For those left behind

Events of the last week have me thinking about death – again.

First, a dear friend died at the age of 83. He was one of the dearest people in the world to me. That was bad enough. Then, however, I received word late in the week that a woman I know had taken her own life. I didn’t know Deb well. We were on a smile-and-say-hello type basis at church while I lived in Waco. Her death, though, still affects me greatly – partly because of its effect on people I care about. As one who’s battled depression and suicidal thoughts from at least the age of ten, I understand what can lead a person to make that tragic move. And it is tragic – for those left behind.

While my parents were aware that I was depressed in my teens, I’m pretty sure they were taken completely off-guard when I took an overdose at age eighteen. Could they have seen it coming? Perhaps. It’s just as likely it never crossed their minds. I mean, why would it? Surely nothing could be so bad there’s no other alternative but death, they probably thought. And, yet, there I was in ICU while the doctor’s told my parents I had a 50-50 chance of surviving the night.

Had I attempted suicide to get back at my parents? I don’t believe so. Get back at someone else? Perhaps, but, again, I still don’t think so. No, the reasons changed at times, but the basic underlying problem always came back to feeling the world would be better off without me. There was also the feeling that I would be better off without the world. Too many times I felt the world wouldn’t miss me. I was tired of the pain, tired of the struggle. I felt I’d been told that God no longer loved me, either. When in that dark place, the thought of those who might be affected by my death couldn’t enter my mind. The clouds in my mind were too dense. My world gets very small.

I’ve heard suicide described as the most selfish act possible. I understand that sentiment, but also know that’s not how it feels when the darkness closes in so completely. The only thought becomes relief from the pain. And it didn’t matter that I knew logically there were people who loved me. Suicide, after all, isn’t a logical act – except, perhaps, to the one considering it.

Why didn’t I talk to anyone about it? The main reason for not talking, frankly, was that someone might try to stop me, try to talk me out of it. Now if, to my way of thinking, this is my best option, why would I ask for help to prevent it? Admittedly, that’s a vicious cycle. It was my reality, however. Over the years, I’ve never spoken to anyone about thoughts of suicide until after the fact – after the thoughts have given way to thoughts of an alternative. Until recently, there were no alternatives that sounded particularly good.

So, the standard answer to anyone asking me if I was okay was always, “I’m fine.” It’s not even that I worried about others thinking I was crazy, though that thought came to me, also. No, these were things not to be talked about. I suppose a part of the reason was a moral one. I was taught this was wrong – a mortal sin, an act of playing God. So, again, it was unlikely I was going to sit down with anyone and let them know I was considering committing a mortal sin. Really, who does that? These were things better kept to oneself. Of course, this type of thinking also made it almost impossible for me to ever ask for any real help.

I think that most obvious attempt on my own life at age eighteen became a test in my mind. I felt abandoned by everyone at that point – including my parents. I’ll discuss that at some point, perhaps, but for the moment it seems sufficient to say I believe I made one final attempt to test whether I’d truly been abandoned by everyone. I ended up calling my high school friend. I suppose at that point I needed to talk about what was happening. I was already very tired from the overdose, but wanted to talk to him. He was, I felt, the only friend I had left in the world even though he’d walked away, also. Something about the conversation, though, opened me to the possibility that I might ask for the help needed to survive the night. It may be just that he was there. I’d found him, after all, when I didn’t know how to find him. That was its own miracle.

I kept a bottle of pills in my medicine cabinet for years after that. I told myself it was my test of how things were going. If things were bad and that bottle of pills stayed in the medicine cabinet, I was okay. It took many years before I admitted to myself that the pills weren’t a test at all – they were insurance. If the pain got too great again, I’d be ready. In many ways, the pain was as great or greater for a long time than it had been that night of the overdose. My drinking certainly didn’t help. Looking back, I realize my life had become one long suicide attempt. So many of the things I did should have gotten me killed. They wouldn’t have called it a suicide, however. They’d have called it a tragic accident. And that was okay. I believed myself to be a tragic accident.

I’ve said all that to say this. Another’s suicide isn’t your fault. It’s also not the betrayal it feels like – and it’s likely to feel very much like a betrayal. At the same time, every emotion you may feel at losing someone to suicide is real and valid. I believe all anger starts out as fear. Being angry with the person who’s taken their own life helps deal with the overwhelming feeling of loss. Gradually, it hopefully helps loosen the tears.

Another’s suicide says nothing about you. The other person hasn’t done anything deliberately to hurt you. The hurt stems from the love you have for that person. But I don’t believe one person’s decision to stop the pain for good is a statement about anyone around them. I know it wasn’t for me.

When a person is ill and in great, continual pain and then dies, we say what a blessing it is that they are no longer in pain. I believe this sort of depression is exactly the same thing. Is there an alternative? In this case, absolutely. Can that person see the alternative? Probably not – not once the darkness encloses them so completely that there’s nothing else left.

I believe in a loving God. I believe our friend, Deb, has been welcomed back into the arms of God. I don’t believe it was her intention to hurt anyone. And yet, her actions hurt a lot of people. But, just like the terminal cancer patient, the intent simply isn’t there. I felt for too long that the people I loved who died had left me. I no longer believe that. But I also know some very, very dark places where even the knowledge of a loving God isn’t enough to stop trying to end the pain.

Even in the midst of a loving community, this type of pain can still exist. There are very few people I know who would look at me and even consider that I might have suicidal thoughts. It’s not that they’re blind, it’s that I don’t want them to see that side of me. I described these things to my sister once and she told me I was frightening her. I hadn’t thought of it that way. These thoughts have been with me most of my life. What I know today is that they are just thoughts. Thoughts don’t have to become actions. But, I do understand how that would be frightening to the person looking from the other side. I’ve just become used to the existence of the thoughts. I guess they’ve ceased to frighten me. But I also know that I’ve never shared with anyone just how frequently those thoughts cross my mind. On occasion, they take me by surprise. I stop and wonder where the thought came from. Nothing bad is happening. I suppose they’ve been there for so long it takes very little to bring them up again.

Am I an advocate of suicide? No. Do I understand how this happens? Yes. And as tragic as the aftermath of losing someone this way may be, I can’t find it in me to fault that person. Instead, I’d like to think my prayer is one of thanksgiving for an end to pain even as I am in sorrow that the person was unable to see the solutions that would have allowed them to stay with the ones they love. My other prayers would be for healing for those left behind. Our reaction to these circumstances can go a long way to either help those most closely affected by the death to heal or to begin their own cycle of irreconcilable hurt.

I hope I’ve said something that helps make acceptance possible, even to something as difficult as this to understand. I certainly haven’t said these things in order to frighten anyone. They don’t frighten me any more, thanks be to God.

May it be that we all come to a place where we’re able to say, “Rest in peace, Deb.”

7 thoughts on “For those left behind

  1. For those of us who’ve never had that kind of overwhelming pain, you have described it so well and it makes so much sense. Thanks for your insight.

  2. Ben, Your posting about Deb is enormously comforting to me. I lost my dear friend, Debbie Wolfe, 18 years ago to suicide and I still struggle to find peace about this. You have given voice to words that I have longed to hear and I believe would come from her if she could blog from heaven. And she loved to write as much as you do. (smile) Thank you, Ben.

    • Ruth, this is exactly what I was hoping to hear. I worried a little that people might think I was trying to lessen the impact suicide has on us. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most likely, everyone has been affected by a suicide in their past. I know I’ve lost a number of friends over the years. The effects are like ripples in a pond. It’s just that I believe those ripples continue to expand out to a loving God.

  3. Another good article or chapter to the book you are going to write, Ben. You have almost been there, but it is more like you are standing on the edge of an abyss with your toes over the edge, but because of your life’s experiences and strengths as a result of your coming back into the church, you have the will to not be overcome and go over the edge.

    Also, you know something of why they felt that way and are saddened because of their going and more so because they did not have the will to overcome.

  4. Ben,
    Thank you. Thank you from the deepest place of my heart. Your words are so healing and helpful. I’ve always ached so much for those who have lost a beloved family member or friend to suicide, and I’ve ached for the person who felt s/he had no choice than that. But, I’ve never understood it, and I have been frightened by someone sharing their deep pain and consideration of ending this earthly life. You have given me a peace, and a piece of understanding — that God is there always and that God’s Love is eternal. You are gift, Ben, and through your words and willingness to share, you have enabled the healing to begin — not just for those of us who love Deb and her family, but for others we connect with. Like ripples made by a pebble in a stream, the circle widens and spreads the compassion, understanding, hope and love wider and wider connecting us all in the heart of God.
    “Thank you” does not seem adequate, but I know no better words. You are a beautiful blessing in my life and in this world — a true expression of Christ-like Love.

    • Sandy, I usually don’t do very well with compliments. So, let me just say you’re welcome. I can tell you that being a blessing is far better to me than what I’ve been in the past. I think, though, that my life is a testament to the fact that God is always there — no matter how much I may have wanted to deny it. It’s impossible for me to think of a God who would heap pain on top of pain onto one who simply couldn’t see their way clear to staying with the rest of us here.

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