Recently a friend attended the funeral of a man who had taken his own life. At the end of the service the deceased man’s brother spoke to the congregation. After highlighting his brother’s generosity and sensitivity and sharing some anecdotes that helped celebrate his life he went on to say something about the manner of his death. Here, in effect, are his words:
When someone is stricken with cancer, one of three things can happen: Sometimes doctors can treat the disease and, in essence, cure it. Sometimes the medical professionals cannot cure the disease but can control it enough so that the person suffering from cancer can live with the disease for the rest of his or her life. Sometimes, however, the cancer is of a kind that cannot be treated. All the medicine and treatments in the world are powerless and the person dies.
Certain kinds of emotional depression work the same way: Sometimes they can be treated so that, in effect, the person is cured. Sometimes they cannot ever really be cured, but they can be treated in such a way that the person can live with the disease for his or her whole life. And sometimes, just as with certain kinds of cancer, the disease is untreatable, unstoppable, no intervention by anyone or anything can halt its advance. Eventually it kills the person and there is nothing anyone can do. My brother’s depression was of that kind, the terminal kind.
This can be helpful, I believe, for any of us who have suffered the loss of a loved one to suicide. All death unsettles us, but suicide leaves us with a very particular series of emotional, moral and religious scars. It brings with it an ache, a chaos, a darkness, and a stigma that has to be experienced to be believed. Sometimes we deny it, but it’s always there, irrespective of our religious and moral beliefs. Indeed, as part of its darkness and stigma, suicide not only takes our loved ones away from us, it also takes away our true memory of them. The gift that they brought into our lives is now no longer celebrated. We never again speak with pride about their lives. Their pictures come off the wall, photos of them get buried deep inside drawers that we never open again, their names are less and less mentioned in conversation, and of the manner of their death we rarely speak. Suicide takes our loved ones away from us in more ways than we sometimes admit.
And there is no easy answer for how to reverse that, though a better understanding of suicide can be a start.
Not all suicides are of the same kind. Some suicides come about because the person is too arrogant and too hard-of-heart to want to live in this world. But that, I submit, is the exception not the norm. Most suicides, certainly all the cases that I have known, come about for the opposite reason, namely, the person is too bruised and over-sensitive to have the resiliency needed to continue to cope with life. In these cases, and that is the vast majority of suicides, the cause of death can pretty accurately be termed as cancer, emotional cancer. Just as with physical cancer, the person dying of suicide is taken out of this life against his or her will. Death by suicide is the emotional equivalent of cancer, a stroke or a heart attack. Thus, its patterns are the same as those of cancer, strokes and heart attacks. Death can happen suddenly or it can be the end-product of a long struggle that slowly wears a person down. Either way, it’s involuntary.
As human beings we are neither pure angels nor pure animals, but are always both body and soul, one psycho-somatic whole. And either part can break down.
This can be helpful in understanding suicide, though a better understanding will not necessarily mean that the darkness and stigma that surround it will simply go away. We will still feel many of the same things we felt before in the face of suicide: We will still feel awful. We will still feel conflicted and be given over to guilt-feelings and second-guessing. We will still feel uneasy about how this person died and will still feel a certain dis-ease in talking about the manner of his or her death. We will still feel a certain hesitancy in celebrating that person’s life in the manner we would have had the death been by natural causes. We will still go to our own graves with a black hole in our hearts. The pain of a suicide leaves its own indelible mark on the soul.
But at a different level of understanding something else will break through that will help us better deal with all those conflicted feelings, namely, empathy for and understanding of someone whose emotional immune system has broken down. And that understanding will also bring with it the concomitant consolation that God’s empathy and understanding far exceeds our own.
Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. He can be contacted through his website www.ronrolheiser.com.