On Suicide

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I just found out that one of my friends from high school days killed himself. I’ll call him Jacob (not his real name). What started out as a beautiful day quickly turned around. I knew that Jacob had been struggling with some issues (that’s an understatement) but the news came as a shock. While we were not close friends, we kept in touch through Facebook. Now he’s gone. And you know what? It’s not fair. Suicide is terrible, it is tragic. It does terrible things to those left behind. I can imagine the hurt and pain and despair that leads someone to do it but that doesn’t make it right. In some ways suicide is the ultimate form of free will; it is literally taking your life into your own hands and saying, “Thus far and no more.” However, while it is exercising free will, it does so in tragic circumstances. Jacob has gone to the other side. I don’t know what lies in store for him there. That’s between God and Jacob.

I’ve written a lot about death on this site. Some of the deaths I’ve written about have been tragic, others not at all. Jacob is now the third friend of mine who has taken his life. All of those deaths were completely unnecessary. Death comes to all but we need not and should not hasten it along.

While my primary interests are with the brain and with neuroimaging, I also do clinical work, including therapy. I’ve talked with people who have made attempts at taking their own lives. I have an acquaintance who has struggled for years with thoughts of taking his life. He’s told me that while he never made any attempts, there were days and weeks and months and years where he thought about it over and over. Why did he never take his life? He said that he was able to grab onto the bright days and persevere. He knew it was wrong and that it would hurt a lot of people so he did not do it. Plus, he had faith in God that things would get better in the future. Thankfully they have for him.

So what do we know about suicide from prophets? There are two really good articles that address the topic. One was given by Pres. Ezra Taft Benson, the other by Elder M. Russell Ballard, both in the 1980s. Pres. Benson said, “As the showdown between good and evil approaches with its accompanying trials and tribulations, Satan is increasingly striving to overcome the Saints with despair, discouragement, despondency, and depression” (Source). Pres. Benson then goes on and provides 12 things we can do to lift our spirits when we feel down even despondent. His suggestions are: repentance, prayer, service, work, health (focus on increasing physical health), reading (scriptures), blessing (priesthood), friends (family), music, endurance, and goals. While his suggestions are wonderful, they should not replace management by a competent mental health professional should that be necessary. However, by themselves, Pres. Benson’s suggestions would do a lot for depression. Many of them are not very different than what I tell my depressed clients but again, psychological and psychiatric care is vital in many cases. I also should add that not all depression is caused by sin but sin can cause depression, which is why repentance may be necessary in some cases. However, there is great power in the Atonement of Jesus Christ, power enough to overcome the deepest, darkest depression.

Elder Ballard’s article, Suicide: Some Things We Know, and Some We Do Not, is particularly powerful.

He states, “The act of taking one’s life is truly a tragedy because this single act leaves so many victims: first the one who dies, then the dozens of others—family and friends—who are left behind, some to face years of deep pain and confusion. The living victims struggle, often desperately, with difficult emotions. In addition to the feelings of grief, anger, guilt, and rejection which the victims of such a family feel, Latter-day Saints carry an additional burden. The purpose of our mortal lives, we know, is to prove ourselves, to eventually return to live in the celestial kingdom. One who commits suicide closes the door on all that, some have thought, consigning himself to the telestial kingdom.

Or does he? What is the truth regarding suicide?”

After noting that suicide is wrong, Elder Ballard provides this quote by Elder McConkie,

“The late Elder Bruce R. McConkie, formerly of the Quorum of the Twelve, expressed what many Church leaders have taught: ‘Suicide consists in the voluntary and intentional taking of one’s own life, particularly where the person involved is accountable and has a sound mind. … Persons subject to great stresses may lose control of themselves and become mentally clouded to the point that they are no longer accountable for their acts. Such are not to be condemned for taking their own lives. It should also be remembered that judgment is the Lord’s; he knows the thoughts, intents, and abilities of men; and he in his infinite wisdom will make all things right in due course.’ (Mormon Doctrine, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966, p. 771; some italics added.)”

Clearly, there are many things that need to be taken into account regarding the circumstances surrounding a suicide. My friend Jacob was passing through some severe trials – many severe trials. I cannot even fathom going through all he was going through. Elder Ballard talks about this as well:

“I feel that the Lord also recognizes differences in intent and circumstances: Was the person who took his life mentally ill? Was he or she so deeply depressed as to be unbalanced or otherwise emotionally disturbed? Was the suicide a tragic, pitiful call for help that went unheeded too long or progressed faster than the victim intended? Did he or she somehow not understand the seriousness of the act? Was he or she suffering from a chemical imbalance that led to despair and a loss of self-control?

Obviously, we do not know the full circumstances surrounding every suicide. Only the Lord knows all the details, and he it is who will judge our actions here on earth….

Suicide is a sin—a very grievous one, yet the Lord will not judge the person who commits that sin strictly by the act itself. The Lord will look at that person’s circumstances and the degree of his accountability at the time of the act. Of course, this gives us no reason to excuse ourselves in committing sins, nor will the Lord excuse us, if I understand correctly. We must constantly strive to do our best in emulating the Savior in every aspect of our lives. At the same time, however, let us remember that spiritual growth comes ‘line upon line,’ that the key—in the spirit world as well as in mortality—is to keep progressing along the right path.”

In short, we do not know all of people’s circumstances. Yes, many of us were hurt by Jacob’s actions; yes, what he did was wrong but we cannot pass final judgment on him, only God can do that. All that is left for us to do is mourn with those who mourn and provide what comfort we can. We can learn from this experience and try to help others who are struggling.

For those of you who might be struggling with your own despairing thoughts, I say to you, “Hold on!” The darkness is real, the despair is deep and painful, but there is reason to hope. “Hang on, hang on, when all is shattered, when all your hope is gone. Who knows how long? There is a twilight, a nighttime, and a dawn. We break, we bend. With hand in hand when hope is gone just hang on, hang on.” (Guster). After the darkness of night there will be day. If you are struggling with thoughts of ending your own life, please reach out to others.

Also, watch the following two videos to see what prophets have said about hope. Again, competent mental health providers can be extremely beneficial but true and lasting happiness is not found apart from Christ and His Atonement. We can find great hope in Christ. It might not be easy but hope can spring up even during the darkest night.

On the Death of Allison

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Not quite one week ago my sweet niece, age 11, was riding her bike with her father and a sister when she was struck by an automobile. She died instantly.

On my family blog I wrote the following:

“Yesterday as the lights were going out here on the East Coast, in the West, a different light dimmed and then disappeared. In a moment worlds changed and hearts broke. Bicycle and automobile danced a tragic ballet, extinguishing the light of one so small. As this light faded from earth, leaving a hole in the hearts and darkness in the lives of loved ones, a brighter light grew and radiated with an unfiltered luminosity in an eternal world. The sorrows and tears of earthly separations were balanced by the tears of joy from reunions with other pure lights.

“Goodbye sweet Allison, your death has brought a dearth of joy to all who mourn your passing but your life brought love and joy to those around you. You came to earth for just a short while; not long enough for us who are left but long enough to fulfill our Father’s plan. We are brightened by our memories of your light and long for the day when we shall meet again, face to face and embrace in embrace in eternal realms. We are strengthened by our faith in the Savior Jesus Christ who gave His life that all would live again. Jesus “appoint[s] unto them that mourn in Zion, [and] give[s] unto [us] beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, [and] the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness” (Isaiah 61:3). We are fortified by the knowledge and power of the sealing of families together forever through the power of the Holy Priesthood of God. We miss and love you Allison!”

Since then, all our – family and friends – feelings have been tender; our hearts are broken. My sister, brother in law, and their family are trying to put the pieces of their shattered lives back together. In the midst of crashing waves of sorrow, we cry:

It darkens. I have lost the ford.
There is a change on all things made.
The rocks have evil faces, Lord,
And I am [sore] afraid. (Source).

The loss of a child under such tragic circumstances is devastating. It is a hellish darkness of separation – poignant and painful; a pain one might expect would never end. But with the inexorable march of time comes a deadening of the pain. The storm passes, the numbness fades, but still gray skies remain. There is room for laughter and joy but at times the grief can be overwhelming. So would go life, the only solace in the numbness of time, without knowledge of God’s plan for His children. However, there is more solace available; it comes through faith in Christ’s Atonement and the knowledge and power of eternal families. These are like radiant rays of the sun bursting through the dark clouds and burning away the dreary mists of life.

Jesus is like a song in the night. He is a pillar of fire. He restores breaches in our hearts and families. He stabilizes the rudderless and calms the stormy seas. The Lord blesses us with His tender mercies – friends, family, and other loved ones who provide meals and support. There are the mercies of the promptings and love provided by the Comforter – the Holy Ghost. Most importantly, we are blessed to know that because of the sealing power of the Priesthood, Allison will be forever part of her (and our) family should we remain faithful to God. That knowledge is almost unbelievably comforting. I phrased it that way because at this time when we think we might be completely devastated, we feel some measure of peace even though peace seems so out of place.

President Joseph F. Smith, “at the death of his 19-year-old daughter Alice, his ‘Darling Alibo,’ on 29 April 1901, conveyed his faith in the Atonement in a letter to his son: ‘Our hearts are still bowed down in the earth where the remains of our Sweet girl and those of her little Brothers and Sisters repose in dust. … But we will do the best we can, by the help of the Lord, and from our hearts we feel that our Sleeping treasures are all in His holy keeping and will soon awake from the dust to immortality and eternal life. But for the precious assurance and glorious hope in the Gospel of Christ, life would not only not be worth the living, but it would be an infamous and damning farce! But, ‘O, what joy this sentence gives, I know that my Redeemer lives!’ Thank God.'” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, Jesus Christ Redeems All Mankind from Temporal Death).

Those are strong words from someone in the acute phase of separation. The joy that comes from the knowledge of what happens after death is immensely comforting. Even though we feel painfully separated, those who depart do not travel far. President Ezra Taft Benson taught: “‘Sometimes the veil between this life and the life beyond becomes very thin. Our loved ones who have passed on are not far from us’ (in Conference Report, Apr. 1971, 18; or Ensign, June 1971, 33). President Brigham Young taught that the postmortal spirit world is on the earth, around us (see Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young [1997], 279).” (Source). Even though we cannot see our departed loved ones, they are close by us in a world of spirits.

In the spirit world, those like Allison are in a place of peace and rest: “The spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow.” (Alma 40:12). Allison is free from all troubles, care, and sorrow. That does not mean that she has no cares for us, she just has no burdensome cares; things that so many of us are plagued with in our lives. She is surrounded by her family who have gone on before. They are with her until her parents and the rest of her family join her in that radiant world.

We have received promises of peace and comfort forevermore. Some day, we will all live in a promised paradise like the millennial earth of which the Lord said:

“For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind. But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create: for, behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people: and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying. There shall be no more thence an infant of days, nor an old man that hath not filled his days: for the child shall die an hundred years old.” (Isaiah 65:17-20).

There are a lot of hopeful promises made unto those who mourn. For now we mourn, but this life is just a blip in eternity. Some day the voice of weeping will be heard no more among the people of the Lord. Those who mourn for lost loved ones will be reunited. There won’t be the premature loss of children to death. Christ shall wipe away their tears and anoint them with the oil of joy.

We shall see Allison, one of our missing joys, again. Through the sealing power of the Priesthood families can be together forever. Allison is sealed to her parents and family by this same power. I know that we will all be resurrected some day because of Christ’s death and resurrection. As we remain faithful to these covenants we made in the Holy Temple of God we can return to live with Allison and our Father in Heaven.

You can read her obituary here.

For those wishing to honor Allison Bowers, her family has suggested that in memoriam donations can be made to the Neonatal Resuscitation Program of Latter-day Saint Charities or to the school library at Hale Elementary School in Mesa, Arizona. Allison loved both children and reading, and either program would be a fitting memorial. The family sincerely thanks you for your love and support during this difficult time.

To donate to the Neonatal Resuscitation Program, follow the instructions under In Memoriam giving at the LDS Charities website or go directly to give.lds.org/neo-natal.

To donate books for the school library at Hale Elementary School you can bring in a new book to the library and specify that it is in memory of Allison, or you can send a check that will be used to buy books for the school library. Checks should be made out to Hale Elementary School, contain the name “Allison Bowers” in the memo line, and can be brought to the school’s main office or mailed to Hale Elementary School at 1425 North 23rd Street, Mesa, AZ 85213. The books donated or bought will be marked that they are in memoriam of Allison Bowers.

Here is a brief video about death from Mormon Messages. In it, Pres. Monson expresses his testimony of the Plan of Salvation and of life after death.