I received an excerpt from Pete Deison’s book, Visits from Heaven. He writes about the tragic loss of his wife Harriet to suicide, the desolation he felt, and what helped in his recovery.
Pete and Harriet Deison were married for 43 years. They were enjoying a full life of being parents, grandparents, and leaders of a Presbyterian Church when deep depression brought Harriet into a dark place that caused her to take her life.
Deison talks about various aspects of grief experienced by those bereaved by suicide.
What Deison learnt about suicide is as followers:
• It makes little sense
• It raises questions of responsibility
• It suggests there is no other way of escape
• It puts an end to the pain
• It is evidence of spiritual opposition
• It is within the scope of God’s mercy
Suicide makes little sense
Deison says, “Harriet’s suicide made little sense.”
If you have a healthy mind then, of course, you value life and would never think of surrendering it.
American clinical psychologist and author Kay Redfield Jamison identifies the characteristics of a healthy mind. She says,
“The quickness and flexibility of a well mind, a belief or hope that things will eventually sort themselves out – these are the resources lost to a person when the brain is ill.”
But not everyone has a healthy mind. In the words of Deison, “Harriet’s mind was smothered with the darkness of her depression.”
Jamison writes about her experience of chronic depression which led her to consider suicide. She says,
“When people are suicidal, their thinking is paralysed, their options appear spare or nonexistent, their mood is despairing and hopelessness permeates their entire mental domain.”
Suicide raises the question of responsibility
Harriet experienced tremendous highs and lows of both anxiety and depression in her last days due to changes in medication and a lack of adequate monitoring from clinicians.
Deison says, “Despite the clinical explanations provided, I kept going over the last days of her life — how the tragedy happened, why it happened, and what could have been different.”
This captures my experience. I wrote
“During the early months following Adam’s death, my focus was on recollections of Adam’s physical and mental state, the clipped conversations, the obvious pain and confusion, the encroaching restlessness, the anxiety, and the growing uncertainty about the future. I re-evaluated my own words and actions often with a critical eye. I re-lived every moment trying to imagine how the tragedy might have been averted.”
Suicide suggests there is no other way of escape
Deison says, “Harriet could have found a way of escape.”
There were lifelines – friends who cared about her, friends who would have dropped everything to be there for her, friends who could have spoken words of encouragement and support.
Harriet drove twenty minutes to the gun shop. She had a conversation with the store clerk. There was time to reconsider.
Suicide prevention strategies are built on the premise people don’t want to die.
Carla Fine lost her husband to suicide. She writes about being excluded from her husband’s deliberations. She says,
“People contemplating suicide distance themselves emotionally from those closest to them. There is a belief and a determination that they know what’s best. They are not looking for comfort. They are not looking for advice. They have put a sign on the door ‘Private! Stay out!’”
Suicide is an effective way of putting an end to the pain
Researchers have found people who are suicidal focus on putting an end to the pain and despair rather than contemplating death.
Edwin Schneidman came up with the term ‘psychache’ to describe ‘pain in the mind’ caused by mental distress.
Suicide happens when the psychache is deemed unbearable and death is actively sought to stop the unceasing flow of painful consciousness.
Tunnel vision develops when suicide is viewed as the only solution to ending one’s pain. Once a person enters the tunnel, those who love them are outside their view. They have emotionally detached from everyone; their sense of isolation increases.
It would appear Harriet had reached this stage.
People who are suicidal encounter spiritual opposition
Demonic forces oppose God’s rule and target vulnerable people, working to minimise their influence.
Deison says, “The dark enemy of our souls was taking advantage of Harriet’s weakness.”
Frank Page is a long time pastor and former Southern Baptist Convention president. He lost his daughter, Melissa, to suicide. She was 32 years old. He says,
“Death is the enemy’s goal for you. He knows the damage it can do not only to you but to your family, to your friends, to your church, to your testimony and ministry as a Christian. If he can destroy you, he can destroy a generation. If he can steal life from you, he can steal peace and joy from five, ten, twenty others who love you and care about you, who will be left to deal with their guilt, their pain, their hurt, their loss, their grief, their sadness, their struggle.”
Suicide is considered by some to be the unpardonable sin
Historically, the church has viewed suicide as self-murder and so in breach of the sixth commandment. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) taught ‘our lives belong to God, so we have no right to end them ourselves.’
Deison noted, “Suicide is unforgivable in the minds of many.”
It is argued ‘suicide cannot be forgiven because the person who did it could not have repented of doing it.’
Despite suicide being contrary to God’s will, it is rarely an act of defiance, a denial of God’s purposes. It is not a conscious rejection of the gift of life. It is rather a desperate response to the unbearable pain. Despair, depression, hopelessness, and self-loathing – they are the real killers.
Respected Christian leader and evangelist Billy Graham died recently at the age of 99. He addressed the topic of suicide and depression many times throughout his life. He says,
“Suicide is always a tragedy – but in itself, it is not the unpardonable sin. The only sin God cannot pardon is the sin of rejecting Him.”
When I reflect on Adam’s death and find myself despairing I recall the words of Kay Warren, wife of renowned pastor Rick Warren following the loss of their son Matthew, to suicide in 2013. She says,
“Matthew’s body was buried in brokenness, but will be raised in strength.”