In the past year, I have several friends that have lost loved ones to suicide. The statistics are real, raw and all too sobering. In the United States, an average of 117 people choose to end their lives every day. Almost all of us know someone who has lost someone to suicide, or, personally know someone who has taken their own life.
Suicide is a choice for many reasons, not just from mental health issues. 42,773 souls end their lives every year. That is the population of a small city in America.
I rarely talk of my attempted suicide and most people are shocked when they find out about it. My sunny disposition, along with a well adjusted approach to all that is, can be construed as me having an extra whip-cream, cherry topped, Hot Fudge Sundae, life. There’s a lesson in that. I was 19, had grown up in an abusive home, had a mother who left when I was 13 years old so she could survive, and I had recently dropped out of high school. My life seemed stagnant, and worse, morbid. The statistics were mounting against me as a woman, a person of color, no parental guidance, and, I was a serious rebel. I think one of the things I had going for me was friends that cared, and the fact that I didn’t drink or do drugs.
I look back on that moment 30 years ago and often think… What if I would have succeeded? What wouldn’t I have? So much. I wouldn’t have so much.
There’s a lot of misunderstanding around suicide. After someone has ended their life, I’ve heard such things uttered as, “How could he?” “How selfish.” “What was she thinking?” “Do they know the irreparable damage they’ve caused?” “Taking your own life is just unforgivable.”
Everyone has different thoughts and circumstances as to why they come to that point and the ultimate trigger, but, from other suicide attempt survivors that I have spoken with, we all have several things in common.
It’s the darkest place you will never be able to imagine. It is hopeless. It is dire. It is absolute despair. There is no light. No love. You can’t feel anyone’s love, because you are so wrought with pain and helplessness. Unfortunately, you don’t think too much about what and who you’re leaving behind, because there’s a disconnect. You’re not connected at that moment to anything, or to anyone – it is utterly hopeless. Alone. More, you can’t see out of the hopelessness. You can’t see a future. You are stuck. It is thoughtless. Confusing. Quiet. Silent. Muted. Dead.
That is the best I can articulate it, but, what people need to understand is that it cannot be wholly articulated. By those that try, and by those who are left behind.
However, what should be articulated, thought about, and talked about is suicide before it happens.
I find it is such a taboo subject. We don’t want to talk about it because it may put the idea in someone’s mind. Suicide can be a contagion, yes, but, only in extreme cases. 117. I highly doubt that statistic would be so high if we allowed ourselves to speak freely and holistically about suicide. The reality is, people choose to kill themselves, and have done so since the beginning of the human race. However, now that we are more aware of mental health, we should be able to discuss suicide without judgment and fear.
Personally, I think the silence around suicide exists for many reasons.
Life is a gift. Life, especially to those who adhere to a faith tradition, find that taking a life is taking the gift God gave us. This theological stance is a slippery slope.
When my daughter was in high school she lost a very good friend, who was a member of our church, to suicide. As active members of the church youth group, one of the first questions that came up among this group of friends was if Lily was going to “hell” for taking her own life.
The Holy Bible, both Hebrew and the New Testament, do not condemn suicide. Suicide is mentioned in the Bible in six accounts that I can find. King Saul in 1 Samuel 31:2-5; Judas in Matthew 27:3-5; Abimelech in Judges 9:50-54; Samson in Judges 16:23-31; Ahithophel in 2 Samuel 17:23; and Zimri in 1 Kings 16:15-20. None of these accounts condemn the suicides.
In other holy texts – the Torah does not condemn suicide, but, the Qur’an does. Most of what is considered to be doctrine around suicide stems from exegetical work and assumptions that God, Y—-h, Allah – wouldn’t want Her Creation to end their own lives.
I am sure God must weep whenever a person takes their own life. But, not because God rejects that person, or condemns that person. I believe God weeps because that person was so lost and hurting, they couldn’t see God in their lives. They couldn’t feel God’s love, God’s grace, or God’s presence.
This is something we should all weep over.
In all the theological debate around suicide, I can ask one thing – Why, in all that is Holy, would God reject someone who is in so much pain at the time of their death? I believe God has much more grace than humans ever will.
When I talk to people about my suicide attempt, I make sure to not mince my words. I was in a horrible place. I made a decision that could have stopped my breath – my heart, from beating – forever. I chose to end it that day. More though, I wanted to end my life. Because I really couldn’t hurt anymore. I really couldn’t let life beat me anymore. I really needed help. To this day, I feel when I talk about it, and this, the first time to publish a piece about it, worries me. Will people think I was “crazy?” Will they treat me differently? Will they examine me in a different way? Trust me, who I am, what I was, who I’ve become? This is why, I believe, many do not seek help. When you reach that point, you’re already desperate enough. Why do we want to add to that desperation with judgment, or worse, not being heard? And even worse, medicated? Labeled? Misunderstood?
It is important to recognize that few just wake one day and think, I am going to end my life today. It happens slowly. The thought creeps in. With guilt. It is frightening. I recall thinking, All I need to do is veer the car a bit toward the wall – that should do it. It’s a process. A breaking down. A manipulation of the disgust we feel for ourselves, our thoughts, and our lives.
In closing, and something I always feel is important to stress when discussing suicide is, forgiveness. I think the idea of suicide being unforgivable stems from us not being able to forgive ourselves. On all sides. We think it. We do it. We hurt from it. We take what’s precious. We ask, What if…? We wonder if we could have stopped it. We are angry. Enraged – at ourselves and those who take their lives. In that, in all that is suicide, from the one who takes their own life, to those left behind – we need to forgive ourselves. Before anyone else, we must forgive ourselves first.
There’s no disputing that we need to talk about suicide more openly, with earnest convictions to understand and listen. We need to hear. We need to let those who are hurting, be heard. We must agree to witness and be present to those who are struggling. 117 souls a day. 117 hurting so deeply, they see no other way.
I suggest you offer a way. Offer love. Offer help. Offer hope. Offer grace. In any way you can. We can’t stop suicide all together, but we can certainly love enough to make an impact. Because God is there in those times of great despair and need. We can be too.
And to all those who are hurting today, please, love yourself. You are not alone.
Karen Leslie Hernandez is a Theologian and interfaith activist. With a focus in Christian-Muslim Understanding, as well as religious fundamentalism and extremism, Karen is the only theologian who is a Latina and a United Methodist, doing this type of theological work in the US. She has published with several media outlets including the Women’s United Nations Report Network, The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue/Studies, the Interfaith Observer, and she is the only Christian to publish an ongoing Op-Ed Column with OnIslam out of Cairo, Egypt. She loves to teach and last year designed and taught an Interfaith Dialogue workshop with Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. Karen currently lives in San Francisco, is consulting with the United Religions Initiative, is an Ambassador with Parliament of the World’s Religions, and she also does Domestic Violence Faith Advocacy work across the US.