“People who commit suicide are selfish.” I could feel the anger building in my chest. At times like these I’ve learned it’s best to keep my mouth shut. I did, but honestly – I regretted it. The pastor with the opinion was convinced that people who attempt suicide are so self-obsessed, that they refuse to consider the feelings of those around them. I remember the day I tried to take my life. Depression and painful circumstances had so overwhelmed me that killing myself seemed the kindest gift I could offer to the people in my life. In my unhealthy mind, it was not an act of selfishness, but of love. Edwin Shneidman, pioneer in modern suicidology captures this depth of despair when he writes, “the common stimulus of suicide is psychological pain,” by which he means “intolerable emotion, unbearable pain, and unacceptable anguish.” He goes on to write that, “the common emotions in suicide are hopelessness and helplessness: A suicidal person feels despondent and utterly unsalvageable (Ten Commonalities of Suicide).” Unsalvageable is a far cry from selfish and is the underlying condition in the soul, when a person comes to embrace self-destruction as a reasonable option.
In her book, I Feel Bad About My Neck Nora Ephron writes, “When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.” As parents and caregivers, most of us have felt like this at one time or another. Thank God for dogs. We give our love, time, sleep, effort, and sometimes our peace-of-mind, in exchange for grunts, general non-compliance, and social interactions that make us feel like we’re back in elementary school trying to unravel the mysteries of social cues. As parents of teens, it’s not uncommon to feel helpless, but impotence reaches its limits when a teen speaks those five words no parent ever wants to hear: “I want to kill myself.” What now? It’s easy for our minds to turn to that same word: selfish. “After all I’ve done for you?” It’s a good time to give yourself a time-out, get some air and step into the mind of teen who has honestly come to believe that they’re unsalvageable. Here are a few thoughts for you to consider as you take this journey with someone you love.
Empty the Garbage
To put it bluntly, people who consider themselves unsalvageable have garbage in their brains that has to get dumped. If your teen has expressed a desire to commit suicide, you can create a landfill-site, where unhealthy thinking can be tossed. Inviting your teen to talk to you might work, but it might require a bit more creativity. A plate of crackers and cheese might help. Showing an interest in their expressions of art, poetry, or music might provide insight. Inviting them to talk about their internal world will only work, if they can be sure that you’ll be ‘chill’. My daughter has said to me plenty of times, “I’d tell you, but you’d freak out.” If you really want your teen to empty the garbage, you’ll need to find a way to say, “I’m with you. I’ll listen, no matter what you tell me.”
“Can you think of any reason you might want to stay alive?” I’ve asked a number of suicidal teens this question over the years. A few weeks ago, I sat with a nineteen-year-old girl who wanted to kill herself. When I asked her if she could think of any reason she might want to live, her answer was, “No.” I asked if anyone would miss her. She said, “No.” I asked if her parents cared about her. Her answer was, “No.” I knew that all her answers were wrong, but her perception of her unsalvageable life was the only reality she believed. In moments like this, it’s a good idea to short-circuit toxic thinking, by exploring life as you see it and not through the eyes of hopelessness.
In his book Suicide: A Christian Response Gary Weeden writes, “For hope to become an operative experience in another person’s life, that person needs to experience it in another.” It’s hard to feel hopeful when we’re afraid, but hope is not something we conjure up, it’s a
bi-product of faith, given to us and sustained in us, by Jesus. His hope empowers us to move toward the teen in pain, embracing the words of Psalm 34:18, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted.” When your teen tells you that suicide is the only way out – stay close. When they say they hate life – stay close. When the tears won’t stop, and life seems unsalvageable, stay close with a voice that speaks gently about faith, hope, and unconditional love.