I have never been able to reconcile my seesawing beliefs about suicide.
About the suicide of my first husband, Gary.
He was handsome, fit, smart, playful, an adventurer. I loved him deeply and he deeply loved me. He cared about my heart and my dreams. He was a fun and tender and wise father to his children. A man who never took a sick day off work, jogged three miles a day, loved God, was a gifted storyteller, and made long-lasting friends every single place he went. A man whose death packed a church that seats 600 even though we were relatively new to our home across the country from where we grew up and lived for decades.
A man who kept a deadly secret.
I believe he took his life because he thought he was generating pain for his loved ones and that we’d be better without him. It would be the last lie he ever told himself, and the greatest one he told the world.
I also believe he was thinking only of himself that day, the most selfish man on earth.
I believe his brain broke, just as some men’s hearts malfunction and it kills them. I had a girlfriend, a mother of six, who was widowed after her husband had a stroke and refused for two hours to go to the emergency room. She told me his death was no different than Gary’s because he didn’t take care of his health and he wouldn’t let his children call 911.
A broken body part. Some days that works for me.
But I also believe Gary had the ability to stop his thinking—his brain—from deluding and attacking him to the point of taking his life.
It’s an emotional one I can’t seem to step off of permanently. Some days I feel one way, some days the other. When I’m up, I can fully understand, fully rest, fully forgive and fully trust God that my confusion and pain are in His sovereign and loving hand. When I’m down, I cannot find comfort, peace, joy or rest. I cannot fully escape the thought that I could have done something, should have seen it coming. I long to once again scream in anger and pain.
Instead, I cling to this truth: my husband loved Jesus. He believed the Bible was the tender and guiding voice of a loving Heavenly Father and Savior. He was a chosen, redeemed and adopted child of God. And his sin—his mistake—that day was no different than many other sins; none is unforgivable for those who are walking through life with Christ.
“In considering the wrongfulness of suicide, we can be tempted to make one of two equal and opposite errors. One is to think of suicide as an unforgivable sin (or wrong action). The other is to not consider it a sin at all. The more balanced approach is to consider suicide a tragedy.”
These are the healing words of author and InterVarsity Press editor Albert Hsu in his book, Grieving A Suicide. Hsu’s dad ended his life when Hsu was a young man, just newly married. His mom called in despair one Thursday morning while he and his wife were packing for a visit to his parents’ to show them their wedding video and bring them photos. Hsu spent many years wrestling with the intense emotional and theological questions surrounding suicide before eventually coming to a place of peace, comfort, healing and hope for the future.
As have I.
There were multiple things in Hsu’s book that helped me the first time I read it many years ago, and still help me now on the days I wrestle and find myself bouncing up and down on the seesaw.
Here are a few thoughts that helped me most, along with my comments:
Grief is defined as the “natural, expected reaction to a loss.” Trauma, on the other hand, is defined as “the experience of something shocking happening to someone that produces some kind of injury and affects the person’s ability to function in normal ways.” Those of us who experience complicated bereavement suffer two realities: grief and trauma. This gave me perspective for my agony and fluctuating emotions, which seemed to me to be extreme compared to other widows I knew.
Suicide complicates and intensifies each grief. This helped me accept my level of grief and give myself grace for the intensity of my feelings.
We are haunted by an endless procession of “what if’s” and “if only’s.” There are no answers. We must deal with the reality that for whatever reason, our loved one took their life. Their death was not our fault. I have wrestled deeply with the idea that I could have done something for Gary the day he died. I have had to work intensely hard to forgive myself for my own lack of understanding of suicide, my awareness of the depth of his pain, and to accept that I could not have prevented what he was committed to doing. Sometimes I slip back into these thoughts, so it’s an ongoing process.
The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne. I experienced this level of pain after Gary died. It gifted me with empathy for him, although I never allowed myself to believe that his solution to this level of pain is okay.
To the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves, there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal cancer. I was blessed that so many—literally hundreds of people—knew what kind of man Gary was every day of his life. I did not want him remembered for how he died, but how he lived.
In our grief, we understand the magnitude of our love. My grief was burning and controlling (although not all consuming). I knew it was immense out of my immense love for my husband. There is nothing bad about that kind of love.
As a Christian wrestling with the suicide of a loved one, these truths from the book, which Hsu based on Scripture, brought me great additional comfort:
• Christian salvation is not dependent on whether a person was able to “wipe the slate clean” at the moment of death, but rather whether the person was walking in relationship with God in life.
• If a loved one has aimed to live a life of Christian discipleship, of faith, hope and love, then we can see the act of suicide as an aberration. We can understand the suicide as a tragic twist of an otherwise good life.
• All deaths occur without a fully cleansed conscience.
• Without excusing what our loved one did, we can say what Jesus said on the cross; “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
• We may be blinded by our grief and loss, but God promises to lead us. The paths following a suicide are unfamiliar, but God is with us to provide light and shelter.
For many years after Gary’s death, I signed all my letters and emails with the words, “clinging to Jesus.” I saw myself heart-connected to the woman in Mark 5:28 who had bled continually for 12 years, making her unclean and unfit to live normally in society. I identified so much with her, because as a widow of a suicide I was no longer normal or fully connected to the life I had previously lived. She was destitute, desperate, in agony and completely different from everyone she lived among (a common feeling among suicide victims and definitely for me). This beautiful woman walked 30 miles and literally crawled on the ground through a packed crowd to seek Christ’s healing just by touching the hem of his garment. I love her faith, and I believe—as she did—that Jesus is the only source of true healing for the bleeding in our hearts.
I also lived by this Scripture: “I cling to You, Your right hand upholds me” (Psalm 63:8, NIV), because I knew that on my hard days, the days when I simply have no strength to cling to God, He was (and is) holding tight onto me.
September 13th marks 14 ½ years since Gary took his life. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t think of him. The whole earth lost a gift when he died. But God left those of us behind who loved him with work to do. To not forget him. To attach value to his life by sharing what a great person he was. To share the story of my journey to give hope to other victims of suicide. To expose the lies of suicide in an effort to stop someone else from ending their life.
Even though my life is scarred by Gary’s death, God gives me hope and a reason—many reasons—to live fully and abundantly. My emotions and thoughts may seesaw, but God is immovable and good. Someday there will be no more pain, and those of us who have survived a suicide shall never grieve again. Until then, we must grieve with gratitude for His loving care and the hope for each new day He gives us.
We also suggest From Pregnant Widow to Single Mom, Trauma, Grief, and Healing After Suicide, When Someone You Love is Contemplating Suicide, Battered Faith, What I Learned About Love From Death, When You’re Desperate to Know the Reason for Your Pain, and My Dad’s Suicide and the Hole in My Heart.