In 2015, more than 44,000 Americans died by suicide—one death every 12 minutes, as the Department of Health and Human Services put it. The overall suicide rate has grown by nearly 30 percent over the past 15 years, prompting some to call it a new public health crisis.
Al Hsu knows this reality personally. Nine months after the InterVaristy Press senior editor got married, he received a phone call from his mother. “Daddy killed himself,” she told him. When he heard the news, Hsu and his wife already had plans to visit his parents. His 58-year-old father was in rough condition after a stroke had left him partially debilitated and gravely depressed. The aftermath of his father’s death sparked Hsu to reflect and research, the results of which found their way into Grieving a Suicide: A Loved One’s Search for Comfort, Answers, and Hope (InterVarsity Press), first published in 2002 and re-released this year.
Hsu spoke with assistant editor Morgan Lee about the inner conflict of grieving a suicide, the best and worst ways his community responded to his pain, and whether ending one’s own life condemns a Christian to hell.
What is it like to lose someone you love to suicide?
Counselors call this kind of grief a complicated grief or a complicated bereavement because grievers are actually dealing with two realities: grief and trauma. The grief of losing a loved one is normal and expected, but with suicide comes trauma. In processing a suicide, there is no easy path to peace and the grief journey cycles through all sorts of different feelings and emotions.
So it’s important to realize that this grief will strike you in many different ways.
Right. For grievers, there are any number of emotions that are common, whether it’s anguish, pain, or survivor’s guilt and shame. Those who have lost a loved one to suicide often feel at fault. Why didn’t I see this coming? Why didn’t I do something to prevent it? So they feel guilty that they weren’t able to stop it. This is something wrong about my family, something wrong about my loved one, and I don’t want to talk about it because it’s shameful.
We also feel conflicted because if it had been a murder we could rage against the murderer. But in this case, the murderer is the loved one, so we grieve him and rage against him at the same time, leaving us conflicted and exhausted. This anger is normal, and we shouldn’t try to shut it down. But we have to beware more self-destructive responses to a loss. Some grievers turn to alcohol or drug use, while others may actually try to reenact their loved one’s steps. They may stand holding a gun looking in the mirror or on a balcony ledge, trying to figure out what was going on in their mind. We need to be careful of these self-destructive responses and have our community keep an eye on us.
How did your community reach out to you after your father’s suicide?
We had only been attending our church less than a year, but my pastor at the time and his wife drove seven hours to Minnesota (from Illinois) to come to the funeral. That was a tremendous statement of mourning with those who mourn and grieving with those who grieve.
The most helpful people were those present with us who didn’t seek to give us pat answers and quick fixes. Statements and questions like “Tell me about your father” or “What do you want to remember about him?” help the griever reflect on the life and—not just the death—of the loved one.