Losing a Loved One to Suicide: When There are No Answers

Losing a Loved One to Suicide: When There are No Answers

Losing a Loved One to Suicide: When There are No Answers

In the aftermath of suicide, those left behind often struggle with not just grief and heartbreak, but also guilt and many unanswered questions. A bereaved person shares his personal journey.

Al Hsu

I lost my father to suicide.

My father, Terry, was an engineer who had a PhD in electrical engineering. He was a brilliant man, but a stroke had left him partly debilitated on the left side of his body. He started rehabilitation and recovery, but one of the long-term effects of the stroke was that he wasn’t able to work, and he fell into a deep despair that spiralled into clinical depression. 

Three months after the stroke, my father felt that he could no longer go on living. He went into his room, closed the door, and killed himself. He was 58 years old.

When my mother called me with the awful news, wailing in grief and pain, I went into shock. Numb. It didn’t seem real. How could this have happened to our family? And how could we go on?

A Loss Like No Other

Losing a loved one or friend to suicide is one of the most devastating losses anyone can experience. Never again can we be the same. It’s the kind of event that divides our lives into “before” and “after” as we find ourselves experiencing a whirlwind of physiological changes, confusing emotions, and haunting questions.

Counsellors describe suicide loss as “complicated grief” or “complicated bereavement”, because two things take place simultaneously. On one level, we experience the grief that naturally arises from losing a loved one in any circumstances. 

But we also experience trauma, an additional blow that can overwhelm our nervous systems and psyches. It’s similar to the experience of soldiers in combat or survivors of a terrorism attack.

The toll of trauma lingers long after our loved one’s suicide, compromising our capacity to rest, heal, and adapt. After the initial shock wears off, some will relive the moments when they first learnt the horrible news.

Anxiety, panic, anger, and difficulty concentrating are also common responses. We may feel stuck in a state of fear and readiness, sensing that something awful is about to happen again, while at the same time feeling utterly helpless to do anything about it.

At the same time, we may find ourselves battered by other strong emotions. Anger is common after a suicide, as survivors feel betrayed and abandoned. 

If our loved one had been murdered, we could grieve the victim and rage against the murderer. But in this case, the victim was also an agent in their own death. And so we cry out, “How could you do this to yourself? How could you leave us in this way?” We rage against them even as we grieve their absence.

But while all these emotions are natural, we need to stop them from overwhelming us.

If you are feeling despair, open up to friends and tell them how deeply you are struggling. Seek help from your community or church. Find safe people who can support you and keep an eye on you to guard you against self-destructive behaviour. Don’t compound your loved one’s loss with additional grief.

Ultimately, you need to know that you are not alone. 

Losing a loved one to suicide can feel isolating, as if nobody else can ever understand what you have gone through. It’s true that suicide is a loss unlike more “ordinary” deaths like old age, cancer, or car accidents. But many others have also experienced the trauma of suicide. You are not alone.

Resisting False Guilt

You may be tormented by guilt, and feel like you should have prevented the suicide somehow. This is very common, especially for parents and caregivers. 

Many of us hide our guilt feelings from others, because we have so much turmoil and despair over it. When I ask suicide survivors what they want other survivors to know, they will always say: “You need to know that this is not your fault.” 

We may never know what contributed to a loved one’s suicide. Depression is a primary factor in the majority of cases, and there are often other biological, psychological, sociological, or economic forces at work. 

Ultimately, however, our loved one arrived at a point where it seemed like the only solution was to end their life. We may grieve that and lament the feeling that we were not able to prevent it. But don’t carry the burden of responsibility. That responsibility is not ours to bear.

My mother grappled with false guilt for a long time after my father’s death. She had a caregiving personality that put great value in taking responsibility for other people’s well-being, so it was particularly hard for her to let go of that sense of guilt. 

At times, she would direct her pain and grief elsewhere, such as blaming the doctors and medical system for not doing more to prevent my father’s death. But, ultimately, she came to some sort of uneasy peace. She realised that she had done all she could, and she could not carry that burden of false guilt forever.

The Cries of Lament

The Cries of Lament

The Cries of Lament

Grieving takes time; there are no easy answers or quick fixes. We need to give ourselves space to struggle, to grieve and mourn, to express our pain, to lament—and to struggle with difficult questions.

Nearly everyone has questions. Those of us who are Christians, and even some who are not, may have dozens of spiritual questions after a loved one’s suicide. Where was God in the midst of all this? Why didn’t God prevent the suicide? Is my loved one lost eternally? And does God still care about me?

The first thing we need to recognise is that these kinds of questions are okay. Part of the grieving process is to allow our pain and emotion to surface in our questions, and to bring everything to God. 

Jesus said: “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:4). He’s telling us that it’s important to grieve, to mourn deeply. Grieving gets outside what’s going on inside. 

Scripture gives us models for grieving in the book of Psalms. The psalms of lament, for example, often begin with a cry to God: “How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1). “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). “Out of the depths I cry to you, LORD” (Psalm 130:1). 

These psalms express our pain and the raw emotions of our grief. And they direct them to God—the right place to direct our grief, because He can bear the crushing weight and is the one we need to go to most.

We can petition God for His help: “Do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me” (Psalm 22:19). We can be honest with Him about our devastation, and lament over how this calamity has crushed us and our families, and share with Him our desire for rescue.

There is no timetable for grief; we each move through it at our own unique pace. But at some point, we may come to a transition. Halfway through a psalm of lament, there’s often a pivot, even when questions remain unanswered. “But I trust in you, LORD” (Psalm 31:14). Directing our pain to God reminds us of who He is, that He is the one who hears us and who has shepherded us through past ordeals.

Many of the psalms also end on a note of confidence and hope that God has heard our cry and will act on our behalf. “Praise be to the LORD, for he showed me the wonders of his love when I was in a city under siege. In my alarm I said, ‘I am cut off from your sight!’ Yet you heard my cry for mercy when I called to you for help” (Psalm 31:21–22).

No Easy Answers

No Easy Answers

No Easy Answers

Despite the resolve that the psalms of lament offer, we will often continue to ask “why?” questions. Why didn’t I see this coming? Why did he do this? Why didn’t she seek help?

Unfortunately, many of these questions are ultimately unanswerable. Why is there suffering? Why is there death? And even if such questions can be answered, much is still left to mystery. Consider answers like: It’s a fallen world. The world is broken. Bad things happen that God never intended. People die. If we really want answers to the why questions, that’s where they take us.

After my father’s suicide, I wrestled with the why questions to the point of utter exhaustion. And I concluded that God’s answer to the problems of suffering, evil, and death is not some abstract philosophical response, but decisive action: though I was unable to act in the face of suicide, Jesus had already acted on my behalf. 

And because of what He has done, death has lost its traumatic sting; death itself will one day die. That is the heart of the Christian faith—not merely that we are going to heaven when we die, but that we will one day be raised to new life. 

All of us who grieve will ask the why questions. But let’s be wary of dwelling there indefinitely. Take time to quietly rest in the fullness of what God has done, and is doing in Christ. “Be still,” as Scripture has said, and allow yourself to physically, emotionally, and intellectually experience that He is God (Psalm 46:10).

Understanding and Remembering

I am reminded of the story of Stephen Webb, a professor, author, and church leader who struggled with depression. At the age of 54, he shot himself, leaving behind his wife and five children.

In an eulogy, his friend Samuel Rocha lamented the loss of a life gone too soon, but also remembered Stephen’s generosity, commitment to others, love for his wife and children, work in prison ministry, and care for the disabled.

Despite Stephen’s depression and suicide, Samuel understood that the manner of his death was not the total picture of his life. He concluded:

The alienating excess of depression is that it overwhelms the depressed to the point that they cannot see or hear the voices that reach out to them, even the voice of God. Webb succumbed to his depression, and that grieves me. But the man I knew exceeded his own depression. He was to me the image of an excess of love. It is that about him which I see at the center of my sorrow, and it consoles me.

Samuel’s reflection offers us a model for how we can grieve our loved ones lost to suicide. He acknowledges that depression is part of the story, and he is candid about its reality and the devastating impact it had on his friend. But it is not the whole story. We honour our loved ones by remembering the fullness of their lives.

So, seek understanding, and practise remembrance. Tell stories that you want to remember about your loved one. Share good memories of them in their best times. May the fullness of your loved one’s life become what you see at the centre of your sorrow.

Entrusting Our Loved Ones to God

Nowhere in the Bible does it say that suicide is an unforgivable sin.

In fact, whenever the Bible describes suicides, it does so in a matter-of-fact, straightforward way, as accounts of lives where something has gone wrong. 

There are seven suicides in the Bible, from King Saul to Judas. While all of them are tragic, the Bible doesn’t say that those who took their lives prematurely are separated from God for eternity. In fact, Samson died at his own hand, but he is still recorded in Hebrews 11:32 among the hall of the faithful.

Part of the result of living in a fallen world is that things are broken. Sometimes, things go wrong with our brain chemistry, and people fall into depression or mental illness. They are not necessarily making a choice the way we normally think of making a choice. We needn’t blame somebody for dying because something went wrong with their body; nor should we blame someone for dying because something went wrong in their mind.

The biblical narrative reveals a Creator-God whose fundamental orientation towards the broken is one of deep compassion. Scripture portrays God as one who shepherds those who need His care, who seeks and saves the lost. Romans 8:38–39 declares that neither life nor death—not even death by suicide—can separate us from the love of God in Christ.

Ultimately, we can entrust our loved ones to God’s care. We should steer clear of spending excessive time agonising about our loved one’s destiny. Better off relinquishing them to God and His mercy.

Sometimes, we may wonder where God is in the midst of our pain. I am grateful that the biblical picture of God is not of a cold, distant, abstract God. Rather, the God of the Bible is one who understands human suffering. In Jesus, God became flesh and dwelt among us, experiencing all our human pains and griefs. And Jesus himself was the Suffering Servant, who experienced untold agony as He died on the cross. Our God is a suffering God, and He stands in solidarity with suffering humanity.

But that’s not all. God also makes a way through suffering: after the crucifixion comes the resurrection! The Christian story proclaims that death does not have the final word. In the resurrection of Jesus, God has defeated the powers of death and decay, and is making all things new.

As Christians, we participate in the resurrection. We have hope of a new life beyond this one. Death is not the end of the story.

A story at the end of the Gospel of Luke gives us encouragement. After the death of Jesus, two pilgrims are walking home on the road to Emmaus. They’re still in shock, grieving the loss of their rabbi and friend. They thought He would be their saviour, that He would redeem Israel. But now, He’s dead and gone. How could this have happened? How could they go forward from here?

As they’re walking and grieving, trying to make sense of the death of their beloved teacher, a stranger comes alongside them on the road. They begin to talk, and he shares from the Scriptures how the Messiah would suffer. They come to their home and invite the stranger in to stay with them. As they have a meal together, the stranger breaks bread, and in that moment, their eyes are opened, and they recognise Jesus (see Luke 24:30–32).

As they journeyed through their grief, they felt God’s absence. But Jesus was still present with them, even though they hadn’t recognised Him yet. That’s the way it is in grief sometimes. It’s one of the paradoxes of Christian faith; when God seems most absent, He is actually most present with us. In our suffering and pain, our suffering Saviour draws near to us.

Albert Y. Hsu is a senior editor for IVP Books at InterVarsity Press. He earned his PhD in educational studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is the author of three books and has been a writer and columnist for Christianity Today.

Extracted and adapted with permission from Discovery Series When Suicide Strikes © Our Daily Bread Ministries.

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