I was present at the scene of a suicide last night.
In my capacity as a volunteer chaplain with a local law enforcement agency, I was riding with a police officer. We were the initial first responders to arrive.
At the end of a rather uneventful shift, we received an urgent call to respond to a shooting. Naturally, I can’t reveal any details about the event beyond mentioning it involved a firearm. It was probably terribly similar to how you would imagine it to be.
To see a life so sadly cast aside is too sad for words. Contemplating the days ahead for those who loved the deceased is sobering. Their lives will never be the same, and that is the universal legacy bequeathed to family and friends by those who end their own lives. God have mercy on them.
C.S. Lewis understood how despair could drive a person to contemplate this irreversible choice. In a letter to a deeply grieving husband who had lost his wife, Lewis relates how suicide would never provide a genuine resolution to the pain caused by the loss.
One way or another the thing [romantic love] had to die. Perpetual springtime is not allowed. You were not cutting the wood of life according to the grain. There are various possible ways in which it could have died though both the parties went on living.
You have been treated with a severe mercy. You have been brought to see (how true & how very frequent this is!) that you were jealous of God. So from us you have been led back to us and God; it remains to go on to God and us.
She was further on than you [in Christian faith], and she can help you more where she now is than she could have done on earth.*
You must go on. That is one of the many reasons why suicide is out of the question. (Another is the absence of any ground for believing that death by that route would reunite you with her. Why should it? You might be digging an eternally unbridgeable chasm. Disobedience is not the way to get nearer to the obedient.)
There’s no other man, in such affliction as yours, to whom I’d dare write so plainly. And that, if you can believe me, is the strongest proof of my belief in you and love for you. To fools and weaklings one writes soft things. (A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken)
Vanauken, the recipient of the letter, had this response to Lewis’ challenging words: “After this severe and splendid letter, I loved Lewis like a brother. A brother and father combined.”
He continued by explaining how the letter had dispelled any consideration of suicide. “If I had been tempted at all to break my promise to Davy [his wife] about following her by [his] own act, the temptation vanished after one horrified look at Lewis’s ‘eternally unbridgeable chasm.’”
It will take some time for me to “process” my experience last evening. But, having seen death in the past, I found it less traumatic than many others would have.
And, of course, I never knew the person who chose to no longer breathe . . . or smile . . . or dream. I only became “acquainted” with them as I spoke to their spouse in the hours that followed. Sadly, because of a tragic choice, in this world they are merely a memory now.
Naturally, to those who knew and loved them, the vacuum created by their passing cannot be completely filled. Moreover, the wounds caused by the grim nature of their death by choice, will leave permanent scars.
The fact is that during the course of their lives, many people—quite possibly the majority of human beings—consider the possibility that suicide could end the pain they feel. But we must tirelessly remind them, and ourselves, that suicide is a permanent “solution” to temporary circumstances.**
* Lewis is referring to the concept that the saints (i.e. all believers) currently in the presence of the Lord may have the ability to intercede on behalf of those of us who are still “living.” The best way for Protestants to understand this may be by considering this line of thought: (1) we don’t hesitate to ask our sisters and brothers in Christ to pray for us, (2) we believe that God has already given eternal life to his disciples (meaning that even the departed remain alive), thus (3) it is not illogical that children of God now in his presence would be able to intercede for us in heaven.
Traditional Protestant reticence with this understanding is based in the concept most clearly espoused in I Timothy 2:5. Lewis, of course, was a Protestant himself, but Anglicans are among the minority of Protestants who affirm this practice.
** This is not to belittle the intense agony caused by chronic emotional suffering, but I believe there is a path that leads not to death, but to healing and life. If you have suicidal feelings, I strongly encourage you to seek out a skilled Christian counselor. (Not all clergy possess the necessary training, or the faith itself, to provide an adequate lifeline in these situations.)
If you’re unable to find a pastor in your local area, you can contact me at chaplainstroud at mereinkling dot com and I will attempt to get you in touch with a compassionate minister in your local community.
21 thoughts on “The Anguish of Suicide”
What can I say? This is very powerful and heart-breaking. I’m sorry you had to be touched by that experience, but thank you for sharing your thoughts.
Thank you for your concern, but you need not regret that I experienced this. As a pastor, I consider it a privilege to walk with people through the valleys of life. Being with those standing at the verge of their eternal destiny is an honor… and an important responsibility. Of course, ministry can only take place with the survivors, once someone ends their life.
Thank you for being there for the officer and all those affected, including you.
Thank you Kathy, for the many years of protection and service you offered to our community while placing your own life on the line as a deputy and officer!
Really struck by Lewis’ letter – the last line is very powerful as are many of the other phrases (…”disobedience is not the way to get nearer to the obedient”…words that could be applied in so many ways in life if people would only think -but emotion seems to rule more than logical thougth these days.)
I am sorry you were witness – suicide leaves so much damage behind. But I am glad you were there. You are one of the few who could over look the event and see the person – give value to this one as a person who was once whole and loved. That recognition and noting is important. A hard burden to carry, but appreciated.
No doubt you were a comfort to others there – just your calm faith, even if nothing was said.
Perhaps your words will be the line that holds someone through dark times. Grateful for your strength.
May peace find you.
And yes, Lewis’ wisdom possesses application to circumstances far beyond those described here.
I think it is wonderful that you volunteer in this capacity and have no doubt that your wisdom and compassion means the world to those who are in such deep despair. I will pray for him and his family.
There are many thousands of chaplains who volunteer with law enforcement agencies and fire departments all across the country (and in other nations, I imagine). Many, if not most of them, offer at least as much time and assistance as I do. And, some of them have done so for many years.
Our first responders and their families serve in terribly stressful roles (in many ways similar to military service members). We should keep them all in our prayers.
Four years ago, one of my colleagues committed suicide. He was a bright, young engineer, just out of school. He was gentle and very quiet. I think about what he did in terms of the pain he forever levied on his family, and all of us who wished we could have intervened. There are no adequate words. I’m so sorry you had to witness a suicide.
It’s always tragic. And the younger the person, the sadder it is.
Thank you for your thoughtful response to this tragedy! And I am sorry that you had to respond to another for whom life’s pain became so unbearable that they felt the only escape was to end their own life. As a military chaplain, I had to respond to far too many of these calls and I am sure you did as well. Those of us who have to walk alongside the families left behind know too well the horrible legacy suicide leaves in a family. I am glad you were there to help this family start to process this devastating event. And, because of your pastoral heart, I am confident you were able to calm the situation and begin a healing process. I know what suicide does to a family. I will lift up this family before the throne of God and ask His peace and grace to surround them as they try to move on with their lives. And may God continue to bless you, my friend! Thank you for your ministry to our first responder families!
Well said, and thank you for your fine ministry!
C.S. Lewis had quite a way of putting things very directly and eloquently. Thanks for sharing this, though I’m sorry you had to go through such an ordeal and I’m sorry for those left behind from the person that chose that as well. It’s good people like you share and are there for others. Sometimes it can be a mighty hard thing to see beyond circumstances. Sometimes things seem like forever though in reality they’re not.
People caught up in intense emotional pain are often trapped in that moment and, as you say, think it will hurt like that “forever.” That’s why they need hope… and the most powerful hope is that which recognizes there can be deliverance from suffering in this life and the next.
Thank you for your posting, Rob. Your experience and your insights will help me with a woman who just joined my ladies bible study. Her son committed suicide this summer and she has a “hole in her heart”. How tragic!
I pray this does offer her the smallest bit of comfort. I cannot imagine her loss, although thousands of parents live through this horror every year. Mag God’s grace and consolation envelop her.
Suicidal thoughts seem to come to most people some time in their lives. I am thankful that more don’t listen, but that doesn’t mitigate the damage when someone does.
Letting people know how common these thoughts are, and that the vast, vast majority of people overcome them, offers light and hope to those who are presently suffering.
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