When I was very young, my thoughts on suicide were so simple. The Church said it was a sin, so it was a sin. Suicide was bad. and those who died by suicide were sinners. End of story.
In high school, I met people who had tried to end their lives. Not many, but a few. By this time, I was very comfortable questioning what The Church had taught me, so there was room to consider what I thought of these individuals and how that fit with the idea of suicide. My thoughts and feelings were complicated.
On the one hand, these people who survived suicide attempts appeared to be living typical teenage lives. They were decent people who weren’t that different than I was. I was confused as to how they could seem normal now and have tried to die before. I was happy they were alive, and they seemed, at least mostly, happy about it, too.
I still believed, down deep, that suicide was a sin. And also, that choosing to take your own life was the most selfish and awful thing you could do. The thought of it made me angry — white hot angry I could feel to the tips of my ears.
Of course, that didn’t stop me from considering suicide for myself, either. Mine were generally amorphous fantasies that lasted only a few minutes before they acted like a rubber band snapping against my wrist, bringing me back to a more moderate place where I believed that things were not that bad. For me, there was always something better around the bend that would fix everything I didn’t like about my life — going to college, getting away from my parents, not having to put up with the whole high school thing– these were concrete things I knew would change. And that was enough to keep my depression at a low simmer most of the time.
I remember being at a party when someone came to our group and told us that a friend was rushed to the hospital because he had tried to take his life. Some people said he was dead. Others said he was dead for a few minutes, but was better now. I remember being scared and confused. And also, I remember somehow believing that maybe suicide was a little less permanent than people said. I was young and invincible. The idea that my friends could outsmart death seemed plausible. More importantly, I don’t think I could truly wrap my head around what it meant to want so badly to be dead that you’d actually try to make that happen. Especially as that pertained to a friend I’d seen and talked to that day. He had told me he’d see me at that very party.
During college, I learned that some friends of friends from high school completed suicide. It was shocking and unnerving. These people were far enough from me that I felt sadness, but not grief, and close enough that I felt comfortable judging them for what they had done. From my perspective, their lives did not warrant their actions. They were wrong and selfish. Whether it was a sin or not was of no real consequence to me, but I had no problem condemning them for their suicides.
During my early twenties, I saw suicide from a closer perspective. A sort-of cousin was staying with my parents and brother while I was at college. While my mom was out picking up my brother from work, after she and my cousin had had a tense exchange, the friend ended his life in my parents’ home. My mother and brother found him, tried to revive him, called 911 and dealt with the particulars.
Seeing what suicide did from that perspective was profound. My cousin’s wife and children were obviously devastated. My mother felt so terribly guilty that her words may have added to pain she didn’t see or understand and may have contributed to the suicide. My brother was traumatized by the event, both because of the death itself, and also because there was a moment whee he couldn’t fully process what he saw, and thought that the cousin had killed my mother.
We did not know how to deal with any of this. I was mad. I was offended. I was confused and sad and so scared because there was not a way to make it better for anyone. There was so much pain. And so, I blamed the cousin. It was easier to see him as selfish and awful than to consider what might have pushed him to that point.
It took many years for me to turn that corner and see the desperation in the act of suicide. To see around what I called selfishness to understand the the depths of hopelessness, pain, loneliness and despair that lead a person to the brink of suicide and beyond. I can’t say I enjoyed that journey, but I know that it has made me a better, more empathetic and caring human.
The Church also changed its position on suicide, taking into account that a person who chooses to end their life is not making a rational choice because of forces beyond their control (like depression and other mental health issues). While not condoning suicide, The Church has found a way to include mercy and grace into the equation. I believe this helps everyone involved — but especially those who are left to pick up the pieces and wonder why and how and what happened.
After the birth of my second baby, I suffered through a bout of post partum depression. I remember feeling lonely and sad and hopeless. And oh so tired. There are not many specifics I remember, except for one. I remember telling my husband how I felt and yelling about how mad I was because I remembered being a teenager and having thoughts of suicide that would deliver me to the brink and let me reject that path and start looking for one that would lead to a better place. And now, it hurt so much that I couldn’t let myself get to that brink because I had two kids who needed me. I felt trapped by not being able to consider suicide even though the only reason I wanted to consider it was to reject it. That conversation, as little sense as it made, ended up being my way out after all.
I don’t know, at this point in my life, if I see suicide as it truly is. I am not suicidal. Both of my kids are, or have been. Both have gone beyond my line in the sand of consideration and created plans and timelines. One has followed through and made an attempt. My view of suicide is up close and personal, and while I hope that my girls grow and leave suicide behind them, I don’t know that it is going to happen soon.
I am grateful that my thoughts, feelings and judgements about suicide have changed and grown over the years. I’m not sure that I would be able to help my girls without that growth.