WINNIPEG — Everyone has a friend like Glenn — someone you knew years ago but lost touch with. Maybe it’s a childhood friend, someone you went to high school or university with, or a former colleague.
Years go by, and you never think of that person at all. Then, one day, you get a call out of the blue telling you that your old friend has died. That’s when the memories come flooding back.
That’s what happened to me last week. In my case, it was a call telling me that Glenn (not his real name) had committed suicide.
My immediate thought was: “How could that be possible? He seemed like such a well-put-together guy — good job, great family, a positive and generous personality.”
But things change over the course of 20 years, and slowly the truth comes out: Glenn had struggled with depression. He finally decided to end it all.
Glenn is not the first person I knew who committed suicide. My first experience with suicide was when a high-school friend Doug (not his real name) killed himself.
After his death, we learned the sad tale: Unbeknownst to us, Doug was struggling with his sexual orientation. He felt attracted to men, but his conservative religious upbringing told him repeatedly and forcefully that it was sinful — that homosexuals would go to hell.
Worried that he would act on his desire, and then be condemned, Doug killed himself. This, he reasoned, was his way to ensure he would go to heaven.
Another friend, Linda (also not her real name), also took her own life. In her case, it was feelings of inadequacy, combined with a deep and pervasive loneliness; no matter how hard she tried, she could not find a lasting and loving relationship. My last memory is of meeting her downtown. We talked for a few minutes on the busy sidewalk, and then my bus came. A short while later, she was dead.
None of these people were really that close to me, but their deaths still touched me deeply. What profound sense of desperation drove them to do the unthinkable? And was there anything I could have done to help them?
Suicide is troubling for everyone, but it is particularly challenging for people of faith. All the major religions condemn it, considering it a grave affront against the God who gave life to all.
This makes it doubly hard for believers; not only do we face the shock of a loved one’s death at his or her own hand, but we have to somehow find a way to reconcile that act with our own beliefs.
For a long time, many Christians have believed that people who commit suicide go to hell. The Bible, however, never says that; it is silent on the subject of what happens to that person’s eternal soul.
Much of what Christians think about suicide comes from people like Augustine, the fourth-century church leader and theologian. Augustine argued that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” applied equally to the taking of one’s own life.
Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century Catholic theologian, added that suicide is a sin against self, neighbour and God. It is contrary to nature, he stated, since every living thing wants to preserve its own life; it is contrary to our social obligations, since we injure others by killing ourselves; and it is contrary to God’s will, since God alone can determine when people die.
The poet Dante, following Aquinas’ lead, placed those who take their own lives on the seventh level of hell, just two levels above Satan’s abode.
Today, however, most Christians see suicide differently. It’s not condoned or condemned — we have come to realize that people who commit suicide don’t do it out of malice but out of desperation and extraordinary pain.
At the same time, people are becoming more willing to speak openly about the subject. One person who did so recently was Russ Toews, who works for the Mennonite Brethren Church of Manitoba. Last fall his son killed himself.
“My first thought was, how can we hide the fact this was a suicide?” he wrote in the Mennonite Brethren Herald. “But immediately I knew that if we tried, we would never heal. We would have to face this as openly and honestly as possible.”
Like Toews, people of faith are opening up and talking openly about suicide. It is still seen as sad and tragic, but not a ticket to hell.
As Toews wrote, remembering a sermon he had preached at the funeral of woman who had taken her own life many years ago: “We do not earn salvation by good works, and we do not lose it simply by leaving a sin unconfessed. ”
“God is a gracious God … who understands the torment that would lead a person to take such a drastic step.”
John Longhurst writes for the Winnipeg Free Press.