For World Mental Health Day

When someone takes their own life, the impact on those left behind is devastating.

When it’s a terminally ill 92 year-old care home resident who takes her life a few weeks after her husband died, one can to an extent understand why she might have chosen to do so. But all the same it is devastating for family and the care home staff alike. When a 32 year-old man whose life is turning around after years of depression does so, it shatters parents, siblings, friends and healthcare professionals who supported him alike. Everyone is left drowning in a pool of despair asking ‘Why did they do it?’ ‘What else could we have done?’ ‘What did we do wrong?’ 

Coming as it did just hours before Christ himself was crucified, for the remaining eleven disciples and the others who followed Jesus, the death of Judas Iscariot by suicide would have been devastating. Yes, he had his fingers in the purse. Yes, he walked in to the garden at Gethsemane and handed over the Messiah. Yes, he had betrayed not just Jesus but that whole group who had gone through so much together in the previous three years. After all, he’d witnessed healings and miracles. He’d listened to the teaching. He’d walked and prayed. He was given the same authority to minister to others as the rest of the disciples. He’d had his feet washed. He received that first communion. Judas had become a friend. A close friend.

And then he did that.

Although there is often a link between suicide and mental ill health, three-quarters of those who end their own lives are not in contact with mental health services. As someone put it, ‘A suicide attempt may appear to come out of the blue, and family and friends may feel mystified about why someone has taken their own life. But suicidal feelings often develop gradually, without others being aware of them. People often find it hard to talk about these forbidden feelings, and therefore disguise them, particularly from the people they care about.’

For those bereaved by suicide, the loss is great. A loss as great as any other death, arguably more so in some circumstances. Those left behind may feel betrayed. They may feel angry with the person who has taken their own life. All the love they gave them. All the time and effort they spent. All the worry and suffering they went through… and then they did that.

Such feelings are natural and normal.

Many deaths leave unanswered questions. When the loss is through suicide, especially if is there is no note or explanation, the unanswered questions may always remain just that, unanswered. That is a heavy cross to bear.

Judas’ fellow disciples had each other. A community of support. While Christ’s subsequent resurrection would have eased their pain – and no doubt he both comforted and counselled them in their loss – Judas’ death would have remained a permanent mark on their souls. They would have been angry with him. They would have cried. They would have felt the agonising confusion of grief-shaped disbelief.

So too for us. The pain will last and the healing may take a long time. The good memories remain but the loss is deeply felt. Death by suicide does not have the same stigma as it used to but can still leave those left behind feeling uncomfortable when seeking help. It is important for those who have been bereaved to avoid a drift towards isolation and to retain the community of support that already exists and is available – even though that may be difficult in itself. 

‘God has no timetable for our recovery from tragedy,’ said Bishop David Walker. ‘There is no date after which he expects us to have pulled ourselves together. He knows that the hurt we experience can last a lifetime. He is always ready to see our tears, to hear our cries, and to whisper his words of comfort.’

Help for those who have been bereaved by suicide is available at uksobs.org

Help for those experiencing suicidal thoughts is available through The Samaritans samaritans.org or by contacting emergency medical services.

This blog post is an edited version of ‘Judas – Betrayal & Loss’, one of the stories contained in A Story to Tell

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