I was working at a walk-in clinic during my first year in medical practice. Stepping into the hall, I saw the next patient on my list was a woman in her late 20’s named Andrea. I like to be as cheerful as possible when I meet a new patient, so after a quick knock on the door, I walked into the exam room with a big smile on my face.
“Hi, you must be Andrea! What can I do for you today?”
No sooner were the words out of my mouth than I wished I hadn’t said them. Or anything at all. It was like I walked into a wall of grief and it knocked the wind right out of my sails.
Andrea was there with her mother and sister, one on either side of her. A nurse later told me they’d half-carried her down the narrow hall, supporting her both emotionally and physically. Her sister spoke for her.
“Her boyfriend killed himself a few days ago and she’s been a wreck ever since. Can’t stop crying, can’t sleep, can’t eat. We just need some help – medications or something – so she can just get some rest.”
Andrea’s mother and sister had their arms around her, constantly touching her, lest she crumble apart right there in the exam room. She looked like a wreck: hair disheveled, intermittently sobbing, barely able to sit up straight. The sunglasses she wore couldn’t hide her puffy eyes, red and swollen from days of crying. Tissues were balled up in each hand. I’ve witnessed many families grieving the loss of a loved one, but the intensity of this grief was beyond anything I’d seen before.
I slumped back in my chair overwhelmed by the heaviness in the air. After a pause, I softly said, “I, uh, I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. Sounds like you’re having a hard time.”
What an understatement.
As much as Andrea tried, she could barely speak a word before breaking down. The weeping came in waves, racking her body. As her mother and sister spoke for her, Andrea only managed to nod or shake her head weakly in response to the few questions I had for her.
“Please, doc,” they said, “is there anything you can give her?”
The situation was heartbreaking. It was obvious what her diagnosis was, something doctors call Acute Grief Reaction. I prescribed some mild sedatives to take the edge off the severity of her symptoms. Then, supported on either side again, Andrea was escorted out of the room and away down the hall.
That day I witnessed the other side of suicide,: the effect it has on loved ones left behind.
When Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain killed himself in 1994, the whole world grieved. But it was his widowed wife, Courtney Love, who had the most poignant comments during his eulogy: “He’s such an a**hole. I want you all to say ‘a**hole’ really loud.”
An emergency physician colleague of mine put it equally eloquently: “If you really want to f**k up your kids, just kill yourself. You might as well put the gun to their heads too, because they won’t even have a chance at being normal.”
Those who have experienced firsthand the devastation suicide causes will be the first to attest that it's the ultimate selfish act. It may seem like the only way out to those suffering from a dark depression or awful situation, that nobody cares whether they live or die, but such a path will leave pain and scars in those left behind that will never heal. People everywhere will have their life shattered by their selfish act. Suicide destroys far more lives than the one it ends.
The risk of suicide increases enormously when a family member kills themselves. A teenage boy may think he’s getting back at his mother by killing himself, but she may end up following him down that dark path. That's not usually something suicidal people consider. Children even more so - kids of suicide victims are three times more likely to take their own lives than the general public.
Suicide is pure evil. It’s an incredibly effective way to spread hate in the world, starting with those you love the most.
That's not to say we shouldn’t have sympathy for those trapped in the darkest despair, who are so low that they consider ending their lives to escape it. Sympathy, empathy, compassion… those with depression and chronic pain need all these things, and a lot more. They’ve tragically been caught in the lie that death is the only solution. Such deception is the one of the Devil’s many schemes. And like all of them, it can be deadly.
If this is you, if suicide is a thought that’s polluting your mind, please tell someone. I know it’s not easy. In fact, most people have no idea how to respond to such a heavy conversation. Chances are it won’t go very well. But keep at it, keep speaking out about your pain. Find a church, or a counselor, or a doctor. Make sure your plans to end your life include reaching out to as many people as possible before you pull the trigger or take the pills. Give others every possible opportunity to prevent this terrible pain from coming into the world again. Lord knows we’ve seen it enough.
On the flip side, if someone you know tells you about dark ideas to harm themselves, be aware this takes a lot of courage. One of the best things you can do is simply shut your mouth and listen, no matter how hard it may be to hear. Be like Job’s friends, who just sat with him in his misery for seven days before speaking (Job 2:13). Don’t try to cheer them up, as the Bible says, “mourn with those who mourn” (Rom 12:15). Find professional help - often a neurochemical imbalance in the brain is responsible (at least partly) for the severity of their low mood. And keep in mind that you can’t save them yourself, nor should you try. Fixing their current problems often won’t help them in the long run. But simply listening does more than you know.
Suicide is ugly. I’ve seen it firsthand. It ruins lives way beyond the life it takes. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s not be unaware of the devastating consequences of suicide and self-harm. And let’s tackle this great darkness together.