Image on flickr by martin_kelley
This week is suicide prevention week and so it’s got me thinking more about suicide. I wrote some of my story about the suicide of my step-dad a few weeks back called “Suicide and the Things We Carry”.
My wife Emily and I had moved to Los Angeles a few months before my step-dad died. And I didn’t talk to him more than a few times in the period leading up to his death, though I did speak with him a week or so before. If I had known anything about suicide at that point – I was 24 – I would have known to take seriously some of the remarks that he made. But I was a kid and I didn’t really know how to help anyone with these kinds of issues, let alone one of my parents. I don’t blame myself for what happened but I do wonder if I had taken the signs of his spiraling depression more seriously, could I have been brave enough to call help for him?
It’s really scary when you find yourself on the other end of a phone call, or standing in front of, someone who has lost all hope. You want to believe with all your heart that they’d never “do it.” You want to believe that they know somehow deep down inside that are loved, they are precious, they are wanted and needed. But this is not always the case and it can be a dangerous assumption to make. Do not assume that someone you love knows, or understands, that you love them or how deeply you love them. And don’t assume that your love is enough on its own to pull them back from the brink.
Henri Nouwen was no stranger to suicide. He worked with many people who had lost loved ones and knowing some of his story, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he struggled with it in his own life. In his book Wounded Healer he tells the story of a chaplain who visits a man about to have surgery in a hospital. This man has lost all of his family and finds himself alone in a hospital room far from his home. The loneliness of the man is doubled by the sense of meaninglessness he now faces with the thought of returning back to his work as a tobacco farmer he no longer will be able to do (he is about to have his legs amputated). The chaplain, an unseasoned minister that I certainly can identify with, visits this man the day before his surgery but is unable to see just how serious the situation is that this man faces. The following day we learn that this man did not wake up from surgery.
Nouwen points out that it was the chaplain’s work to “strengthen his patient’s desire to recover and to reinforce what little strength he had in the struggle for life.” But this is no easy task for anyone, let alone a young cleric. The truth of the matter is that:
“None of us can stay alive when there is nobody waiting for us. Each one of us who returns from a long and difficult trip is looking for someone waiting for us at the station or the airport. Each one of us wants to tell our story and share our moments of pain and exhilaration with someone who stayed home, waiting for us to come back (70-71).”
I believe that the best that this chaplain could have done was to look at this man in the eyes and say “You are worth living and I am here waiting to see you on the other side of this surgery.” In doing this he might have saved his life “by making him realize that turning to life is a gift to the one who is waiting” (71).
Something very similar is true for those who commit suicide. They have suffered some tragic event, some spiraling loss, some deep illness that leaves them alone and believing that there is “nobody waiting for them tomorrow.” And if you come to this point it is not hard to follow this by believing that “There is no reason to live if there is nobody to live for” (72).
Now the reality of this may be that there are people for that person to live for, but my guess is that most people who commit suicide have a far more complex story than that. In my step-father’s case there was a lot of estrangement that lead up to his death. Much of it was related to his own depression and growing paranoia. As a result, in the few years leading up to his death he experienced a broken marriage, estrangement from his own family and church community, and rocky relationships with his 6 kids. And yet, as stressed as some of those relationships were – none of these people wanted to see him die. Even if we stood at a distance, we wanted him to get well. We would have said we were waiting for him.
But as I look at it now, I wonder if that’s enough? I can see that it wasn’t enough in my own story. I can see that he most likely was dealing with some for of mental illness and having that cared for would have made a great deal of difference. But even more than that, I see that for myself, I could have made it known to him more fully that I was waiting for him. I wanted him to be a part of my tomorrow just as much as I was glad he was a part of my yesterday.
Nouwen offers this:
When someone says to a fellow human being, ‘I will not let you go. I am going to be here tomorrow waiting for you and I expect you not to disappoint me,’ then tomorrow is no longer an endless dark tunnel. It becomes flesh and blood in the form of the brother and sister who is waiting and for whom the patient wants to give life one more chance (72).
I see now that Bernie was in a dark tunnel. A dark tunnel that I could not understand, could not fathom and did not know how to help him traverse. But now I have better clarity. I am actively trying to learn from this event and draw strength and guidance from it. His death has become a wound within my soul that has quickened the senses, deepened empathy, and fortified my courage. It is as St. Augustine says, “In my deepest wound I see your glory and it dazzles me.” I now know that I am not blamed for my wounds and that they instead offer me a way through life (Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs 141).
I also believe along with Nouwen that “In our woundedness, we can become a source of life for others.” And this is why I am writing about this. This is why I protest against death because I believe that all of life and every human life is a miracle. I believe that we are as Christ followers to “rage, rage against the dying of the light” and continue to birth love, for it “only takes a second to be born” and it lasts forever (Nouwen, 72). Whoever you are, “You cannot be replaced. Your story is important.” You are worth living, just the way you are.
May we find ways today to look into the eyes of those we meet and be a source of hope and life for them, holding out hope for their story tomorrow.