Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Softening the Sting of Suicide

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that approximately 88 people in the United States die by suicide each day. The CDC also estimates that each suicide directly affects six people. The death of a loved one is always traumatic and sad, but a death by suicide seems to bring with it the added sting of guilt that somehow, someone should’ve been able to prevent it.

The act of taking one’s life is truly a tragedy because this single act leaves so many victims: first the one who dies, then the dozens of others—family and friends—who are left behind, some to face years of deep pain and confusion. The living victims struggle, often desperately, with difficult emotions.” (M. Russell Ballard, “Suicide: Some Things We Know, and Some We Do Not,” Ensign, Oct 1987, 6)

Though we all want to understand a person’s reasons for committing suicide, in most cases there are no answers. The unanswered questions may be the most difficult part of dealing with suicide.
While it’s challenging to know how to assist family and friends in the aftermath of a suicide, there are some ways to help.

“If only . . .” Game

When someone commits suicide Satan sets a trap for the survivors by ensnaring them in the “If only . . .” Game. If only . . . they’d spent more time together, talked more often, expressed their love more frequently. If only . . . they’d stayed home that day instead of going to work, called that afternoon, visited that weekend. If only . . . they’d been more attentive, seen the signs, realized there was a call for help. If only . . . they hadn’t bought the gun, had rope in the garage, had easily accessible pills. If only . . . they’d known, been given a vision, had the inspiration to know something was terribly wrong. If only . . . It’s a game that everyone loses. It causes more pain and agony because in reality, we can’t go back in time to change anything. We can’t look backward, only forward.

Don’t Pass Judgment

Close to the “If only . . .” Game is the temptation to pass judgment. In an effort to analyze the why of a suicide, we hope to avoid the same situation in our own family. Instead of finding answers, we pass judgment on the surviving family and friends. It may be tempting to wonder if the family had regular family prayer, family scripture study, or consistent family home evenings. We may think the answer lies in the fact that the family wasn’t active in the Church or the parents weren’t loving enough, were too permissive, or were too self-absorbed. We may point fingers and suggest the victim had bad friends, listened to evil music, or broke the Word of Wisdom.

The truth is, we do not know what is in the mind or heart of someone else. We do not have the right to stand in judgment of the victim or the survivors. We must leave judgment in the hands of the Lord because He is the only one qualified to make such judgments.

Elder M. Russell Ballard has said, “Obviously, we do not know the full circumstances surrounding every suicide. Only the Lord knows all the details, and he it is who will judge our actions here on earth. When he does judge us, I feel he will take all things into consideration: our genetic and chemical makeup, our mental state, our intellectual capacity, the teachings we have received, the traditions of our fathers, our health, and so forth.” (“Suicide: Some Things We Know, and Some We Do Not,” Ensign, Oct 1987, 6).

Time to Grieve

Not everyone deals with tragedy in the same way. Some people want to talk through it, while others prefer to say very little. Some want people around and others need solitude to process feelings and thoughts. One person may be able to function again in a few weeks, yet another may need months or years to make sense of an altered life.

We should offer unconditional support and comfort, not try to force those who are grieving to heal according to our proposed schedule. Those who lose loved ones to suicide not only have to deal with losing a loved one, they have additional fears and concerns.

“In addition to the feelings of grief, anger, guilt, and rejection which the victims of such a family feel, Latter-day Saints carry an additional burden. The purpose of our mortal lives, we know, is to prove ourselves, to eventually return to live in the celestial kingdom. One who commits suicide closes the door on all that, some have thought, consigning himself to the telestial kingdom." (M. Russell Ballard, “Suicide: Some Things We Know, and Some We Do Not,” Ensign, Oct 1987, 6).

The Lord will determine the status of those who take their own lives. We should not try to guess their status nor should we encourage those who’ve already suffered a great loss to entertain these thoughts.

Listen and Love

The best way we can help those who’ve lost a loved one to suicide is to listen without judgment and love without condition.

Sometimes, words offer little comfort at a time like this. Reach out with a hug and let those directly affected know that you love them. Be sensitive to their needs and extend help when necessary. Those left behind to pick up the pieces after a suicide sometimes feel an extra burden of guilt. Make sure they know you love them despite what happened. At this tender and emotionally charged time, simply knowing that others love them will help them heal.

Turn to the Savior

Suicide is a tragic end to a life. It leaves so much heartbreak, sorrow, and regret. The only way to truly deal with suicide is to turn to the Savior. He will not only guide those who earnestly seek to help, but through the miraculous power of the atonement, He will heal the hearts of those who’ve lost a loved one to suicide.


Linda Kay Burk said...

Hello Rebecca,
I lost a very special nephew to suicide and I appreciate your addressing this heart wrenching subject. I have worked with teens in an at risk teen's group and I took a Suicide Prevention Workshop held in our area. I got some most important tools from that workshop. Listening to youth, as you mentioned, is essential. Also, taking any threats made seriously, was another. We were told to ask directly if suicide was being considered, and to offer to stay with the person and to get them help. I think sometimes it is easy to just say, "Oh, they don't really mean it. . . ." These tools have proven helpful for me. Thanks again for a sensitive article about a painful subject.

Rebecca Talley said...

I'm so sorry about your nephew, Linda. Losing a loved one is never easy. I think with suicide people so desperately want to understand "why." Usually, there are no real answers because we just don't know what's in someone else's heart so we can't fully understand their choice to commit suicide. Hopefully, we can all work together to be more loving and kind to those who have experienced losing someone to suicide and, maybe, we can even prevent it in some cases. Thanks for you efforts, I'm sure you've saved lives.

Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

Rebecca Talley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Heather Justesen said...

Rebecca, what a timely post. Suicide touches us all eventually, even if it is at a distance. A man I went to high school recently took his own life. I can't imagine what he was going through, or how his family feels now. I know his life touched hundreds, and he couldn't have realized how many would mourn his passing.

I never knew him well, and haven't seen him in years, but the waste of so much life is incomprehensible. Thank you for your wise words.

Anonymous said...

There is a great suicide support group in Provo and an annual walk for anyone whose lives have been affected by suicide.

If you are interested in either of these, please let me know. Lisa

Tulsi said...

I just lost a classmate last week. Tragic. We had a graduating class of less than 40 so we were a close class. It's been difficult to get any information because his wife thinks everyone blames her as they were in divorce proceedings. Four of us frantically tried to contact the class. Perhaps it was best that none of his class mates could make the trip to the funeral. The gospel is definitely a plus in our lives.

Tulsi said...

I've mentioned suicide on my blog, but wrote from a wife of a Law Enforcement officer's perspective. Very different with similar under thoughts.