God, I Want to Ask You
Seven Questions When Facing Death
The Third Question
"Why Not Suicide?"
Note to God:
Tell me, why should I go on? Why shouldn't I take my life and end this suffering? Why should I endure pain and heartache day after day? Why should I drag my family through suffering with me? Besides, Heaven sounds so inviting. Wouldn't suicide be better for everyone?
"Is suicide the better way?" I have asked this myself, as have many seriously ill people. To answer the question, we first need to understand the reasons why people resort to suicide.
The First Reason: Escape From Pain
No one should minimize the dreadfulness of pain. It is capable of entirely taking over a person's life.
"Because pain is so vital, the brain gives it priority over information coming in from other senses. New brain imaging techniques... which give researchers a window on the brain's activity during pain, are showing that brain centers involved in everything from emotions, to movement, to attention ‘light up' in response to incoming pain signals. Such findings repudiate the notion that people in severe pain should ‘learn to live with it'" says [Dr. Steven] Hyman [of the National Institute of Mental Health]. "They can't... This is hard-wired to the human brain."1
Proponents of suicide argue that there is no virtue in enduring life-controlling pain, so why not stop it?
The Second Reason: Vengeance
The Roman poet Horace called anger "a short madness." Perhaps temporary insanity explains why some persons, angry enough to kill but reluctant to murder, take their own lives. In a strange way, they hope that by inflicting the supreme punishment on themselves, they can thereby punish others.
The Third Reason: Depression
The link between depression and suicide is strong. Most depressed people do not commit suicide, but two - thirds of those who do are suffering from depressive illness.2 Repeated studies have shown [clinical depression] is almost always the dominant decisional force in suicides."3
Escape from pain, vengeance, and depression are the reasons, say the experts, that people commit suicide. Are there any reasons why people should not commit suicide?
Reasons to Not Commit Suicide
Pain and depression can be helped.
Pain is most often suffered needlessly. Means to control pain now exist in the majority of cases, and more treatments are on the way. "For the more neurologists learn about pain - what it is and how it is experienced - the more they are convinced that the key to pain relief is already at hand."4 Rather than ending his life, a patient in pain should seek better pain management, perhaps from a pain specialist. The same can be said for depression. Advances in medical science enable physicians to alleviate depression in the overwhelming majority of cases.
Suicide begets suicide.
In 1905, a Chicago businessman, dying and in great pain, attempted to shoot himself. His son-in-law, a doctor, prevented this from happening, took the gun, and emptied the bullets.
Years passed. Now the doctor found himself suffering from diabetes and financial losses sustained when speculation in real estate turned sour. So, he took a .32 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver and shot himself through the head.
The doctor had six children. Three of the six eventually committed suicide, including a son, Ernest, who, like his father, shot himself. Skipping a generation, a granddaughter of Ernest died from an overdose of prescription medicine in 1996. Her name was Margaux.
By now you may have guessed that the story concerns the family of novelist Ernest Hemingway. Their tragedy illustrates that in some families children apparently learn that suicide is an acceptable way to deal with problems. Any person contemplating suicide should ask if he is willing to be responsible for possible "copycat" suicides by members of his family.
Suicide changes our society.
We sometimes forget that the social climate of a nation is built by the behaviors of many individuals. When only a few people choose a behavior, it can be regarded as an exception. When many choose a behavior, it becomes the norm. If suicide becomes accepted in society, there will be increasing and unwelcome pressure upon older, weaker, and less able persons to take their lives. The "right to die" will become "the obligation to die." A chilling example appeared in a letter published in the Santa Rosa [CA] Press Democrat on September 14, 1993. It was from an 84-year-old woman who had lived with her daughter for two decades.
Everything went fine for many years, but when I started to lose my hearing about three years ago it irritated my daughter... .She began to question me about my financial matters and apparently feels I won ‘t leave much of an estate for her.... She became very rude to me.... Then suddenly, one evening, my daughter said very cautiously she thought it was okay for older people to commit suicide if they cannot take care of themselves. [in which the message was reinforced were detailed] So here I sit, day after day, knowing what I am expected to do when I need a little help.5
Each suicide tends to make the next seem less offensive. Once suicide is socially acceptable, many who otherwise would not dream of it might feel compelled to follow that path.
Suicide does not end pain.
Gayle Holden Cook was the all-American girl living the American dream. Miss Colorado in 1973, she married her sweetheart, Tom, a former varsity athlete at the University of Missouri and then a rising young executive with a major corporation. Four boys joined their family in the years following. With her parents and brothers nearby and friends at church, Gayle had a satisfying social life. Things could hardly get better - but they suddenly and unexpectedly got worse. One snowy evening in February 1981, Gayle's father took his life. She later wrote to me, saying, "It was raw, gut wrenching, bone deep grief, to be sure - ‘pain, pain, pain over losing my Dad' - as one brother put it, but it was also much more. We weren't free just to sorrow over losing him." Profound feelings of anger, guilt, and shame infected their grief. Why would he do such a foolish thing? Had they failed to give him the love and support he deserved? How do you tell people that your father has just committed suicide? While the pain eventually subsided, it never altogether ceased.
Gayle's story is not uncommon. Legions of surviving family members carry a cruel ache in their hearts because someone they loved shifted his pain to them while attempting to end his own. Ironically, a person who commits suicide often believes that his death is "better for all," not foreseeing the torture he will cause the very ones he is attempting to spare.
Suicide is not directly discussed in the Bible. The few suicides mentioned in Scripture are uniformly cast in an unfavorable light.
If ever a man had justification for suicide, it was the Biblical character Job. He lost his property and children. His health was broken. Even his wife told him to go ahead and die! There was no end in sight to his suffering. He longed for death.
Oh that I might have my request; and that God would grant me the thing that I long for! Even that it would please God to destroy me; that he would let loose his hand, and cut me off!.... my soul chooseth strangling, and death rather than my life. I loathe it; I would not live always... (6:8-9, 7:15-16)
Although he longed for death, Job did not resort to suicide because he knew it was wrong. The power of life and death rightfully belongs to God alone.
The Conclusion of the Matter
Kenny Rogers once sang about a lonely traveler who met a gambler on a train. The gambler advised that a person has to know when to hold his cards, when to fold his cards, and when to walk away from the game. As one sufferer speaking to another, I would implore the person contemplating suicide to walk away from that game. The stakes are too high.