Struggling to Understand Suicide

As I have perused the internet for articles about death by suicide, I look mostly for those things that bring comfort to my soul….my spirit…so that I can pass it along to others. Hopefully, they too, will be enlightened and encouraged by those words that have brought me peace in my day to day struggles by the loss of my son to suicide. The following is a most exceptional articulation that touches on the whole…the physical reasons and the emotional reasons for death by suicide….. about a loving God who is with us and our loved ones who die by this terrible and very misunderstood disease. My wholehearted thanks go to Father Ron Rolheiser for writing and posting his article. I pass this along in memory of my sweet and sensitive son, Brandon Heath.

Struggling to Understand Suicide

by Father Ron Rolheiser

Pic - Fr Ron - no collar b-wSadly, today, there are many deaths by suicide. Very few people have not been deeply affected by the suicide of a loved one. In the United States alone, there are more than thirty-three thousand suicides a year. That averages out to ninety such deaths per day, about three to four every hour.

And yet suicide remains widely misunderstood and generally leaves those who are left behind with a particularly devastating kind of grief. Among all deaths, suicide perhaps weighs heaviest on those left behind. Why?

Suicide hits us so hard because it is surrounded with the ultimate taboo.  In the popular mind, suicide is generally seen, consciously or unconsciously, as the ultimate act of despair, the ultimate bad thing a person can do.  This shouldn’t surprise us since suicide does go against the deepest instinct inside us, our will to live.  Thus, even when it’s treated with understanding and compassion, it still leaves those left behind with a certain amount of shame and a lot of second-guessing. Also, more often than not, it ruins the memory of the person who died. His photographs slowly disappear from our walls and the manner of his death is spoken about with an all-too-hushed discretion. None of this should be surprising: Suicide is the ultimate taboo.

So what’s to be said about suicide? How can we move towards understanding it more empathically?

Understanding suicide more compassionately won’t take away its sting, nothing will, except time; but our own long-term healing and the redemption of the memory of the one died can be helped by keeping a number of things in mind.

  • Suicide, in most cases, is a disease, not something freely willed. The person who dies in this way dies against his or her will, akin to those who jumped to their deaths from the Twin Towers after terrorist planes had set those buildings on fire on September 11, 2001. They were jumping to certain death, but only because they were already burning to death where they were standing.  Death by suicide is analogous to death by cancer, stroke, or heart attack; except, in the case of suicide, it’s a question of emotional-cancer, emotional-stroke, or an emotional-heart attack.

Moreover, still to be more fully explored, is the potential role that biochemistry plays in suicide. Since some suicidal depressions are treatable by drugs, clearly then some suicides are caused by biochemical deficiencies, as are many other diseases that kill us.

  • The person who dies in this way, almost invariably, is a very sensitive human being. Suicide is rarely done in arrogance, as an act of contempt. There are of course examples of persons, like Hitler, who are too proud to endure normal human contingency and kill themselves out of arrogance, but that’s a very different kind of suicide, not the kind that most of us have seen in a loved one. Generally our own experience with the loved ones that we’ve lost to suicide was that these persons were anything but arrogant. More accurately described, they were too bruised to touch and were wounded in some deep way that we couldn’t comprehend or help heal. Indeed, often times when sufficient time has passed after their deaths, in retrospect, we get some sense of their wound, one which we never clearly perceived while they were alive. Their suicide then no longer seems as surprising.
  • Finally, we need not worry unduly about the eternal salvation of those who die in this way. God’s understanding and compassion infinitely surpass our own. Our lost loved ones are in safer hands than ours. If we, limited as we are, can already reach through this tragedy with some understanding and love, we can rest secure in the fact that, given the width and depth of God’s love, the one who dies through suicide meets, on the other side, a compassion that’s deeper than our own and a judgment that intuits the deepest motives of their heart.

God’s love, as we are assured of in our scriptures and as is manifest in Jesus’ resurrection, is not as helpless as our own in dealing with this.  We, in dealing with our loved ones, sometimes find ourselves helpless, without a strategy and without energy, standing outside an oak-like door, shutout because of someone’s fear, wound, sickness, or loneliness.  Most persons who die by suicide are precisely locked inside this kind of private room by some cancerous wound through which we cannot reach and through which they themselves cannot reach. Our best efforts leave us still unable to penetrate that private hell.

But, as we see in the resurrection appearances of Jesus, God’s love and compassion are not rendered helpless by locked doors. God’s love doesn’t stand outside, helplessly knocking. Rather it goes right through the locked doors, stands inside the huddle of fear and loneliness, and breathes out peace. So too for our loved ones who die by suicide. We find ourselves helpless, but God can, and does, go through those locked doors and, once there, breathes out peace inside a tortured, huddled heart.

Used with permission of the author, Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser.  Currently, Father Rolheiser is serving as President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX. He can be contacted through his website


5 thoughts on “Struggling to Understand Suicide

  1. A beautiful post on an awful subject. A post I appreciate very much. Your understanding of suicide and the aftermath is very clear. The one thing you fail to mention, and I don’t mean this as a criticism, but you neglect to mention the key cause of most suicides: Depression. That is what robs these sensitive types of their lives. I am a survivor of an attempted suicide. I struggle with depression every day of my life. Currently I am quite happy, but this is very new to me. I’ve only known it a couple of times in my life. This time I hope it lasts.

    Suicide is a means to end one’s own misery. It’s in some ways a selfish act, but in another way it is a way to give the depressed person peace at last. Of course, Depression can be treatable, even curable, with proper diagnosis and treatment. Suicide is the result of the untreated illness of depression. It doesn’t have to end that way. I know, I was given a second chance because my family was nearby and acted promptly.

  2. Thank you for your response on this very personal blog entry for the mother of a son who was depressed since puberty and deeply hurt at a very sensitive time in his young life from unrequited love. I hope you read further on my blog to realize just how acquainted I am to depression and suicide. It may be treatable but sometimes the treatment is what puts a person over the edge. I believe that is what happened to my son who struggled privately towards the end. The brain is too complex to say that one treatment fits all. I am glad for you that you are here to tell of your experience and that it worked out well for you….”a second chance”… As for me…my son and so many, many others..that is not the case. Their battles ended with that first attempt and like the writer of this article says…God was waiting with compassion and mercy.

    As much as I miss my sweet son, I am glad he is in Heaven where he will know peace forever. Thank you for letting me know that it is a “means to end one’s own misery”…I have not considered it a selfish act since reading my son’s prayer journals asking God not to let him destroy himself because he did not want to die. I know from all that he left behind (writings) that he would have rather had a normal existence…one where he could thrive and cope. I only wish I could have saved my son….I would have done anything.

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