Startled by the Friday afternoon call from the Police Dispatcher, I realized my day was about to take a dramatic shift. I was needed as a Police Chaplain. I quickly got the details of where I needed to be, threw on my Police Uniform, and prayed for the right words to say. I already knew that the longest walk for a Chaplain is the one from the squad car to the family’s door. You know that you have information about their lives that they do not yet have, and what you know will alter their lives forever. So as you walk you pray for wisdom for yourself and grace for the family.
Startled out of their normal routines they peer out, see the uniforms and realize something horrible has happened. They open the door, you enter and tell them that suicide has claimed the life of their loved one. They go into shock; they are stunned; they struggle to process what you’re telling them. “Your Kidding Me” was the common response. Their brains attempt to grasp the news you’ve that you’ve brought.
A death notification is a difficult process for all involved, and is made more difficult when a suicide is the cause. The reason is because suicide is a choice. All death involves a choice of sorts – a drunk driver makes the choice to get behind the wheel, a teen decides to drive too fast or a middle aged man makes the choice to ignore his health… but suicide is the choice to make a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Suicide leaves behind unanswered questions that forever haunt and linger in the minds of those left to deal with the loss. Questions like Why? What could I have done differently? How did I miss the signals and the signs? How could they give up?
For the family processing these moments this is a challenging time as there is a funeral to process, explanations to be made, children to tell and then help them try to understand. All of this while life goes on in its merciful way.
When I had to tell 7 and 5 year old brothers what happened to cause their father to kill himself, I explained it like this: that some times your brain can get really sick and it causes you to not think the right way. The pain of your brain kind of clouds everything else and their dad couldn’t see beyond that moment. It did not mean he didn’t love them, it did not mean that he didn’t care – he was just too sick to see beyond his pain.
For the family there will never be answers to all of their questions. The mind of a suicidal person is a dark place that has been walled off, not to be breached by even the closest of friends. The mental breakdown that propelled him or her to such degrees of hopelessness is known only to themselves. Over 30,000 people commit suicide in the United States each year and 750,000 people attempt suicide. We have a serious mental health problem that’s plaguing our nation. Let’s take a moment and focus on what we can do to help those around us that might be struggling with suicidal thoughts.
1) Have real and HONEST conversations with your friends about what is going on in their heads. Social media allows a lot of posturing and ways for us to lead fake lives which can mask our true feelings.
2) Check in on friends who you think might be struggling with depression. Ask the hard questions stay until you get the true answer.
3) Connect with those whose lives have been touched by suicide. Be kind; they are searching for answers that can’t be found. They don’t need a lecture or a pat answer; they need a PRESENT friend to try to listen to their pain and try to help them make sense of what happened.
4) Understand depression and how to find help for yourself or those that need help. Don’t ignore the signs in your life and those around you.
5) Encourage all those around you that life is worth living and problems, no matter how big or small, are a part of everyone’s life and they can get through this.
Although I no longer function as a police chaplain, my heart still breaks each time I hear that someone committed suicide. The two young boys? Through a gentle and concerted effort by everyone around them, they processed through their young doubts and fears emerging with compassion and a keen sense of both the fragility of life and the love of a mother who simply would not allow this to shape their lives in a handicapping fashion.