A couple of months ago, a friend came to me and told me his father-in-law had committed suicide at the age of 74. This man was an upstanding Christian. Of course, it shocked the entire family. As I reached out to his daughters, I began to reflect on how the after-effects of suicide had impacted my own life. It was something I never felt I had the strength to speak out about, but God has continued to "nudge" me with the promise he will give me the strength to face my horrific memories.
Suicide is on the rise throughout our country today. A recent article in The New York Times notes that for the first time, more Americans now die of suicide annually than car accidents. The most pronounced increase in suicide has come from middle-aged men, a group in which suicides recently jumped by nearly 50 percent. Even more troubling, suicide is escalating in the Christian community, and when successful, the person initiating the act is not the exclusive casualty. The ripple effect drastically impacts family and friends, and can continue on for generations. The ongoing damage from unhealed wounds can be vast and relentless.
I was raised in the Rocky Mountains of Montana where everyone had a gun just to survive. For hunting and keeping yourself safe from wild animals, guns were a must.
I was quite close to my two uncles: Jim and Darryl. They were like second fathers to me. I desperately needed strong father figures, since my own father was very unsafe—I was born into a family where sexual abuse was the norm.
At the age of nine, I was awakened from sleep by the sound of a door slamming, followed by high-pitched wailing. I ran to where the screaming and sobbing were coming from; it was my aunt Fernie in our living room. She was a mess. She was disheveled and had blood all over her. Evidently, my uncle Jim had put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger right in front of her. I was horrified and confused. About six months later, my other aunt Lil came over in the middle of the night screaming. My other uncle, Darryl, had decided to end his life in the same way. A few years later, my uncle Tom did the same. I wasn't witness to the gore of his suicide, but saw how it affected our family. No one ever talked about it. It was hush-hush; we all knew that to break that vow was to dishonor the dead.
Clearly, this was how my family dealt with pain. So when my life was a mess and I was all alone with a bottle of pills many years later, I kept thinking it would be an easy way to end the pain. If my uncles had done it, why not me?
But God, in his infinite grace and mercy, intervened, rendering my attempt unsuccessful. I thank him daily for this.
I have begun to see how desperately important it is to deal with the haunting pain of suicide. It needs to be talked about. If unhealed and not spoken of, it can affect us in dark and profound ways.
Working through the pain
Here's some advice when suicide occurs in a family, or if a friend has taken their life:
- Create an atmosphere in which the pain can be spoken about freely. I wish someone would have held me as a little girl and asked me if I was all right.
- Tell the truth. My uncle Jim didn't just disappear—he decided to take his own life.
- Know it wasn't your fault. Because I was so close, especially to my two uncles, I felt like I did something wrong. Had I been naughty? Was I worth living for? Did I say something to upset them? None of these statements were true—but I believed them.
- Reaffirm to those left behind that it wasn't their fault. Someone decided to make a choice to end her life. If we admit she committed suicide, it doesn't mean we love that person any less.
- Allow the person affected to feel. Mothers, brothers, sisters, and children may be coping with a complex web of emotions. Give them space to let those emotions come out—God will make order out of the chaos of fear, abandonment, grief, and anger.
- Don't rush them into forgiveness. Individuals affected may be very angry at the person that died. Allow them to express their anger (in non-destructive ways), and give them time to heal. The healing can be a long journey—don't abandon them in their journey.
Suicide is not an easy topic to talk about, but the sooner we open up the dialogue about how we're feeling, the sooner healing can begin. I'm a testament to the truth that healing can happen. Even in the aftermath of tragedy, we can go on to lead happy, healthy, and productive lives.
Julie Woodley is a professional author, counselor, and founding director of Restoring the Heart Ministries and the Ministry Outreach Representative for Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center.