suicide in the family

September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day.

For me, suicide isn’t just a horrible thing that has happened to other people in other families (although that is most certainly true).  For me, suicide is PERSONAL.  My Uncle, my father’s older brother, took his own life, violently, after years of battling with depression.

the pastel my uncle drew of me, around 1980

the pastel my uncle drew of me, around 1980

My Uncle would have years of living a relatively stable life.  He could hold a job (although nothing too mentally taxing or otherwise demanding), he could be a productive, tax-paying member of society.  He was an artist. I’d say he was an amazing artist considering that he was stricken with a form of encephalitis as an adult which resulted in the right side of his body being very weak – SO weak that he needed to switch his writing and DRAWING hand from right to left.  On the left is a pastel he drew of me when I was twelve.

But other times he would become not just dysfunctional, but NON-functional.  He would disappear.  He would become completely dependent on family (which led to family burn-out).  I’m not quite sure how many times he was hospitalized because his psychiatric history began in my childhood – and it’s not the kind of thing that my family talked about.  People in general didn’t talk about “such matters” in the 1970’s or 80’s.

In the summer of 1990 he was hospitalized yet again.  The “older” adults in the family (my aunt, my father, and grandparents – another aunt lived far away) were tired.  Even my father, who had a VERY close relationship with my uncle, was emotionally exhausted in dealing with him.  I was a young working woman at the time, with a social work degree (thank goodness), and my uncle started calling me, asking if he could live with me when he was released from the hospital.  I knew it was more than I could handle, but I also knew how to steer him into systems that would give him more long-term support.  I knew I could say “no” to him while he was still inpatient – that he was being watched and cared for, and that we had time to put a plan together.

He was doing well.  So well in fact that the doctors and nurses (and whoever else) on his unit decided that he could be trusted with a little freedom.  He got a day pass.  What they didn’t know is that he was acting. Suicidal people can do that.  They muster up the energy to fool those around them so they can carry out their plan.  My uncle got his day pass, got a gun somewhere (we’ll never know), got a friend to drive him to a local park, walked a bit, sat down on the grass and shot himself in the head.  His friend heard the shot from the car, found him quickly and called for help. Surprisingly he wasn’t dead.  Not right away.

He was brought to the emergency room and was hooked up to every machine conceivable.  But to no avail.  He was brain dead.  They’d managed to keep his body going, but he was gone.  I visited with him, stroked his hair, grieved over his handsome face so purple and sad, begged his forgiveness on behalf of everyone who let him down (including myself), on behalf of the system that let him down, and said goodbye.

We had a simple graveside service – no funeral home or church service (the Roman Catholic Church, to which he belonged, kind of frowns on suicide), although a priest who knew him and his history said prayers with us – and the obituary said nothing about suicide.

I share his story because I want people to understand a few things, one of which is personal/political and if that offends you than I’m sorry/not sorry.

  1. Depression is a real medical illness.  We’re not always sure how to treat it.  What works for some may not work for others.  The brain is a mysterious thing.  We haven’t even begun to unpack all its mysteries.  But when you suffer from clinical depression you can’t just “snap out of it.”
  2. In a strictly dispassionate theological sense, suicide may be seen as selfish, and or murder.  In some circles suicide is such a BAD sin that it separates you from the Church.  But we are not dispassionate people. Theology is useless (and I would argue isn’t “theology” at ALL) if it doesn’t address our human condition. Some of us feel so worthless – to ourselves, our loved ones and God – that our mental illness fools us into thinking the world would be better without us.  Or it fools us into listening to the voice who says IT is God, telling us that if we jump off the bridge we’ll be able to fly.  In Romans, St. Paul tells us that NOTHING separates us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  NOTHING.  I’m thankful for the priest that was at my uncle’s grave, who said prayers for him and my family.  There should be NOTHING to prevent my uncle (or any other victim of suicide) from being buried “from” the Church.   And if a church refuses?   We had church at the cemetery. Where two or three are gathered together, Christ is there.
  3. You can’t just pray it away.  I firmly believe in the power of prayer.  If someone I know has cancer I pray fervently for them – but I also encourage them to see a DOCTOR.  God works through the medical profession. God works through the hands of surgeons.  God works through nurses and aides who care for patients in a hundred different ways throughout their day.  God also works through psychiatrists and therapists and MEDICATION.  God works through anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications just as much as through blood pressure medication or insulin.
  4. We need common sense GUN CONTROL.   (Yes, this is the personal/political thing.)  I grew up with guns in my house.  When I go visit my mother there are guns in the house.  I’ve fired a rifle (albeit aiming at a tree and my father keeping me from falling backwards!).  I’m not “anti-gun.”  And gun control laws may not have prevented my uncle from getting a gun. There will always be ways to break the law, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be laws!  We have laws against stealing.  People steal.  This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have laws against stealing.  Does the reality of law-breaking mean we shouldn’t have laws?  That’s absurd.  So the argument that we shouldn’t have laws trying to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them because they’ll get them anyway doesn’t hold any water with me, and is just plain nonsense.  We should have gun control – keeping guns from those with mental illness, those who have restraining orders out on them, those who’ve been convicted of violent offenses, AND a waiting period between purchase and possession (to cool hot heads).

I also share his story because he never married, never had children, and there are too few people who remember him.  I do.  And just as we donated his organs so he could live on and help others, I tell his story, yes, this SAD BAD story, so that he might live on and help others in this way too – to end the stigma of mental illness, to end the shame of suicide and the weight that survivors and surviving loved ones feel.  There is meaning in his life AND his death if we can help others from going down the same dark road.

at the beach, 1979

at the beach, 1979

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