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February 23, 2019

Hope and Meaning Beyond Suicide

Originally published July, 2003 in memory of Cindy. Republished Sabbath, 2/23/2019 in memory of Naomi Prasad.

I attended the memorial service on Sunday afternoon for Cindy. The church was packed. Cindy’s husband had written a eulogy which was read by his sister. It was the sweetest, most eloquent celebration of a wife that I have ever heard. As the reading went on, I kept thinking, every woman should have something like this written about her. I hoped that she heard many of those words in her life.
As the service continued, however, I was haunted by one glaring omission: No one ever mentioned the word suicide. No one ever hinted that Cindy’s death was not an accident, not the result of a socially-acceptable illness like cancer or heart disease. No one spoke the hard truth: Cindy leaped from a bridge.
But that’s what she did.
What can we say when we confront the heartbreaking reality of suicide? Cindy’s suicide was not a “cry for help.” She no longer believed help was possible. Her leap was a declaration that she could not bear the pain any longer, and she could not muster any hope that it would ever get better. Her leap from the bridge was an expression of utter helplessness in the face of overwhelming pain.
How do we, the living, keep hope alive in the face of such desperation and pain? What do we do with our own grief and bewilderment when confronting the reality that someone dear to us found life itself too much to bear?
Our faith does offer consolations. It does not answer our most urgent questions: Why? What did I miss? What could I have done? Faith does not fill the aching void. But the consolations, even if meager, are real.
The first consolation is expressed in Jesus’ words about Lazarus: He is sleeping.
Cindy no longer suffers under the crushing weight of hopeless, agonizing depression. Her mind no longer churns and writhes. The torment of the depression is over. She is at rest. Her rest comes at an enormous cost–to her husband and child. To her friends and church family. To the heart of God. To us. People who commit suicide cannot calculate the cost of their action to those who are left behind. The pain of their depression shrinks their universe until scarcely anything else exists outside their pain. They cannot comprehend, they cannot feel, the pain of others, the pain they will create. But we who carry the pain of their departure can take a small measure of comfort in knowing that they are finally at rest. After months of sleeplessness, months of anguish and tortured misery, Cindy no longer hurts, and we who love her find tiny comfort in knowing that truth. She sleeps. She is at rest. She does not hurt.
A second consolation is pictured in Jesus’ words: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Cindy’s leap was wrong, but God knows that in the fog of her pain and tortured mind she was unaware of the harm her action would cause to others. The very fact of her suicide is evidence that pain had overwhelmed her reasoning and judgment to the place that she could not know what she was doing. She could not know the impact of her act. She had no malevolent (evil) intentions. She was running from pain . . . which kind of makes sense. We all move away from pain when we can.
As I contemplate Cindy’s dark act, I bring to mind also the radiant words of Jesus, “Father forgive her. She did not know what she was doing.”
A third consolation I find in the Bible is the way God has dealt with others’ loss of faith.
When the prophet Elijah fell into depression and ran into the desert hoping to die, God twice sent an angel to feed him. God did not try to shake him out of his depression. God did not even argue with him. At least, not at first. God allowed him to cycle through the worst of the depression and then gave him another assignment, reinstating him as prophet.
Then there is the story of Samson. Samson’s life is a tale of repeated failing. He fails morally and strategically. His life is a mess. And then he commits suicide, the final failure. But God, instead of writing “failure” as his epitaph, uses his suicide as a masterstroke against the enemies of Israel. Later in the Bible, Samson is included in the list of faithful heroes in Hebrews 11. God somehow figured out a way to use Samson no matter how screwed up he became. Cindy’s loss of confidence that God could sustain her through the darkness of her depression will not keep God from blessing her years of faithful service in her church where she worked with children and young people. Our brokenness does not make God helpless. Cindy’s lack of faith in the moment of suicide does not require God to remove her from his list of the faithful. And certainly we will not erase our own memories of her beauty, goodness, and service.
Beyond consolation there is also this lesson:
The church was packed for the memorial service. Hundreds of people heard the beautiful eulogy. Hundreds listened to the testimonies of friends whose lives had been touched in wonderful ways by Cindy. But Cindy heard none of it.
At funerals it is customary to work hard at remembering and speaking of the good things we saw or imagined in the lives of those who have died. Too often, when not attending memorial services, we work at remembering and speaking of people’s defects and failures. God calls us to make our conversation wholesome and helpful (Ephesians 4:29). Let’s learn to say good things, sweet things, encouraging things. And say them now.
Beyond suicide we can find comfort in God’s tenderness and the ease of torment for the one we loved. We find hope in God’s forgiveness. We find purpose in God’s call to serve in his place as lovers. We pledge ourselves to do good and to say sweet and good words . . . now.
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