The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


The sadness of suicide

Our concern should be to help people retrieve hope, meaning for their lives

I have never written a column about suicide. There is no particular reason for not doing so, though the very utterance of the word can make many people squeamish. Some fear that talking about suicide only makes matters worse. I beg to disagree. We need to keep finding ways to talk about this tragedy of self-murder, to use briefly the more clinical term. 

I have conducted four funerals of suicide victims — that would be four too many. On each occasion, I have searched to find the right words to express the loss, sadness and anger that blanket the room. Plenty of words fail to bring comfort, I have discovered — my own words and those of other family and friends surviving the loss. But words are all I have at such a moment, except for my own broken heart. So I put them together the best I can and lean into the sadness.

I have concluded that, despite the different names of the victims, every suicide has one thing in common. People kill themselves because they cannot believe their lives are precious enough to make them worth living. Something has gotten in the way of their strong sense of self or their clear view of God, and the perpetrators end up robbing God of God’s property. Typically, this robbery is hatched in a den of very unsuspecting thieves that bear names like depression, hopelessness or self-loathing. 

In many respects, the mystery of young people killing themselves is just that — a mystery to both the individuals and their families. Sometimes the circumstances appear to materialize out of thin air. The resulting shock can alter a family’s joy for the rest of its days. 

Suicide cuts across class, culture and age, so it is hardly a phenomenon of only the young. Still, a person between the ages of 15 and 24 dies of suicide about every two hours in America. If this isn’t an epidemic, it’s surely close to being one. 

I know many people who get stuck on the age-old idea of suicide being the unforgivable sin, an idea born of the notion that people who take their life are not around to repent of it. But modern times and more vigorous faith articulations have helped us see more broadly. We all commit sins for which we’re too stubborn to repent or too blind to see. 

Our greater concern, above labeling the act, should be to help people retrieve hope and meaning for their lives. Engaging deeper reflection for where we stand with respect to God and others is critical. The old adage “I have a right to do what I want as long as I am not hurting anyone else” is false with respect to suicide. We live in community, whether we recognize it or not. Others suffer harshly when one opts out. 

If we take off the end of that old adage to say merely “I have a right to do what I want,” we are entering very selfish territory. Is it our “right” to decide that we will live only if we can live pain-free? If there is no more to life than simply deciding that we will live and die on the basis of what maximizes our own sense of well-being, suffering becomes the ultimate evil. Suffering, whether physical or psychological, must then be removed at all costs.

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