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On Aging with Dr. Roger Branch Sr.: Troubled death, troubling grief
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Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

    Suicide is a problem that will not go away. Indeed, it is growing and is undercounted because some suicides are made to look like accidents and suicidal lifestyles kill others. News reports focus on the young — people in their teens and early 20s. However, the number of suicides among older men is also rising. At every age, suicide is a matter of suffering and sorrow.

    One cruel and baseless source of sorrow is rooted in the religious teaching that suicide is an "unforgivable sin." The reasoning goes like this. "Taking one's own life is a sin. Since death makes it impossible for the sinner to ask for forgiveness, it is an unforgiven sin." This logic is uninformed by grace, which is the essence of Christianity. It makes human behavior more significant than the nature and will of God.

    We may be unable to experience the life-changing power of God's love until we act to commit ourselves to Christ, but God does not turn off that love when we later act in ways contrary to His will. By his nature, He is not grasping for opportunities to foreclose on grace.

    The Rev. Jimmy Cason, pastor of Statesboro First United Methodist Church, has addressed this issue directly. He called it "terrible theology" and pointed out that most Christians die having committed sins for which they have not asked God's forgiveness. We die suddenly without opportunity to ask. We hate to admit  — even to ourselves — that we have committed sins. We lose them in the clutter of living. We are not certain that we are sorry about some things. We do not seek forgiveness. Nevertheless, God's grace is sufficient and will not be chained by this worldly logic. We are forgiven!

    The signal word for the problem of frequent suicide in today's world is why. Emile Durkheim in his 18th century treatise "Suicide" wrote about "anomie," a state of normlessness and lack of guiding structure in societies beset by great and rapid change. That certainly fit his native France following devastating civil war and the rise and fall of Napoleon.

    It also fits our time and place. The whole world has been caught up in revolutionary change since the middle of the 20th century. For good or ill, new things and ways of doing things come with mind-boggling speed. In the words of Tennessee Williams, "...nowadays the world is lit by lightning. Blow out your candles..." Old restraints are loosened; old supports are eroded. Communities have been dissolved. Families are small, nuclear and often broken.

    Pushed by many things, children turn to their peers, whom they often see more than their parents. Peer orientation means other children come to define norms and values. Guided by product advertising, kids' media and ignorance, they have created a world which is often at odds with parents and the past.

    This can be a mean world, full of cliques, rejection, competition, gossip, bullying, even violence. Those who feel that they are alone, failing and rejected often do not have — or think they do not have — support from parents or other adults. Some respond by becoming bullies themselves. Some hurt themselves. Some kill themselves. To adults, they seem to have so much to live for, but they see things through different eyes.

    Older males who take their own lives are different than the younger cohort. They face ill health, perhaps fatal illness. Death has stripped away their families and friends, leaving an emotionally barren social landscape. Their work which had been part of their identity and creative satisfaction is gone because of retirement or disability. The structures that once supported and guided them — family, friends and community — are gone.

    Oh, I hear the voices saying that there are other things to do and other sources of fun, but I insist that it all depends upon the person and the life situation. Some see no light because there is no light to see.

    Suicide leads to troubling grief. Unlike some illnesses and accidents, it seems so unnecessary, so avoidable. "Why did he/she have to do that?" "If I had known."

    Two complicating responses by survivors are anger and guilt. There is anger because the death is deemed avoidable, maybe even selfish. There is anger because pain makes people want to lash out at something, someone. There is anger because of the social stigma of suicide, which also makes it difficult for helping people to respond to those who need them.

    There is guilt because survivors, certain that suicide is avoidable, ask what they could have done to prevent it. "Why didn't I see....?" "Why wasn't I there?" "If I had just been a better...."

    It is difficult for counselors and friends to help survivors get past anger or guilt. Patient listening is always the first tactic. At some point, different views of reality that undermine the foundations for these emotions must be stated, but there should be no surprise that these mourners change their perspectives slowly at best. We are left with continued kindness and the tincture of time for healing.

    In truth, it is not always easy to see that people are considering suicide. Experts declare that there are behavioral signals of impending suicides and sometimes there are. If a person says that he/she wants to commit suicide, act immediately. Some are not serious, but many are. We cannot afford to guess wrong. My wife and I once drove all night in response to one such phone call. I invaded a girls' dormitory, with house mother in tow, in another case.

    Unfortunately, calls for help are not always clear and obvious, nor are we always listening intently for clues. Psychiatrists and clinical psychologists who have special preparation in this area hear and see things that others do not. Lacking such knowledge and skills, others bear no guilt for failing to detect clues that might or might not have saved the lives of suicidal people.

    It would be far better to change the conditions that produce suicides than to try to detect potential cases and intervene. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.



    Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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