Theorizing, Grieving, and Feeling Scared: Grappling with Modern Discourses on Suicide

Very grateful for this piece by Sarah Gates.  Almost five years ago, my father died […]

Very grateful for this piece by Sarah Gates. 

Almost five years ago, my father died from suicide. The violence of his death, and the suffering that preceded it, marked the tearing of a temple curtain in my life. Since then, I’ve found myself in positions I never imagined that I’d be in—traumatized by certain violent images, angered by misuse of mental illness terminology, and sitting, severely uncomfortably, on my hands as coworkers have confoundedly speculated about why suicide happens.

As high-profile suicides of seemingly happy and successful individuals continue to catch us off guard, people want to understand it and figure it out (Charlotte Donlon described this phenomenon of Trying to Understand It so well). I mean, I kind of get it. I tolerate the need for theorizing about suicide, from a prevention perspective. But, at the same time, I also definitely just want to scream at anyone who speaks as if they know anything about why it happens at all.

The theorizing touches on a few nerves: one nerve is the one that intuits that we can’t control this outcome as much as we think we can or that we want to. The dominant cultural understanding of suicide seems to see it as a rational choice that might be stopped with rational choice types of interventions. It is revealed in the framing of questions—why did s/he do it?—and debates over whether or not it is selfish. Another nerve is a social science-y nerve that is skeptical about how people are empirically testing these theories, given underreporting of suicides and other methodological considerations. Another nerve is a super emotional one that just feels like everyone is an idiot, and that I’m probably also an idiot, and that none of us this is all that helpful post-hoc.

But if I’m honest with myself, I do have a theory, and my theory nerve grows ever-stronger as other theories multiply. My experience tells me that mental illness is the most important risk factor for suicide; enough psychology and psychiatry literature and memoir confirms this for my social science-y brain to feel comfortable with it. From a personal perspective, I only understood how severe mental illness could be by witnessing Dad becoming sick and turning into a different person, not at all himself. I saw his brain try to kill him, and succeed. While he certainly needed someone to sit with him every day and night, hold his hand when he couldn’t get out of bed, and protect him when he became manic, he needed drugs and a therapist more.

For all these reasons, on certain days, I am “the person who has it all figured out.” I imagine myself, standing on a street corner and screaming: “It’s mental illness, stupid!” On other days, instead of standing on a street corner and screaming, I am throwing my hands up and running around and screaming, “It’s too complicated! We can never know!” But if I move at all from either of these screaming places, to the left, or backwards, or at a diagonal, all I feel is sadness.

When I look back on Dad’s story, I see terrible holes and suffering. My heart becomes a cannonball when I think about how alone he was in his suffering, and how I wish more people could have walked with him through his illness, even if it all had ended the same way. I sat with him one morning in August, around 11 a.m., when he couldn’t get out of bed; he talked to me about what he was feeling—the heaviness and regret and pain and severe incapacitation. I told him something ridiculous like, “There are so many terrible things happening out there in the world!” to which he responded, “I know!!!!!” (I did at least end this apocalyptic vision with “But it’s all going to be okay!” but I don’t think it landed that day.) I found myself crying only minutes later, totally drained just from being with him.

Over the past five years, I’ve listened for the church’s response to suicide and mental illness and found it rich but confusing. Because the church’s engagement with suicide sits in the context of a country that glorifies cowboys, superheros, and DIY solutions, we are even more vulnerable to trying to engineer responses to it all on our own. But I have seen some good and beautiful things in the willingness of pastors and priests and people like Mister Rogers to sit uncomfortably and gracefully in their fear of it. One of the best things that happened after Dad’s death was when the preacher at his funeral talked about how scared he was. He actually said, “I’m scared,” and it blew my mind.

I still think that mental illness is hugely important for understanding suicide and also devastatingly misunderstood and undertreated, and the version of me that stands on a street corner and screams is often the dominant one. But even as I sit in that knowledge and anger, I find so much hope in the idea of just being together with other people (the same people I want to scream at (read: everyone)) and being scared. For one, it means that I might get to be less alone—I wouldn’t necessarily have to sit by myself with Dad and then cry by myself later—which seems great. Even greater, I know that the longer we can withstand our fear of and discomfort with suicidality, the better able we might be to walk through that darkness with someone and help them get the care that they need.

Dad died at an inconvenient time, when I was doing a fellowship to study Swahili and research youth political participation in Zanzibar and Kenya. I did the difficult thing: came home for the funeral and then went back to the hot island five weeks later.

The Veranda – Zanzibar by Fathiya Busaidy

After the funeral, a number of unwanted pieces of information came out of the woodworks about the rest of his family’s mental health. A family friend revealed that, although the picture wasn’t entirely clear, Dad’s own father had probably also died from suicide. Another secondhand story emerged about how Dad, as a boy, once ran into the rain to get help when his father had collapsed from … what? Drinking? A suicide attempt? Both were floated as possibilities.

I’ve rarely had time to process any of it, and most times I struggle with trying to find a neat way to tell his story, a way that doesn’t feel totally doomed from the beginning by its darkness. Is it redeemable? Is that even an appropriate word? It seems the only way out is either backwards, further into the past, before the ambiguous stories of suffering in his family tree, or into the future, towards new stories and genealogies. I hope that God knows a better, non-chronological way.

Dad once told me something like this: “We make so many mistakes in this life. There are so many things we do wrong. My idea of heaven is that it’s a place where everything is made right. We get to do everything again perfectly.” I find this to be not entirely unscriptural—an idea that we are only made whole through Christ—and I return to it over time.