By Carlene Hill Byron

The weekend of May 15-17 is the National Weekend of Prayer for Faith, Hope and Life, designated as a time to pray for those who have survived a suicide death. Let me tell you what I learned over the last 25 years from my roommate Kelly’s suicide death.

Kelly didn’t have friends; she had best friends, more than anyone I knew. So many that her closet was crowded with the gowns she’d worn as bridesmaid in 14 weddings. She was five feet of bouncy energy and blonde curls, as committed to her church as my other roommate and I were to our congregation. Her career had taken a bit of a bump recently, but we attributed that to youthful indecision. Her psych hospitalization? That didn’t make her unique among our friends.

Until she died by suicide.

After Suicide, a Snarl of Recriminations

Suicide evokes sorrow like any death of a person we care about. But it evokes a great many other feelings that make it much more complicated to navigate:

  • Self-accusation: How could I not have known? Why didn’t I (fill in the blank)? Why did I (fill in the blank)?
  • Blame throwing: Why didn’t their parents / spouse / friends / church see this coming? Why didn’t their doctor get the meds right? Why didn’t someone stop this?
  • Anger: How could he/she do this to me?
  • Bewilderment: Why did he/she do this? Why did he/she do this in such a way?

These are nearly impossible to live with. And to avoid endlessly rehashing them, many suicide survivors get stuck, as I did, in the very first stage of grief: denial. It’s not possible to deny the death, but some of us manage to shut it into a box and hide it in a dark closet of the soul. For Kelly’s other roommate and I, that dark closet stayed shut for more than a decade.

When we finally opened the door together, all we had were the questions we’d boxed up:

Why had Kelly died in the restroom of a restaurant hundreds of miles from the Boston apartment we had shared? Why was she riding a bus headed for Greensboro? Was she hoping for miraculous healing from a renowned faith minister there? Did she plan to visit me, in the hope that praying together would help, as it had during a previous day of psychotic delusions?

Unacknowledged Anger at the Person Who Died

I didn’t even attend Kelly’s funeral. The call about her death came sometime in a dark night during a dark week after Hurricane Fran had all but confined me to quarters. Felled trees lay across roads and powerlines everywhere. Our Wake County home was unscathed, but a block away, a 60-foot pine had crashed through a bedroom ceiling. Amazingly, none of the sleepers was hurt. It was more than a week before we had power or water. I took my showers at the office, once I could travel there.

But the dark closet of dark feelings held. The morning after Kelly died, I led my new work team at Kimley-Horn in its first presentation to the management of our company. No one knew what kind of night I’d had.

I couldn’t bring myself to consider traveling back to New England for a funeral while the lights were still out at home. Maybe I was just too angry at Kelly. Angry that the devastating news of her death pulled me out of bed when there wasn’t even electricity to dispel this new darkness. Angry that her death had intruded on what should have been an exciting morning with my new team.

Anger is, of course, the second stage of grief in the familiar Kubler-Ross formulation. Then comes bargaining, sadness, and acceptance. Kubler-Ross colleague David Kessler later added a sixth stage: Meaning.

Finding Meaning, Hope, Life

Almost a quarter century later, do I find meaning in Kelly’s death?

From Kelly’s death, I learned that the questions and self-accusations that emerge in the wake of a suicide almost never help. They open no useful information. They invite recrimination and anger. They repel comfort and the companionship of others.

Questions and accusations inevitably come, but like Martin Luther’s metaphorical birds of inappropriate desire, they must not be allowed to nest in our lives. Nor may they be locked away. To do that is to invite great flocks of their companions, who will batter furiously at the locked door in the attempt to release the others.

Still, it is extraordinarily hard to allow the threatening pterodactyls of suicide grief to fly overhead at their will, but not to settle into my mind and heart.

During this National Weekend of Prayer for Faith, Hope and Life, pray that we who have lost loved ones in this most unaccountable way will be able to ignore the accusations and confusion, even as we must allow them free flight through our world. Pray that we find helpful points of focus so they are less often in our field of view. Pray that others will not send their own pterodactyls our way – we have enough accusations and questions without receiving yours also.

Pray that we will all be able to accept that we, as people, are not able to always protect even those who matter most to us.

And above all pray that we, as a community of faithful and as a civic community, will create places of meaning, purpose, belonging and hope that make suicide seem less necessary for all those to come. COVID-induced limitations are isolating many from these life-giving elements of ordinary mental health. Anxiety and depression are running high, and some experts project an uptick in suicide among those who are struggling alone. Pray that we will remember the many ordinary ways we can make our churches and our communities places that shelter, embrace and value those who can’t see their next step. Together, let us be their way forward.

Carlene Hill Byron of Maine was a NAMI family educator for 8 years and spoke at the NAMI-NC state conference about effective suicide prevention models. Her writing on faith and mental illness has appeared on The Mighty, Mad In America, and Yahoo! Life, as well as her blog The Church and Mental Illness. Her book on the role churches play in promoting good mental health will be published by Herald Press.