I received the fateful call almost 15 years ago. My husband and I, then married little more than a year, were winding our way out of rural Ohio, where we had spent the weekend celebrating the wedding of friends. My phone rang. It was my mother.
"Your brother is dead," she said feebly. I don't remember exactly how the details spilled out, except that she and my stepfather had come home from their own weekend of travel, pulled into their garage, and found my 25-year-old brother dead at the wheel of the car they had parked alongside. When my mother reached through the car window to touch his shoulder, she found it cold and the gas tank empty.
He left behind no note of explanation.
For months, we had thought he was making a real turnaround. Addiction and depression were the demons he had been fighting since high school, but we held out hope for a new chapter in his troubled life. He had enrolled in a culinary program at our local community college. He was developing a mentoring relationship with an older man at my parents' church. Not long before, my then-fiancé and I had come home from college to witness his baptism. We hadn't expected the phone call the day it came. Years earlier, perhaps, like in the months following his week-long disappearance, which ended when he turned up at a local hospital suffering from drug overdose and paranoid delusions. He'd made it out alive from those dark days. The worst of it, we had assumed.
"You sit down to dinner, and life as you know it ends," writes Joan Didion in her book The Year of Magical Thinking, capturing what feels most pernicious about human existence: it ends without warning. And if all death, even death at the more predictable end of a terminal diagnosis, feels like a cruel surprise interjected into the routines of the everyday, suicide is a thousand times as heartless. It has been chosen, purposed, by someone you love. They have forced their goodbye on you, a goodbye you have not wanted and cannot now undo. For that, you have only the ringing, unanswerable whys.
Tyler Clementi's suicide made national news when the Rutgers University student jumped from the George Washington Bridge in the fall of 2010 after learning that his college roommate was webcasting his sexual encounters with another man. Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, was convicted of crimes of intimidation and invasion of privacy and has subsequently served a 30-day jail sentence. But according to The New York Times, "the trial has never directly addressed the question at the heart of the story—what prompted a promising college freshman to kill himself?" The NYT article, "After Gay Son's Suicide, Mother Finds Blame in Herself and in Her Church," suggests that Clementi's evangelical church and their hardline views on homosexuality bear at least some of the responsibility for the tragedy.
As one left in suicide's wake of silent shame, I know what it is to ask the question of who's to blame. For years, the only answer was, somehow, me. A close family friend whose own son committed suicide three years ago asked me recently, "Do you ever think you could have done something differently to maybe change your brother's mind?" He alludes to the reconstructing and revising of past events that suicide survivors relentlessly torment themselves with. Had I only called. Told him that I loved him. Had I only paid closer attention. Which chess piece should I have moved? And when? And where?
As The New York Times reports, Jane and Joe Clementi wonder what could have been different. Their pain prompts them to find a locus of blame: as those who grieve, they need something to make sense. "The Clementis continue to blame the bad luck of roommate lottery and the cowardice of students who failed to step up and say that spying was wrong. But their son's suicide has also forced changes, and new honesty, upon them." The honesty, by implication of the article, refers to this new spin of blame, which has shifted from Clementi's roommate to the specter of evangelical Christianity.
Trying to locate blame is not usually helpful when seeking to understand why a person has chosen to take his life, especially when that locus of blame is sought by outside observers. The reasons are never immediately obvious, even to those within the closest circles of family and friends. Moreover, the problems are never one-dimensional or easily fixed. I believe firmly that survivors of suicide heal in part as we learn to refuse the responsibility for the choice our loved ones have made. There is no one person to blame for Clementi's death: not his parents, their fellow churchgoers, or Dharun Ravi. While there may be circumstances and conversations each of them would now change, it was Tyler who jumped from the bridge. Likewise, my own brother's inner turmoil was also not to be entirely blamed on or single-handedly solved by any of those who loved him. And this is the maddening, impregnable mess of suicide: that victims can simultaneously be perpetrators, that the wounded wound.
We cannot untangle the whys and reasonably locate the blame in cases of suicide, although this is frequently our response to all tragic loss. We want clarity when life bleeds, and we think that answers will close the gaping wound of confusion. Much like Job, this understanding can be the very thing that we demand of God.
Answers are not promised to us—sufficient grace is. Biblical wisdom is best heeded as we keep company with families like the Clementis, or families like mine, who have suffered the tragic loss of someone we've loved to suicide. It is our imperative, not to answer the unanswerable, but to mourn with those who mourn.
For this, we will need no words.
Jen Pollock Michel writes for Today in the Word, a monthly devotional published by Moody. She blogs at FindingMyPulse.com.