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Apr16FriSuicide is not the only way out. Caring friends, relatives and professionals can make the difference between life and death April 16, 2010 by Alex Newman
It's always there—the missing him,” says Judith Kennedy.
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- Faith & Friends
Losing a child was the worst thing imaginable for Judith. But losing that child to suicide made it even worse—the recurring nightmares about how he took his life, not knowing what despair went through his mind beforehand, feeling that she should have done more but not knowing what. Suicide spares no one and brings no closure.
A Family's Grief
Her son Michael's suicide 18 years ago didn't come as a complete surprise—he'd attempted it three times and the family had dealt with trauma since he was eight, when he was sexually abused by a camp counsellor.
In retrospect, seemingly unrelated incidents were warning signs—brain trauma after being knocked out in a hockey game and ending up in hospital for four days, experimenting with drugs, getting into a fight at university and other “strange episodes.”
Doctors all over the United States and Canada gave Judith different diagnoses: bipolar, schizophrenia and, finally, “diagnostic enigma”—meaning they didn't have a clue.
Despite the lead-up, when Michael took his life in 1992, the family was devastated. Unable to pray, Judith lit a candle and meditated, one word at a time: “mercy, Jesus, beloved.” She sat in Michael's room, holding his teddy bear, rocking back and forth, weeping.
“There just weren't words,” she remembers.
Her husband, Jim, would lie on the couch every night, “so lifeless in his grief, I thought he was dead. His hair turned white before my eyes.”
Their other four children grieved deeply, each in their own way. Even the dog was affected, not moving for days from the spot near the urn that held Michael's ashes.
For a deeply faithful family, how could such a thing happen?
“Nobody, Christian or otherwise, is exempt from life's struggles,” says Stephanie Oliver, director of The Salvation Army's Suicide Prevention Services in Hamilton, Ont.
Christian countries have lower rates of suicide. But for many Christians, the pressure that they shouldn't be depressed or suicidal because they believe in an all-powerful God only increases a sense of failure, and isolates them even more.
Approximately 4,000 suicides take place in Canada each year. The exhausting struggle to cope with difficult circumstances such as divorce, death, unemployment or abuse can often lead to feelings of hopelessness. “There's a desire to escape whatever is causing pain, frustration, pressure or failure, and suicide is seen as a way of ending that,” Stephanie explains. “Teens are especially vulnerable because they are less able to be objective, and can feel more desperate.” In fact, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Canadian youths between the ages of 10 and 24.
Any time is a good time to intervene if you suspect someone is suicidal, she adds. Keep an eye on anyone struggling with difficult circumstances in their lives, whether at home, work or church. “Pray, be caring and listen—really listen—and then do something. Practical support is the place to start.”
Lives Lost and Left Behind
Debbie Miller, a member of The Salvation Army crisis-line team for almost 20 years, has fielded hundreds of calls from people about to attempt suicide. “Most are completely without supports,” she states, “Their relationships are severed. They feel no one cares, and they're isolated.”
She's talked many callers back from the brink, among them a young man who took drugs and contracted HIV, and another man facing divorce court for the second time. Debbie uses empathy, active listening skills and gentle persuasion—for example, asking the divorced man to take his kids' pictures out of his wallet and look at them.
“You develop a gut feeling about people after a while,” Debbie believes, “and you have to be compassionate and sincere. Callers know when you're not real.”
Though she is prepared to provide as much support as necessary, there's nothing Debbie can do about what happens after. The tragedy lies not only with those lost but with the shattered lives of those left behind.
Answering the Call
That's where the Church can step in with pastoral understanding, care and sensitivity. “God is a refuge and strength, and offers unconditional love,” says Major Doug Hefford, a Salvation Army pastor who's presided over the funerals of two suicide victims. “We live in a culture that devalues human life, and the Church has a role in changing that perception. We reinforce the importance of life, and God calls us to deliver a message of grace that says no matter what happens to the body, we can't destroy who we are in Him.”
For the Kennedys, worshipping in a caring Anglican parish made all the difference. There was material help—prepared meals, a single rose—and friends and acquaintances sent messages of hope and encouragement. Eminent theologian Henri Nouwen delivered the eulogy and visited their home. Missionaries living in Africa sent their condolences. Even a nurse from the hospital where Michael died came to church and, out of her pain, brought some solace to them.
“There were moments of profound and real community,” Judith Kennedy recalls. “I had been in Bible study with the same people for about 20 years. They didn't give advice or hand me lists of books to read. We just sat there and held hands around the table, and Christ was in our midst.”
Eventually, between bouts of weeping, Judith found a renewed joy in the preciousness of life. “All our children are beautiful Christians,” she says. “Their brother's death made them probe and question their beliefs, but their faith became deeper as a result.”
Judith's faith has turned her grief to grace, giving her the heart to support others who have lost someone to suicide. “I hold on to a verse from one of the Psalms,” she says, “ 'Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy' (Psalm 126:5). God sends angels to us in times of loss, pain and grief. Any one of us can answer the call to be one.”
Where to Go for Help
- The Salvation Army Suicide Crisis Line (905) 522-1477. Collect calls accepted
- Centre for Suicide Prevention (www.suicideinfo.ca). The purpose of the Calgary-based centre is to inform and equip people with additional knowledge and skills for the prevention of suicide. (403) 245-3900 or email@example.com
How You Can Help
- Know some of the key warning signs (helplessness, hopelessness, lack of purpose, anxiety, anger, feeling trapped, withdrawing from life, acting reckless, talking about death, dramatic mood changes)
- Know how to get help, and take all threats seriously
- Ask the person: “Are you thinking of suicide?” Asking someone if they are suicidal will not make them suicidal. Most likely they will be relieved that you asked
- Listen actively. Remain calm and do not judge. Explore and encourage other options.
Options give hope
- Do not agree to keep the person's suicidal thoughts or plans a secret. Get help