As the suicide of Rick Warren's son Matthew brings renewed attention to mental health, depression, and suicide, we see that his case is not uncommon. Every 15 minutes, someone in the United States takes his or her own life. That's 35,000 suicides every year in this country—and likely more, since many suicides are disguised as accidents. Sadly, suicide occurs among Christians at essentially the same rate as non-Christians.
Suicide kills a disproportionate number of young people and the elderly, and it has become increasingly prevalent among returning veterans. More active duty soldiers now die from suicide than from combat. A 2012 Dept. of Veterans Affairs study found that 22 veterans on average kill themselves each day, totaling more than 8,000 a year.
Each suicide leaves behind on average six to ten survivors – husbands, wives, parents, children, siblings, other close friends or family members. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people, including many of our church members, will grieve the loss of a loved one to suicide.
I am one of those people. Some years ago, my father had a stroke that left him partially debilitated. Though he began rehabilitation, one of the side effects of the stroke was clinical depression. He lost all hope and eventually sank into despair. He couldn't see any reason to go on. Three months after the stroke, at age 58, he killed himself.
Though all deaths are tragic, suicide affects us differently than when someone dies in car accident or from a terminal illness. Counselors call death by suicide a "complicated grief" or "complicated bereavement," like death by murder or terrorist attack. Not only do family members grieve the loss of the loved one, they must also face the trauma of the suicide.
In grieving a suicide, loved ones feel so many emotions that they don't know what to feel. Besides the normal sorrow and grief, survivors also experience trauma, denial, abandonment, anger, guilt, and shame. Survivors need to know that these reactions are normal. They're ways that God helps us process the shock and grief. Friends, pastors, and counselors can help survivors by validating the emotions and giving grievers permission to mourn, feel, lament, and heal.
The Lingering Questions
More than other deaths, suicides raise the question of Why? Why did he do it? Why didn't we see this coming? In other situations, we can often clearly identify the cause, a drunk driver or a disease, for example. But with a suicide, the victim is responsible for the death, not some outside force. That person is gone now. He can't tell us why he did it or the reasons he had for leaving us.
Asking why is not so much a search for answers as it is a search for comfort. We assume that having these answers will ease our grief and pain. But the questions are often unanswerable, and we must come to grips with the possibility—the likelihood—that we will never know why it happened. Even without knowing why someone chose to take his own life, survivors can experience God's comfort and healing.
We also ask, Could I have done anything to prevent it? After a suicide, survivors replay the scenarios in our heads over and over again, wondering if it wouldn't have happened if we had done something differently. If only we had come home in time. If only we had talked to him that evening. In doing so, we blame ourselves. This is called survivor's guilt, and it's tremendously common. Eventually survivors come to accept that their loved one chose to die, and they couldn't do anything about it. We are not at fault.