Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Death is always painful, but its 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.
So each year I write a column on suicide, hoping that it might help produce
more understanding around the issue and, in a small way perhaps, 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 any more. That's
true of suicide.
What needs to be said, and said again, about it?
First of all that it's a disease and perhaps the most misunderstood of
We tend to think that 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 isn't true. A person who falls victim to suicide dies,
as the 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 suicide,
except that 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. The 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. In both cases, he or
she is taken out of life against 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 that
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
onto 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,
over-sensitive, gentle, over-wrought, and emotionally-crushed. God's
understanding and compassion exceed our own.
Knowing all of this however, doesn't necessarily take away our pain (and
anger) at losing someone to suicide. Faith and understanding aren't meant
to take our pain away but to give us hope, vision, and support as we
walk within it.
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 can be too easy to be
haunted with the thought: "If only I'd been there at the right time."
Rarely would this have made a difference. Indeed, most of the time, we
weren't there for the exact reason that the person who fell victim to
this 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's more accurate to say that 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 towards those
suffering from dangerous depression, but it should be a healthy check
against false guilt and fruitless second-guessing.
We're human beings, not God. People die of illness and accidents all
the time, and all the love and attentiveness in the world often cannot
prevent a loved one from dying. Suicide is a sickness and there are some
sicknesses that all the care and love in the world cannot cure.
A 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, but we must understand
it (at least in most cases) as a sickness, a disease, an illness, a tragic
breakdown within the emotional immune-system. And then we must trust,
in God's goodness, God's understanding, God's power to descend into hell,
and God's power to redeem all things, even death, even death by suicide.
Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Ronald Rolheiser
is a specialist in the field of spirituality and systematic theology.
those bereaved by suicide
O God, my spirit, my world, my being has been shattered by the tragic
death of our family member. I seem to have no peace, no consolation.
There are no words to bring me solace. Yet, even for a short time when
I can focus not on the manner of the death but on his/her love, on who
he/she was, I am given a shred of comfort. Come to me now, Lord, in my
distress. May some good memories help to dispel a little of the darkness
of my life. May I know the comfort of your healing love and acceptance.
Links Providing assertive outreach support to the suicide
Living Links website click here