In the Valley of the Shadow of Suicide
When he was 13 months old, my son Gabriel had his first life-threatening asthma attack. As my mom and I put finishing touches on dresses and party favors for my upcoming wedding, Gabe grew listless, and his breathing increasingly labored. Throughout that busy day, we blindly took turns calling the doctor and soothing Gabe with home remedies. By nightfall, we were in a hospital emergency room being introduced to the miracles that can be wrought with adrenaline and oral steroids. Gabriel spent the next five days, including the wedding day, recovering in an oxygen tent.
This memory reminds me that joy and pain and illness have always mingled to shape my family. Gabriel is the half-Tanzanian child of a failed college romance. As I wrote in "A Laughing Child in Exchange for Sin" (CT, February 2004), there was no hiding the circumstances of his birth after I married a man who is white like me. There was also no remedy for the pain of those circumstances, other than the salve of love.
For nearly two decades, love gave rein to Gabriel, his brother, my husband, and me as we galloped prettily through life. Then we hit a rough patch. By the time Gabe graduated from college, we were barely recognizable to ourselves and to each other. In "Sorrow But No Regrets" (CT, July 2007), I wrote that our church experiences alone had left my husband and me limping and our sons jaded. Again I told myself that home remedies and time would heal us; I told others that I would prove the supremacy of love in my children's lives. Just about the time I thought we might regain our family stride, Gabriel died by suicide. He was 23.
Grief and Guilt
The prenuptial flashback soothes amid relentless waves of grief and guilt. It reminds me that I am not God; I cannot know or see everything. It reminds me also of the many times when I got my child the help he needed before it was too late. My sanity and faith demand such reminders.
Early on, the suicide felt like a cruel cosmic joke. It was as if God, or the Devil, or some Job-like combination thereof, was mocking and toying with us. Had my husband and I not been devoted, if imperfect, parents? And what kind of awful irony was it that our boy with the sunny disposition, the one whose story embodied the pro-life message, would take his own life? Would his legacy be reduced to symbols of social stigma instead, in birth and in death? Had I not the previous day submitted a story about the Psychiatry and Spirituality Forum at the University of California-Irvine to a news outlet, my interest having been piqued by parental concern? I had even blogged about a forum lecture on suicide prevention. Surely I should have recognized the warning signs.
And yet I did not see what only God and Gabriel knew—that he was in such anguish, he saw no way out save death. All it took was a few final triggers, a good deal of alcohol (as is the case in many suicides), and easy access to means.
In a diabolic twist, those who exhibit the most pronounced warning signs of suicide tend to choose less lethal means, while those who act on impulse generally display fewer symptoms and employ deadly means—like firearms or jumping from a precipice. Less than 10 percent of suicide attempt survivors go on to take their own lives. For more than 90 percent, the crisis passes.
Shortly after the police came and went the night of Gabriel's death, I called not a pastor or a friend but Aaron Kheriaty, the psychiatrist who directs the Psychiatry and Spirituality Forum. He patiently assured us that Gabriel's death was not our fault, and gently but firmly insisted that the death would never make sense: suicide is inherently an irrational act. Kheriaty was a safe person to invite into our moment of horror, unlike some pastors who later described the suicide as an "unwise choice" and simple spiritual failure.