WHERE IS GOD IN ALL OF THIS?
Living in the Aftermath of the Suicide of A Loved One
by: REV. IAN R. SMITH
Revised Edition (c) REV. IAN R. SMITH - February 2000
(Details concerning the use of this resource are listed at the end of the text)
This booklet had its origin in a message I delivered during the Funeral Service I conducted for a young man who had committed suicide.
I express my gratitude to those left behind - parents, siblings, extended family members and friends - who have shared their pain with me after suffering the devastating loss of a loved one through suicide. I am also deeply indebted to a dear friend who gave me permission to share some very personal thoughts from the perspective of one who has experienced the anguish of being suicidal.
It is my prayer that this message will be helpful to all of us as we search for meaning and hope - a healing light in the midst of a terrifying darkness.
Rev. Ian R. Smith
My heart is in anguish with me,
the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me.
And I say, "O that I had the wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest;
truly, I would flee far away;
I would lodge in the wilderness;
I would hurry to find a shelter for myself
from the raging wind and tempest."
In the bleakest, darkest moment of his life, "John" (not his real name) must have felt no hope. It is not so much the agony of the burden which he may have felt too difficult to bear, but that for a few moments, every chance of light shimmering through the cracks of despair was just not there for him. For him, the cracks had sealed too tightly and could not let any light filter through.
For a mind to be sealed in a chasm of hopelessness, the choice between continuing to live and choosing to die becomes an increasingly narrow one. For at that moment, even the ability to choose is painfully limited. What do you choose between ... living death or a condition in which you may know no pain at all?
It is impossible for any of us to fully comprehend exactly what John's state of mind was that day. Did he have breakfast? Did he shower? Did he do any of the hundred myriad of details that we attend to in our daily lives? Or did all those things that make us feel "normal" no longer have a taste of normality for John?
Hopelessness is a personal, private pain. The conditions that lead to it are all unique and different. Many individuals never experience it, yet just as many believe that they are the only ones who have been victimized by it. But for one sheer, overwhelming moment, some individuals feel engulfed by it. They feel small, frightened, insignificant and alone, and they see nothing beyond that.
No one possesses the power to make another human being feel hopeless, nor do we possess the enviable power to take it away. That is why no one is really guilty when someone takes his own life. Yet that is the same reason why we must all see ourselves as victims when a human being dies this way. For a few painful, devastating moments we are invited into the personal hell of a person's hopelessness.
We could not prevent it, and we cannot make it better for John now. But while we are able, we can make a choice. We cannot wait until hopelessness swallows up our own mind, or the mind of another friend, brother, sister, son, daughter, parent or spouse.
On our downward spiral into the abyss, can we feel less ashamed, less embarrassed to cry and reach out for help?
For whatever reason that day, John did not reach out. Hopelessness can make you push away even those who love you, who want the best for you. Hopelessness can strip you of your self-respect and esteem, your humanity, ... and replace it with a sense of self-loathing so great that you believe the very body you live in is an affront to everyone you care about.
Are we too afraid or too embarrassed to display our vulnerability to other people ... even to those who love us? Are we always meant to be stoic? Is inner suffering without complaint a virtue to be commended?
What are our young people learning today ... that these are the best years of their lives? ... that they ought to buy more, drive faster cars, wear designer labels? ... the list goes on and on. I believe that we are not telling our young people enough that they need to take care of themselves, that these are the years when self-esteem and self-respect are the foundations upon which a happy life will depend.
Many parents try to do their best to instil those positive values in their children, but does our society back parents up? Is not the overall state of our society and our world one that tends to foster cynicism which eventually leads to hopeless? Let's face it: is not the devaluation of our humanity the greatest and most devastating by-product of the world's present way of doing things?
And the pain of that devastation is so great and becomes so personal that we try to "numb out". We try to numb out the pain in different ways: sometimes it's with drugs or alcohol of one variety or another. We begin by saying that it's for recreational purposes, but my dear people, we are just kidding ourselves ... in some cases, we are kidding ourselves to death!
Sometimes we try to numb out by acquiring things. Whatever way we do it, we are trying to find something to fill a void that is there, a void that is sucking us into that overwhelming state of hopelessness.
John was a victim of hopelessness; and his beloved family and friends are the indirect victims of his suicide although, for them, it feels more direct than indirect.
Those who loved him and knew him best will spend many heartache-filled days, weeks, months and years wondering why this has happened. We may have some clues, but many of the pieces to the puzzle are missing and perhaps will always be missing. But we are asking now, and we will continue to ask: "What could we have done?" We will be up against a giant, restless enemy - hopelessness.
John was paralysed by it just long enough to bring about his own destruction. And, for this reason, we must let John off the hook. One cannot use the last empty moments of one's life to call for help. He did not have the energy nor did he believe he had the resources to do that. The many resources that were actually there - friends and family - he blocked out in that moment of experiencing utter hopelessness.
And while we must let John off the hook, we must let ourselves off of it, too. I know this is easy to say, and yet so hard to do. But it is too tempting to blame ourselves for what
happened to John.
John's life should not be completely overshadowed by his manner of death. In a little over 22 years he knew great love, gave great love, helped others willingly, welcomed surprises, laughed, brought laughter to family and friends with his quick wit and teasing. He enjoyed sports ... and did all those things that make a boy a boy, and a young man a young man. We need to celebrate that life as well, and lift it up in thanksgiving.
I think we need to pay attention to two questions that follow quickly on the heels of the ever-present "Why?"... WHERE IS GOD IN ALL OF THIS ? and WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE ?
I am sure that those of us who profess a belief in God are wondering: Where is God in all of this? I can only share with you what I believe, what I have come to understand, and what brings hope to me. I cannot tell you what to think or believe; I can only invite you to dialogue with the thoughts I am going to share with you.
From time to time people have asked me whether or not we clergy ever become hardened to the reality of death because we have to deal with it so often. The answer, from my perspective, is that steeling ourselves and distancing ourselves from that pain of other people's grief can become an occupational hazard.
But, speaking for myself, I know that if this ever becomes a pattern for me - if it ever comes to the point that I continually block off my feelings about other people's deaths - it will be time for me to leave this kind of ministry. It will mean that by trying to protect myself, by being completely stoic and "in control" to avoid dealing personally with the pain, I will have begun the process of devaluing life ... the lives of those who have died, the lives of those who mourn, and ultimately, my own life.
I say this because, even though I only knew John on a very casual basis, John was part of me. I believe that we are all part of each other whether we acknowledge it or not. And this is because we all share something fundamental in common ... our humanity.
I firmly believe that while God has created each one of us as unique individuals, God has also created us within the context of community and, therefore, whenever we in some way devalue the life of even one person, we devalue, to some extent, the whole human community that stretches beyond race, culture, creed, class, gender and sexual orientation.
There are some within the Christian community who would want to suggest that God would not welcome John into his arms because of what John unfortunately felt compelled to do in that moment of overwhelming despair. Not from where I stand. For me to agree with this would be to devalue John's God-given life. And what right do I have to devalue that which I have not created?
It is my belief that Jesus sat and wept at the feet of his dead child, John, before gently guiding him into the Eternal Light which is Heaven. I believe that, for John, wholeness has forever replaced hopelessness, and that Jesus ushered him into that wholeness.
I also believe that Jesus continues to weep with John's parents and with all of John's family and friends. Some of that presence of Jesus is being expressed through the community of people who have gathered around them in love. Jesus is with us to share this with us, to guide us in helping each other through this and other trials in our lives, so that we might all be protected against hopeless - our common enemy.
And that leads us right into the second question: Where do we go from here?
In the aftermath of the suicide of a loved one, we still have much journeying ahead of us to make our way through the pain of this devastating grief. And it will take plenty of time. For some of you, the pain will last in some degree for the rest of your life. It will be somewhat like having to limp through life because you have been wounded. But I encourage you to keep walking.
Some of you here may even try to "numb" it out. May I suggest that rather than trying to numb it out, live it out with your family and friends. Talk with each other, cry with each other if you need to. Seek
counseling or a support group. To be really strong is to let the pain out rather than blocking it in where it becomes like a cancer that consumes you.
Take care of yourselves and of each other. I remember in elementary school we had an "Elmer the Safety Elephant" program, sponsored by the local police station. We were told, when getting ready to cross a street, to "STOP, LOOK and LISTEN".
If you feel yourself getting close to falling into the abyss of hopelessness, STOP, LOOK and LISTEN for the danger signals; some of which are:
l your schooling or work doesn't matter any more;
l you throw yourself into your work to the point of becoming a "workaholic" to
avoid dealing with relationships;
l you increasingly find fault with yourself, and doubting yourself and your abilities
becomes a pattern;
l you begin to tell yourself that everyone else sees you as inadequate and
l you find that the only way you can relax is by escaping into drugs and/or alcohol;
l you find yourself withdrawing from what have been cherished and significant
relationships with your family and/or friends;
l your eating and/or sleeping patterns change drastically.
STOP, LOOK and LISTEN for the above-mentioned danger signals that you, or your friends or family members might be exhibiting.
Do not be afraid to ask for help for yourself - from family, friends,
counselors, or TELE-AIDE or KIDS' HELP LINE (if you want to be anonymous at first).
And do not be afraid to go up to a troubled person you care about and say to them: "You're my friend, I really care about you; I can tell there's something going on that's troubling you, and I want to help. I'm here for you if you need to talk."
You just might be the door to hope that your friend or loved one is so desperately searching for. You just might be the tool that your friend or loved one needs to strip off the mask of denial.
And, from a Christian perspective, you may be the hands of Christ that your friend or loved one needs to grasp to keep from falling further into the abyss of hopelessness.
So, then ...
For the love of yourself; for the love of your family; for the love of your friends; for the love of God ... STOP, LOOK and LISTEN !
Revised Edition (c) REV. IAN R. SMITH, February 2000
No part of this work may be published, reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage or retrieval systems, except as may be expressly permitted in writing by the author. Request for permission should be addressed, by mail, to: Rev. Ian R. Smith, 4697 St. John's Boulevard, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Québec, Canada H9H 2A7, or by e-mail to: