I will never forget the first time suicide came close to me. I met with a young woman who was leaving her mission work in Eastern Europe. She was haunted by an experience but could not even talk about it—my guess was that she was burdened by an inappropriate relationship with a young man who lived there.
Two months later I received a letter from her parents. “We want to thank you for your kindness toward our daughter and let you know that her misery is now over. She took her own life two weeks ago.” The letter was full of faith, grace, hope and grief. I kept it in the top drawer of my desk for over a decade, though I did not need either the reminder that those we care about can take their own lives or the added injection of guilt and endless “what if’s.” They were already inscribed in me. The only reason my regrets from her death don’t linger is that they have been replaced by other suicides.
Suicide has come close to most of us. We have read of the recent suicide of a beloved pastor’s son. We know that military veterans take their own lives every day, and even children can speak about an internal darkness that once was only found in those with accumulated years of trouble and pain.
What have we learned?
- Most suicide is connected to depression. Somehow, depression is even worse than chronic physical pain. Perhaps this is because people in physical pain can still see the good in life and can still hope, while those who are depressed are handicapped at seeing either.
- Those who are depressed can seem to be doing better before they take their own life. This does not always happen, and a lifting of depression is not evidence that suicide is sure to come. It simply means that a sure prediction of suicide is only possible after someone has taken his or her life, not before.
- Suicide leaves a broad wake of regrets. Hindsight causes us to think of dozens of things we could have done differently. The reality is that we are people who can control very little.
- When we notice a loved one withdrawing from things once enjoyed, such as people, hobbies, work or even aesthetic pleasures, we move toward that person and ask the questions that are on our hearts. “How are you? I have been wondering if life has been hard for you recently.” “You have been on my mind. Maybe that’s because you seem a little more withdrawn and sad. How can I pray for you?”
- When we are concerned for another person and don’t know how to help, we ask wise members of the community to partner with us.
- When hope wanes, human life is in jeopardy. The two are inseparably linked. So we set out to become people of hope, which just happens to be a dominant message throughout the New Testament. The early church had an intimate knowledge of human suffering. They knew something of a life that seemed devoid of the good. They had to practice seeing eternal realities by faith or they would not last the day. You can almost hear them talking among themselves after reading an apostolic letter: “Brother, sister, let’s endure together, let’s set our eyes on Jesus, let’s reach out and taste the joy that is just up ahead, and let’s pray that the Spirit would give us these things.”
Lord have mercy on those besieged by depression. Don’t let the darkness talk to them. May they hear words of a deeper reality and the genuine hope we have because Jesus is alive.