“If He Loved Me, Why Did My Dad Commit Suicide?”
This is the third article in our series, “The Hard Questions.” Working with students is tough. You’re often the person approached with some of life’s most challenging questions. Sometimes you know what to say right away. Other times, you need to take a step back and consult with the Word, your piers, or your mentors. We’ve asked some very wise people about the hardest question they’ve been asked these days, and how they responded. The first article in this series can be found here.
Lilly’s eyes were as hollow as an empty tree as she shuffled back to my office with her tattered backpack. Her therapy “homework” for the week was to bring special pictures and treasures to her session to share with me. It’s rare that I sit next to a client on the couch, but as she unzipped her dirty, LL Bean backpack the tears had already begun to flow. I repositioned myself next to her and braced myself for one of the hardest hours of my personal and professional life.
“He’s really dead,” she blankly mumbled as if to practice just the sound of this new statement. She was just thirteen years old.
“Yeah, he is,” I replied. “It sucks.” No amount of graduate-level classes prepares you for this situation. And then, with a hot, flushed face and steady tears, she looked directly at me and begged the question of all questions:
“If he loved me, why did my Dad kill himself?”
The pain and heaviness of Lilly’s desperation were almost too much to bear. And ultimately, only God knows the answer to that horrible question.
What we do know is that according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, every 12.95 minutes an American commits suicide. It’s the 5th leading cause of death for adults ages 45-59, and 3rd leading cause of death for our students – ages 15-25 years. Statistically speaking, we’re all likely to face this question at some point.
Suicide is quite a different animal than other deaths. Not only is there no time to say goodbye, but the survivors are left with a million guilt and shame-ridden questions. “Why did I not see it coming?” “Could I have stopped him?” “Was it my fault she killed herself?” The nature of suicide itself is an act done in absolute isolation. Thus the reaction of those left behind is often to retaliate in isolation. It takes a great deal of courage for a survivor of suicidal loss to acknowledge the need for help, and have the guts to face the tornado of emotions that follow.
Thankfully, Lilly had courage.
I learned from her that the most ineffective and blatantly unhelpful comments were those platitudes of religiosity that are certainly well-meaning, and usually true, but offered at inappropriate times. For instance, Romans 8 says, “all things work together for good.” This is beautiful and it is true. However, for someone dealing with the shock and grief of death, the “good” is usually not something embraced until much, much later. Similarly, the promise that “God never gives us more than we can bear” might one day be a comfort to Lilly and her family. But time is a vital ingredient to that reminder. The truth is, this level of grief was not meant for Lilly to bear alone. Suicide of a loved one is more than any human could reasonably be expected to cope with. But for God…
C.S. Lewis in his famous book, A Grief Observed, so brilliantly explained our most valuable position in speaking to others dealing with death. He said, “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”
Advice from a Trained Professional (take it or leave it):
As with any grief circumstance, initially it is best to use the ‘no questions asked’ approach. The most powerful words are those left unsaid. A gentle touch, and a common tear shed, speak volumes over mustering the “right” thing to say. There is no right thing to say. Death is wrong. It isn’t how our story is supposed to end, which is why need a Savior to redeem it.
Even if it’s not religious phrases that are offered, other hurtful responses to suicide are: “Did he give you any warning signs?” “Had she been depressed?” “Did she leave you a note?” “How did he kill himself?” Each of these questions imply that the surviving friend or family member may have been responsible. Guilt is the greatest burden that a loved one dealing with suicide carries. If we have been entrusted to their care in such a time of delicate vulnerability, we are remiss in adding to their pain by our careless questions.
Some questions simply don’t have answers, not on this side of Heaven. I discovered with Lilly that the most healing moments came when I would acknowledge her pain and grief, without offering explanations. Statements such as, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through,” or “You’re right, it is so hard to believe that this happened,” followed by the simple yet pointed reminder, “Lilly, this was not your fault. It was his choice.”
Choice. If a person has a wonderful daughter, spouse, parents, friends, why would they choose to take their life? My only answer to Lilly – he was sick. His mind entered a form of tunnel vision that occurs with suicide victims, so that he felt like death was his only choice. Fascinating research has been completed on analyzing various dimensions of suicide notes – hopelessness, emotional pain, escaping social relationships, etc. The most prevalent finding showed that those who successfully committed suicide felt that they were a burden to their loved ones and that their loved ones would be better off without them. In his mentally fragile state, Lilly’s father thought he was loving her by taking his own life. As backwards as it is, suicide (to him) was the ultimate act of love.
Society has mislabeled suicide as a selfish act. In reality, it is an act of desperation, hopelessness, and isolation; an act completely devoid of the hope of the cross and the grace that Christ bestows on his children. Suicide is a lot of things. Selfish is not one of them. In the distorted and pain-ridden state of the sufferer, suicide seems to be the most logical and effective solution.
In the years following her father’s passing, Lilly taught me a great deal about death and about healing. Together she and I celebrated her invitation to homecoming court, high school graduation, sorority rush and her older sister’s wedding – all events where she longed for her Dad’s physical presence and support. We still talk about her father frequently; I know him even though I never knew him.
The pain and the questions will always remain, but Lilly reached the conclusion that her father loved her. He loved her desperately, even unto to the point of death. While suicide is never the right choice, she took comfort in knowing that her father intended to make a loving decision.
The good news that we cling to is that because of Christ’s perfect obedience in dying a perfect death, Lilly and her Dad will be reunited in glory.
This blog is made available to you by the Rooted Ministry for educational purposes only, not to provide specific therapeutic advice. The views expressed are the personal perspectives of the author and do not represent the views of all counselors or the profession. This blog does not create a counselor-client relationship and should not be used as a substitute for competent therapeutic counsel from a licensed professional in your state.
If you or a loved one is struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK, or visit your nearest emergency room.