Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Suicide: What should we say?

This probably isn't the first post about suicide you've read recently and it probably won't be the last. Though I'm incredibly discouraged by the reality of mental illness and suicide, I am relieved that we are talking about it a little more freely these days. Open dialogue has the potential to help so many people. And since I have personally been diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders, I understand how crucial it is to discuss these issues in order to empower people to seek help.

I've been pondering on how I would address the topic since I learned of Robin Williams' recent death. I've felt that I need to because my family and I have been directly affected by depression, anxiety, mental illness and even suicide. Unfortunately, much of what people are saying about these issues in the heat of the moment is incorrect, in poor taste or even downright cruel at times. So, I'm here to help clear the air.

On April 7, 2010, I lost my uncle CP to suicide. I will never forget the crushing anguish I felt when I heard the news. It was my 23rd birthday, just two weeks after I gave birth to my son, Carson. Dill told me right before bed, just hours after my family had left the house after a small birthday celebration. My parents and sisters acted like nothing was wrong the entire time they were with us, when in actuality, they were devastated by the loss and had been crying all day (I still feel terrible about that). I didn't sleep that night. I sobbed off and on until the morning came, asking "Why?" and wondering where we all went wrong.

CP's funeral service was downright tragic. I usually cry at funerals, but within me there is always a hope for the deceased. I think things like, Maybe they're not suffering anymore, and I'll see them again someday. But not at CP's funeral. All I felt then was immense pain in the wake of his seemingly senseless death. I think we all did.

Like Robin Williams, CP was a light to everyone he knew, and he knew a LOT of people. He was so hilariously funny, he made everyone laugh. He was a talented craftsman who could transform a dilapidated shack into a luxurious condo, not missing a single detail. And everyone who knew him admired his vocal talent -- he was known for his spot-on imitations of various artists (Elvis being his most popular) and his ability to move a crowd to tears with his perfect, powerful singing voice. I had the privilege of accompanying him on numerous occasions. It was always an honor.

CP impersonating Elvis at our wedding. It was epic.

After CP's death, my family and I endured the immense grief that follows such a tragedy. Sleepless nights -- or, when we did sleep, nightmares. Unexpected tears. Sobbing sessions. Painful reminders around every corner. Endless questions. Unfortunately, the grief was not always made easier by others' attempts to lighten our load. Sometimes, when a person we love is going through something difficult, we don't know what to say, but we think we need to say something. And this is usually when we say the exact WRONG things.

"Suicide is selfish."

In the wake of a suicide, no one wants to hear that their beloved family member or friend was selfish. What does it really communicate about us when we call others selfish, anyway? It says we feel entitled to something another person has to give. We want their money, we want them to spend more time with us, we want them to live despite the fact they are in great pain and can't go on for another second. In calling others selfish, WE are the selfish ones.

Think about that.

And I'm sure if we knew exactly what a person was feeling and thinking when they decided to defy human nature and end their own life, we'd think of them as anything BUT selfish.

Of course, it's downright devastating that the person's spouse, children, parents, extended family and dear friends are left behind when a person commits suicide. But to cast blame on the victim? It's heartless.

"It happened because ..."

Some people feel a need to muse on the reason(s) the person took their life. They think determining the "why" will somehow make things better. If you must entertain these thoughts, please do this privately. Usually, those close to the victim know they suffered from mental illness and don't need to hear a layperson's point-of-view on the matter. The reasons behind their death are likely numerous and quite complicated, so there's no sense in trying to tie them up in a pretty little package. Also, unless you were very close to the victim, your reasons for their death are probably way off-base and can even come across as hurtful, such as saying the person was spiritually unwell or under the influence of Satan. These statements are seen as cruelly judgmental and aren't helpful in the least to those who are grieving.

(And if you post thoughts like these on your very popular, public blog, you'd better be prepared for some serious backlash. I'm looking at you, super-famous male blogger of the click-baiter variety.)

"It was a bad choice."

Let's get something straight: suicide is most definitely self-inflicted. But how often is a suicide victim in their right frame of mind when they die? I would venture to guess never. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, over 90 percent of those who commit suicide are diagnosed with a mental illness. And those are just the diagnosed cases. Other factors, according to NAMI, are chronic medical illness, past trauma and substance abuse. In fact, "more than one in three people who die from suicide are intoxicated." In other words, saying a suicide victim "made a bad choice" is a gross oversimplification.

After Mr. Williams died, I read a fantastic analogy on this blog. The author, Shawna Morrisey, said contemplating suicide is like being at the top of a burning building with only the following options: to jump (commit suicide) or be consumed by the flames (suffer the pains of mental illness). Meanwhile, everyone at the bottom (family and friends) is telling them to "just hold on, help is coming!" But how can they know that? They're not going through this ordeal. They're not suffering. They're not faced with this insurmountable decision.

Sometimes, the victim chooses the flames. And sometimes, he jumps.

In short, there are too many unknowns about a person's mental state and decision-making ability when they commit suicide. Even IF they were coherent enough to make the choice of their own free will, we as outsiders can't possibly determine whether it was righteous or evil or even something in between. There is only one Judge who knows that -- our Savior, Jesus Christ. He is perfect and He understands us all completely. He is merciful and kind, and He has the final say on these matters. Everyone else is just guessing and making assumptions that usually hurt the ones close to the deceased.

Instead ...

When someone takes their life, whatever you do, don't judge the deceased person's character or their situation, and don't call them or the act "selfish." You might believe it's the truth, but that doesn't mean it's not incredibly cruel to say.

So, what should you say to someone who has lost a loved one to suicide? How should you act? Here are some ideas:

Be kind and sympathetic -- treat them as you would anyone else who has lost a loved one. Say things like,

"I'm so sorry for your loss. __________ was such a great person." Then, list some admirable traits they had that you will miss.

"I'm so sad to hear about __________'s death. If you'd like to talk about it, I am here to listen."

"I can't imagine the pain you're feeling right now. What can I do to help ease your burden today?"

Most importantly, just LOVE them! Give them a hug. Let them cry in your arms. Let them be angry. Bring them dinner or a special treat. Allow them to talk about anything or nothing at all related to the death. Everyone grieves in different ways -- some will want to talk at length about the person or their death, some prefer quiet, personal reflection. Leave them alone if they want to be alone. Follow their lead. But in everything you do, act in love. Ask yourself, "If I had just lost a loved one in such a tragic way, how would I want to be treated?" And remember that everyone is different and we receive and give love in different ways.

Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness, "Mental Illnesses: Suicide." http://www.nami.org/factsheets/suicide_factsheet.pdf


  1. I love this post, Jenna! Thanks for sharing something so personal. Transparency in blogging is always worth it for the people who read what you wrote and really needed it. p.s. I've yet to read anything by that "super-famous male blogger of the click-baiter variety" that doesn't give me the manipulative-red-flag creeps. My tummy feels weird just thinking about his posts.

    1. Thanks for reading, Katie. And yeah, I hear you on the tummy feelings. No thanks!

  2. Beautifully put. We need more of this, and less of Matt Walsh (about this and other topics.)

    1. Thank you, Karissa. I agree about Mr. Walsh. He's cornered the contention market, for sure.

  3. This is the best post I've ever read about suicide. So well done, and gave me a great perspective I didn't have before. Thank you!

  4. This post was very touching and I found my self shaking my head with each line I read. Very well written.

  5. Well said, Jenna. And I AM sorry for your loss. It must have been so painful. The only way I can relate is when my brother died from an alcohol overdose. Too young, too early, and horribly tragic. It does seem that it is often these enigmatic individuals that suffer so much under it all. :( Two thumbs up for you and 1 million thumbs down for "that other blogger." ;)

    1. Thanks, Kendra. Overdose and suicide are so similar in that the victim is trying to escape their pain. I am sorry for your loss as well. Losing a loved one in such a sudden, tragic manner is so painful. Very difficult to process the grief.


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