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All death unsettles us, but suicide… brings with it an ache, a chaos, a darkness, and a stigma that has to be experienced to be believed.

Ronald Rolheiser

Struggling to Understand Suicide

Ronald Rolheiser writes a great deal about the suicide. He lends an understanding and spiritual perspective to suicide, and in so doing, removes much of the stigma and deep questioning that suicide leaves behind. If you’ve lost a loved one to suicide and are searching for answers in the wake of their death, you may find comfort in Rolheiser’s thoughtful responses to understanding suicide. Both articles are available in full on Ronald Rolheiser’s website.

Bruised and Wounded – Understanding Suicide

Ronald Rolheiser, Bruised and Wounded-Understanding Suicide

July 18, 2021

Some things need to be said and said and said again until they don’t need to be said anymore. Margaret Atwood wrote that. I quote it here because each year I write a column on suicide and mostly say the same thing each time because certain things need to be said repeatedly about suicide until we have a better understanding of it.

What needs to be said again and again?

  1. First, that suicide is a disease, something that in most cases takes a person out of life against his or her will, the emotional equivalent of cancer, a stroke, or a heart attack.
  2.  Second, that we, the loved ones who remain, should not spend undue time and energy second-guessing as to how we might have failed that person, what we should have noticed, and what we might still have done to prevent the suicide. Suicide is an illness and, as with a purely physical disease, we can love someone and still not be able to save him or her from death. God also loved this person and shared our helplessness in trying to help him or her.
  3. We need a better understanding of mental health. The fact is that not everyone has the internal circuits to allow them the sustained capacity for steadiness and buoyancy. One’s mental health is parallel to one’s physical health, fragile, and not fully within one’s control. Moreover just as diabetes, arthritis, cancer, stroke, heart attacks, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and multiple sclerosis, can cause debilitation and death; so too can mental diseases wreak havoc, also causing every kind of debilitation and sometimes death by suicide.
  4. The potential role that biochemistry plays in suicide needs more exploration. If some suicidal depressions are treatable by drugs, clearly then some suicides are caused by biochemical deficiencies, as are many other diseases that kill us.
  5. Almost invariably, the person who dies by suicide is a very sensitive human being. Suicide is rarely done in arrogance, as an act of contempt. There are of course examples of persons who are too proud to endure normal human contingency and kill themselves out of arrogance, but that’s a very different kind of suicide, not the kind that most of us have seen in a loved one. Generally, our experience with the loved ones that we have lost to suicide was that these persons were anything but arrogant. Rather, they were too bruised to touch and were wounded in some deep way that we could not comprehend or help heal. Indeed, often times when sufficient time has passed after their deaths, in retrospect, we get some sense of their wound and their suicide then no longer seems as surprising.
  6. Suicide is often the desperate plea of a soul in pain. The soul can make claims that go against the body and suicide is often that. 
  7. We need to forgive ourselves if we feel angry with our loved ones who end their lives in this way. Don’t feel guilty about feeling angry; that’s a natural, understandable response when a loved one dies by suicide.
  8. We need to work at redeeming the memory of our loved ones who die by suicide. The manner of their death may not become a prism through which we now see their lives, as if this manner of death colors everything about them. Don’t take down photos of them and speak of them and their deaths in hushed terms any more than if they had died by cancer or a heart attack. It’s hard to lose loved ones to suicide, but we should not also lose the truth and warmth of their mystery and their memory.
  9. Finally, we shouldn’t worry about how God meets our loved one on the other side. God’s love, unlike ours, can go through locked doors, descend into hell, and breathe out peace where we cannot. Most people who die by suicide awake on the other side to find Christ standing inside their locked doors, inside the center of their chaos, gently saying, “Peace be with you!” God’s understanding and compassion infinitely surpass our own. Our lost loved ones are in safer hands than ours. If we, limited as we are, can already reach through this tragedy with some understanding and love, we can rest secure that, given the width and depth of God’s love, the one who dies through suicide meets, on the other side, a compassion that’s deeper than our own and an understanding that surpasses ours.

Julian of Norwich says, in the end all will be well, and all will be well, and every manner of being will be well. I shall be, even after suicide. God can, and does, go through locked doors and, once there, breathes out peace inside a tortured, huddled heart.

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Suicide and Our Misunderstandings

June 20, 2022

By Ronald Rolheiser, Suicide and Our Misunderstandings

Margaret Atwood once wrote that sometimes a thing needs to be said, and said, said again, until it doesn’t need to be said anymore. That’s why I write a column annually on suicide, mostly saying the same things over and over again. The hope is that, like a note put into a bottle and floated out to sea, my little message might find someone needing consolation after losing a loved one to suicide.

What’s needs to be said, and said again, about suicide? Four things.

Ronald Rolheiser

First, that it’s a disease and perhaps the most misunderstood of all diseases. 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 dies by 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 for 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. There are different kinds of heart attacks, strokes, cancers, breakdowns of the immune system, and fatal accidents. However, they all have the same effect; they all take someone out of this life against his or her own will. No one who dies through suicide actually wants to die. He or she only wants to end a pain that can no longer be endured, akin to someone jumping to his death out of a burning building because his clothes are on fire.

Second, we should not worry unduly about the eternal salvation of a suicide victim, believing (as we used to) that suicide is the ultimate act of despair and something God will not forgive. God is infinitely more understanding than we are and God’s hands are infinitely safer and gentler 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 to picture how a suicide victim (most often an overly sensitive soul) is received into the next life. God is infinitely understanding, loving, and gentle. We need not worry about the fate of anyone, no matter the cause of death, who exits this world honest, oversensitive, gentle, over-wrought, and emotionally crushed. God has a special love for the broken and the crushed.

Knowing all of this however, doesn’t necessarily take away our pain (and anger) at losing someone to suicide; but faith and understanding aren’t meant to take our pain away but rather to give us hope, vision, and support as we walk within our pain.

Third, we should not torture ourselves with second-guessing 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 natural 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 is not 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 sometimes all the love and attentiveness in the world cannot prevent a loved one from dying. Love, for all its power, is sometimes powerless before a terminal illness.

Fourth, when we lose a loved one to suicide, one of our tasks is to work at redeeming that person’s memory, namely, to put that person’s life into a perspective wherein his or her memory is not forever tainted because it is viewed through the prism of suicide.

A proper human and faith response to suicide should not be horror, fear for the victim’s eternal salvation, guilty second-guessing about how we failed this person, and a hushed, guarded tone forever afterwards when we speak of him or her. 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. Most of all, we must trust God, God’s goodness, God’s understanding, God’s power to descend into hell, and God’s power to make all things right, even death by suicide.

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