When someone you care about dies there are, often, ragged questions, regrets, and unfinished business – along with the deep pain of grief. “I wish I could have been there.” “Did I say I love you enough?” “I wish the last thing I’d said to the person wasn’t ‘pick up milk on the way home’” “I wish we had taken that vacation we talked about” and a million other thoughts, questions thread through the process of grieving. The finality of the absence of death takes time to come to terms with. Even if you believe in a life hereafter – life here has irrevocably changed and the new pattern has not been yet created. Of course, there are no losses that are exactly the same from person to person, the nature of grief is different for everyone, the relationships are different and still there are some shared experiences among a number of people.
When you lose someone you care about to suicide, those ragged questions are compounded. As the congregation I serve experienced such a loss very recently, I’ve been communicating, in addition to the family, with any number of folks in the congregation about their responses. What I’ve encountered is a community of compassion — truly feeling with (not feeling the same, but still feeling with). In truth – we’ll all carry the burden of what-ifs and if-onlys. And, the list of people with regrets on top of grief is enormous. We wish that we could wind back the clock — do something differently and then, thinking magically, this cherished person would be alive right now.
Rationally, we know that suicide is often quite resolute. It seems to come from a powerful place in the brain – as though a switch has been thrown backward. Even if a person knows that, in reality, life is wonderful – the crushing, distorting power of depression can make life itself seem unbearable. Even when there is friendship, love, wonderful family, fulfilling work, extensive and strong community – it can be insufficient to reset that switch right.
That doesn’t change the questions and they’re real because, between the stigma on suicide that keeps at risk people too often silent and the limited approach to mental health care in our society – the kinds of care that might help are either unthinkably expensive or (more often) non-existent. If not one person — but an entire community — rallied around someone suffering to that degree — what would it look like? Would the attention and love around the clock of so many people be enough to love away the powerful urge to escape life? If we had places that nurtured people in care when they are in such deep psychic pain –not hospitals — not pay-through-the-nose-centers — but places of joy and love, color and humor, tenderness and vigilance, medical and spiritual attention — would it make a difference? If there were congregational or school curricula or more thorough education on handling depression, suicidality, etc — so that everyone of us might have emotional competence from an early age, learn that feelings are not always accurate reflections of genuine desires, that what we want is to end the pain and not life — and had a larger community of people – friends, pastors, as well as family — who all knew and could remind us of the skills and understanding we have learned; if there were supports permeating the culture; if there were really less shame and stigma about simply saying that you are profoundly suffering — would our loved ones and the millions of others lost to suicide be with us now?
It’s natural to wish for more power in the face of suffering. Still, there are so many known and unknown factors – none of us, without the larger support of a culture of compassion and healing can have the impact we might hope for. Here at CCUU, our congregational community is one of compassion and healing and each one of us can learn more in order to be of more help, we can remind one another of the importance of speaking up when you or someone you know is suffering, we can continue to make clear to one another that we will be here for one another, that it is a sign of strength to let people know you’re suffering, that it is safe here, and that, in the future – when you feel better – you will not carry a stigma for the past.
As you grapple with a the suicide of a loved one, be gentle with yourself and, in time, think about what you and we all can do to make a difference in the future.