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Posted July 23, 2008

Our Misconceptions about Suicide

Ron Rolheiser



Sometimes things need to be said, and said, and said, until they don't need to be said any more. Margaret Atwood wrote that and its truth is the reason why, each year, I write a column on suicide. We still have too many misconceptions about suicide.

I wonít try to be original in this column, but will simply try to re-state, as clearly as possible, what needs to be said over and over again:

What are our misconceptions about suicide?

First, that suicide is an act of despair. Too common still is the belief that suicide is the ultimate act of despair - culpable and unforgivable. To commit suicide, it is too commonly believed, puts one under the judgement once pronounced on Judas Iscariot: Better to not have been born. Until recently, victims of suicide were often not even buried in church cemeteries.

What is more true is that the propensity for suicide is, in most cases, an illness. We are made up of body and soul. Either can snap. We can die of cancer, high blood pressure, heart attacks, aneurysms. These are physical sicknesses. But we can suffer these as well in the soul. There are malignancies and aneurysms too of the heart, deadly wounds from which the soul cannot recover. In most cases, suicide, like any terminal illness, takes a person out of life against his or her will. The death is not freely chosen, but is an illness, far from an act of free will. In most instances, suicide is a desperate attempt to end unendurable pain, much like a man who throws himself through a window because his clothing is on fire. That's a tragedy, not an act of despair.

Given the truth of this, we need to give up the notion that suicide puts a person outside the mercy of God. God's mercy is equal even to suicide. After the resurrection, we see how Christ, more than once, goes through locked doors and breathes forgiveness, love, and peace into hearts that are unable to open themselves because of fear and hurt. God's mercy and peace can go through walls that we can't. And, as we know, this side of heaven, sometimes all the love, stretched-out hands, and professional help in the world can no longer reach through to a heart paralysed by fear and illness.

But when we are helpless, God is not. Godís love can descend into hell itself (as we profess in our creed) and breathe peace and reconciliation inside wound, anger, and fear. God's hands are gentler than ours, God's compassion is wider than ours, and God's understanding infinitely surpasses our own. Our wounded loved ones who fall victim to suicide are safe in God's hands, safer by far than they are in the judgements that issue from our own limited understanding. God is not stymied by locked doors like we are.

In most cases, suicide is an illness and when its victims wake on the other side, they are met by a gentle Christ who stands right inside of their huddled fear and says: "Peace be with you!" As we see in the gospels, God can go through locked doors, breathe out peace in places where we cannot get in, and write straight with even the most crooked of lines.

Finally too there is a misunderstanding about suicide that expresses itself in second-guessing: If only I had done more! If only I had been more attentive this could have been prevented.

Rarely is this the case. Most of the time, we weren't there when our loved one died for the very reason that this person didn't want us to be there. He or she picked the time and place precisely with our absence in mind. Suicide is a disease that picks its victim precisely in such a way so as to exclude others and their attentiveness. That's part of the anatomy of the disease.

This, of course, may never be an excuse for insensitivity to those around us who are suffering from depression, but it's a healthy check against false guilt and anxious second-guessing. Many of us have stood at the bedside of someone who is dying and experienced a frustrating helplessness because there was nothing we could do to prevent our loved one from dying. That person died, despite our attentiveness, prayers, and efforts to be helpful. So too, at least generally, with those who die of suicide. Our love, attentiveness, and presence could not stop them from dying, despite our will and effort to the contrary.

The Christian response to suicide should not be horror, fear for the person's eternal salvation, and anxious self-examination about we did or didn't do. Suicide is indeed a terrible way to die, but we must understand it for what it is, a sickness, and stop being anxious about both the person's eternal salvation and our less-than-perfect response to his or her illness.

God redeems everything and, in the end, all manner of being will be well, beyond even suicide.