Is Suicide a Sin? Is it Forgivable?
If you're looking for suicide stories or suicide articles, I have one for you. It's true, and after all these years, it still hurts. As a public high school teacher, I had some training in recognizing suicidal thoughts. Suicide at any age is terrible, but teenage suicide is especially tragic. When a young person loses all hope, enough so that a suicide attempt is imminent, it's devastating - for the family, for the friends, for the school, for the community, and, of course, for the teenager. Sometimes preventing suicide is possible in the case of youth suicide. But what about preventing suicide for older individuals? In my opinion, it's more difficult to recognize and interpret suicidal thoughts in an adult, and suicide prevention becomes more difficult. Why do I think this? I'll tell you. Even with my training in suicidal prevention, I was unable to recognize the suicidal thoughts my own father was having. The typical signs just weren't there.
I was all too aware of the typical suicidal signs. Unfortunately, I had seen signs of suicide in teens. Suicidal signs might include a general loss of interest in activities. Dad was almost completely bedridden, so this was hard to judge. Obviously, he couldn't continue to do things he had enjoyed when he was in better health.
Other suicidal signs include talking a lot about death or expressing a wish to die. Dad didn't do either of these things. I mean, he was always willing to discuss death and dying if the subject came up in a conversation, but he never seemed to dwell on the topic, and he certainly never seemed to have suicidal thoughts.
Suicidal signs might also include calling or otherwise contacting family members and friends in order to give a last farewell. My father didn't do that, either. Neither did he make any attempts to otherwise make final arrangements or bring closure to unresolved issues.
Many individuals entertaining suicidal thoughts will be very depressed, or they might exhibit a sense of peace after a period of depression. Dad never appeared to be really depressed, so there was no "calm before the storm."
We got the call about Dad's attempted suicide on a cold November night in 2001. Actually, it was very early in the morning, like around three a.m. Of course, the ringing phone startled me awake, but I didn’t panic immediately. Our phone number was similar to that held by some unknown teenager, so once in a while we’d get middle-of-the-night wrong numbers. Johnny answered the call, and I could tell that this one wasn’t a wrong number and that something was wrong
“That was Laverne. Your dad shot himself.”
The words seared themselves into my brain, but it’s like they didn’t register at first. I had to pick each one up separately and closely examine it before I could combine them into a horrible, meaningful sentence that slapped my consciousness with painful reality. Tears began to flow uncontrollably.
“Why would he do that?? Where was he? Where is Mama? Is she okay?” I asked through sobs, before asking the ultimate question: “Is he alive??”
Yes, he was still alive. Johnny didn’t know much more, however, except that Dad was in the emergency room. We threw on some clothes and drove the twenty miles north to the hospital. Although Johnny was forcing the Jeep at a breakneck speed on the interstate, it seemed to take forever.
When we reached the hospital, I ran into the emergency room door and was immediately led into the back. A nurse pointed me to the curtained cubicle that held my father, and as I was entering, I heard Daddy ask my brother and my mom, “Where’s Holle?”
I rushed to the cot and hugged him. He was fully conscious, but I couldn’t think of anything to say to him. No words would come. I just stood there and held his hand, until a nurse ushered us all out, explaining that they were taking Daddy into emergency surgery. At that point, I told him that I loved him.
All of us were herded into a private conference room: me, Mom, Johnny, and my brother, John, and his wife, Laverne. Laverne is a nurse, and at the time, she was in charge of several parts of the hospital, including the ER and ICU. She gave Johnny and me all the details as my mom and brother sat there in numbed silence.
“Something woke your mom up around 2:30, so she went into check on your dad. She asked him if he was okay, and he pulled down the sheet, revealing a gunshot wound in his chest. She called 911, and they brought him here. We won’t know how much damage has been done until they open him up. Dr. Kerry is doing the surgery, and when he knows something, he’s going to meet with us in here.”
I don’t remember how long we had to wait, but it seemed like an eternity. Johnny had called our daughters, and they soon joined us. I remember that we were all freezing, so someone suggested we make the short drive to my parents' home to get some coats and sweaters. Johnny was elected, and my youngest daughter and I made the trip with him.
When we got to the house, it was as quiet as death. We found a sweater in the den, and Johnny started for Dad’s bedroom to get some jackets from the winter closet. Melissa and I started to follow him, but he stopped us. He didn’t want us to see all the blood he assumed would be there. But I wanted to go in there. I needed to go in there. Johnny remained steadfast, however, and made us wait in the hall until he checked out the scene.
In just a few seconds, he called us in. There was very little blood – just a circle on the bed about the size of a silver dollar. Under Dad’s hospital bed, lying innocuously on the hardwood floor, was the bullet. The oak planks weren’t even affected. The bed and Dad’s body had taken all the impact from the .38 pistol.
Once we got back to the hospital with an armload of coats and sweaters, we didn’t have to wait long for Dr. Kerry. We learned that the slug had entered the chest and had ricocheted around, taking out parts of lungs, intestines, and the liver, but leaving the intended target – the heart - completely untouched. Dad suffered from Parkinson’s disease, so his shaky hands had poor aim. The doctor said they had repaired what they could, but the outlook was grim. Daddy was 85 at the time.
The next three weeks were a nightmare. Dad was in ICU, hooked up to all kinds of machines. He was fully conscious for the first two weeks, but he couldn’t communicate with us. He couldn’t talk because of the ventilator, and his hands were too shaky to write a message. We took shifts to sit with Dad so that he wouldn’t be alone.
I remember the last time I saw my father conscious. It was Thanksgiving Day, and we had traveled to my brother’s house for the noon meal. John lived about twenty miles north of the hospital – about forty miles from my house. Although our car was loaded down with leftover food, I insisted that we stop at the hospital on our way back home.
It was obvious that Dad was losing his battle. He looked small and weak in the bed, and the light had left his eyes. He was awake, so I chatted with him for a while before telling him we had to go. He shook his head and furrowed his brow, begging me not to leave, so I stayed longer. They had moved the breathing tube to his throat, so his mouth was free, but he still couldn’t talk. He did, however, try to tell me something, but he was unable to do so. He held up his right hand as if he were writing, signifying that he wanted to try scribbling a message. His attending nurse saw this and immediately ran to get a pencil and paper.
Dad tried repeatedly to use the pencil, but his hands were too weak to hold it. It kept falling onto the sterile white sheets. The effort wore him out, and he soon fell asleep. Johnny and I left the hospital and went home.
I’ll never know what Daddy wanted to tell me that day, and it still haunts me. Did he want to explain his actions? Or did he want to tell me how much he loved me? Although he wasn’t able to directly convey these thoughts, in my heart, I think I know the answers to both questions.
I had never doubted my father’s love. He was hard working and completely devoted to my mother and to his children. He spent a lot of quality time with us when we were kids, and he taught us many valuable lessons. His love and support for us were always unconditional. He doted on my three daughters, his only grandchildren. In return, the girls absolutely adored him.
As for why he attempted to take his own life, I understand that, too. Daddy was a devout Christian, but he had always believed that suicide was justified if one had no hope of getting better and he was ruining his family either financially or emotionally. My father had suffered several recent bouts of congestive heart failure, along with small strokes and heart attacks. He also had severe spinal arthritis, and as already mentioned, Parkinson’s. He knew that he was never going to get well.
Another reason my dad pulled the trigger was because of my mom. I’ve never known a man who loved his wife as much as Daddy loved Mama, and taking care of him was killing her. She was 81 at the time and had fairly recently had open-heart surgery and a full hip replacement. The rest of the family helped out when we could, but we all had full time jobs, so most of Dad’s care fell upon my mother. He knew that caring for him was taking a devastating toll on my mom.
Dad had always been strong and independent, a real “man’s man.” The weeks before his suicide attempt, however, he had been almost completely dependent on others. I knew this totally went against his nature and that it was destroying him emotionally. He couldn’t stand the idea of being helpless, but he tried to stay upbeat as much as he could.
A couple of days after Thanksgiving, Laverne called to say they wanted to take Dad off life support, and she wanted to know how I felt about it. He had completely lost consciousness. I didn’t really have to think. I knew if Daddy could have mustered up the strength to tear away all the life-giving tubes and wires, he would have done so himself. The entire family was in agreement. We waited for my father to die.
It wasn’t like I had seen in movies and on TV, where they shut everything off and the patient expires almost immediately. Dad hung on for another few days. And strangely enough, I knew the exact moment of his passing. Johnny and I were staying at Mom’s house so that she wouldn’t be alone when it happened. We were still taking shifts at the hospital, and I always had the afternoon shift, right after I got off work. That fateful night, however, I had the overwhelming urge to go to see Daddy at around ten p.m. I threw on some clothes and headed out the door, and Johnny asked me where I was going. He asked me to wait for him to change clothes – he wanted to go with me. As he was lacing his shoes, there was a knock on the back door, and it was John and Laverne. They had come to tell us that Dad was gone.
Is Suicide a Sin?
Is suicide a sin? As a Christian, I struggled with Dad’s suicide, as did my Mom and the rest of the family. I'd always heard that suicide is a sin, but after my experience with my father, I'm not so sure. If it is a sin, I think it's one that can be forgiven. In fact, I somewhat see Dad's attempted suicide as a selfless act. I fully believe that God understood. He forgave my father’s actions. He knew that Daddy’s old body was tired of dealing with constant pain, and that his mind and heart were exhausted from seeing Mom so depleted from caring for him. I feel totally confidant that God welcomed my father with open arms and that I’ll see him again. Even so, it still saddens me that we didn't see the suicidal signs, if there were any. None of us had any idea that he was having suicidal thoughts.