9 Ways Suicide Affects Others
Memoir is, by nature, truth-telling. In his new moving memoir Even in Our Darkness, Jack Deer tells the truth about one of the most painful themes repeated throughout his life: suicide.
On January 21, 1961, Dad woke to an empty house, poured whiskey in his coffee, swallowed some barbiturates, and scribbled an angry note.
Sometime before noon, he walked over to the record player in front of the two windows in our living room. He put on Floyd Cramer’s “Last Date,” setting the turntable to repeat. Then he sat down on the red sofa with gold embroidery and picked up his childhood rifle. He shoved one .22-caliber shell into the chamber, pressed the muzzle between his eyes, and left a thirty-four-year-old widow with a tenth-grade education to care for his four children. (33)
Sadly, the nightmare experienced by that twelve-year-old boy would repeat itself forty years later: Jack’s middle child, Scott, shot himself with his .44 magnum revolver in an apparent game of Russian roulette after years of struggle.
Through his unvarnished story of the Christian life, Jack explores the pain of loss, tragedy, and brokenness. Along the way, he offers several insights into how suicide affects other people, while offering the hope of Christ’s light in the midst of darkness.
1) People Feel Like God Has Given Up on Them
Jack Deere was a Bible teacher and pastor who for years had preached on the mystery of suffering. But when it came knocking on his own front door, it nearly crushed him. Mostly because it felt like God had given up on him:
I wasn’t ready to give up on God, but it felt like he had given up on me. I could not reconcile my theology with the nightmare we were now living. Weren’t prodigal sons supposed to come home?
I thought I had insured Scott’s life with the promises of God and my prayers. “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart,” King David had written. Had I not delighted enough, or was I deceived about what my heart desired?
“Ask and it will be given to you,” Jesus told his followers. I had asked every day for years. I hadn’t just asked; I had believed as well. And according to Jesus, belief in the promises is supposed to make them work for you. Had I not believed enough? Or were the promises empty? (13–14)
Such questions are all too familiar to those whose loved ones have committed suicide.
2) People Feel Thrown Away
The ones who remain after people commit suicide are frequently referred to as the “left behind.” Jack Deere might offer another term: the Thrown Away. That’s how he felt after his dad killed himself.
When as a teenager he began to be mentored by a Young Life staff member, he recalled, “For the first time since Dad threw me away, I had a real-life hero” (70). After his son committed suicide, Jack experienced an intensive group therapy session. In it, he had this to say to his dead father:
“Dad,” I screamed all over again. “Dad, how could you throw us away like that? Hadn’t you ever heard of divorce? Leave Mom, not us. You could have been the greatest father in the world. You could have held my kids in your lap. You killed my hero.” (255)
While he would calm down and later tell his dad how much he grew up missing him and loving him, one thing was clear: Jack felt thrown away by the only hero he wanted to be.
3) People Are Left with Unanswered Questions
“Why?” is perhaps the number one question on the minds of those left behind. Jack asked that one as well, and several more when his father killed himself:
Dad had surrendered to Mom’s rage while lashing out at it, killing himself to maim her. But he had also crippled me.
In his war against her, had he considered the collateral damage? Was he also angry with me? If I had been a better son, would it have kept him alive?
These questions had no answers. But I would ask them over and over, only to hear silence in return. (36)
Those left behind often never find answers which make sense of the person’s decision to take their own life.
4) Dark Thoughts Enter People’s Minds
Jack recounts a few months after his dad’s suicide, “I dreamed that I saw Dad burning in the molten caverns of hell” (36). He goes on:
I told no one about the dreams. There was no one to tell. I could not burden Mom. She had her own nightmares to fight.
I pushed away any thoughts of God and heaven, for there is no forgiveness in Saint Peter’s scales.
In all that silence, a voice appeared in my head.
It told me I would kill myself before I turned forty just as Dad had done.
I also kept that a secret. (37)
Similar dark thoughts entered Jack’s mind in the moments after his son Scott’s suicide:
For a moment, I was alone with this awful knowledge [of Scott’s suicide]. Soon I wouldn’t be. And what then? How would his mother survive? How would I go on? I was at the border of a new world that was darker and more unforgiving than any other I had known.
I looked at the gun.
Use it, I heard a voice say. It’s the only way. Instead I stood up. (223)
Jack would continue to carry such subconscious thoughts. When his wife nearly left him:
The next morning, I woke up in the dark again. I grabbed a cup of coffee and fled to my study. I didn’t know if I could wait. I considered pressing my … pistol to my temple.
Then I saw my son Stephen’s face.
Do I want to leave him like my father left me? Does ending my pain justify starting his? Do I want to cheat his kids out of a grandfather?
I banished the thought of ending my life and prayed and journaled for the rest of the morning. (262)
5) People Don’t Know How to React
What do you do when someone you know and love kills themselves?
When Jack’s father committed suicide, Jack Writes, “I buried my face in the pillow and pretended to cry. I never told anyone about those fake tears” (34). His wife, Leesa, reacted with a similar degree of numbness a few days after they buried their son:
a thunderstorm hit in the middle of the night, and Leesa woke up, terrified that Scott was shivering in his coffin.
“Honey, he’s not in the coffin. He’s in heaven. He’s praying for us right now.”
“I know. I just don’t want him to be cold. The ground is so cold and wet.”
“But he’s not in the ground.”
“I know. It’s just so cold. I can’t help it.” (226–227)
Jack didn’t know how to react to his son’s suicide either. The day after Scott’s death, Jack says, “I didn’t eat anything the whole day. That night, I took a bite of a sandwich and then threw it away. Eating was a betrayal of love. How could I enjoy food on the day my son had killed himself?” These feelings would last for months.
6) Confusing Religious Messages Are Offered
Some of the most unfortunate fallout from suicide is the confusing messages religious people offer. This can have a devastating affect on a person. Jack recounts after his son’s suicide receiving note:
In one of my books, I wrote about my conviction that I would be reunited with Dad in heaven. I don’t think the man [I was speaking with] knew about Scott’s death. He just wanted to correct me.
“Suicides don’t go to heaven,” he wrote. “They can’t confess their last sin.”
When the devil wants to send a message, he can always find a religious person to deliver it with perfect timing. (228)
Thankfully, in Jack’s case, the message didn’t work:
I had become a Christian thirty-five years earlier, and at my moment of belief, the idea of Saint Peter’s scales was forever banished—at least as far as salvation was concerned. Perhaps the only thing of which I was still certain was that no one gains eternal life through good works. It is through faith in Jesus alone. And once he is in our heart, he never leaves.
We can’t possibly be aware of all our sins, let alone confess them all. (228)
Yet for plenty of other people, the kind of false messages even Christians sometimes offer can have a profound affect on people.
7) People Are Robbed of Purpose
“I hated the amnesia of sleep,” writes Jack. “I woke up free for a few seconds each morning and then learned I was in an endless nightmare. Although I believed in a God who heals, I couldn’t believe that my soul would ever be healed” (228–229).
In his amnesiac haze, Jack experienced what many people left behind by a suicide experience: a loss of purpose.
Once my life had a lofty purpose—to speak to churches and write books about God’s goodness so that people would want a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.
But Scott’s death robbed me of the story I had told myself to make sense of my life. I had nowhere to go and nothing to do.
I still got out of bed at dawn. But I didn’t know why. (229)
If you someone you know committed suicide, and you yourself don’t know how or why to get out of bed at dawn, know that you’re not alone—and don’t give up.
8) Destructive Life Patterns Are Fueled
“Scott didn’t just kill himself,” Jack’s oldest son, Stephen, thought. “He probably just killed his father and mother” (224). He was right; it nearly destroyed their lives, fueling destructive patterns that especially affected his mother.
After Scott died, his wife Leesa “cried herself to sleep nearly every night. Every afternoon, she opened her first bottle of wine before she cooked the evening meal” (233). Although Jack had “noticed the first clear signs of a destructive pattern in Leesa’s drinking” six months before Scott committed suicide, the event sent her into a tailspin of destruction that nearly mirrored her own son’s actions:
When I came out of the bathroom, Leesa said, “I’ll see you in heaven.”
“What have you done?”
“Nothing. I’ll see you in heaven.”
“Have you taken something?”
When she didn’t answer, I rushed back into the bathroom and found an empty bottle of sleeping pills. I called the manager, who called for an ambulance.
At the hospital, Leesa was groggy and incoherent. The doctors drew blood, decided not to pump her stomach, and then put in IVs. When she came to, she wept and said over and over, “My son shot himself, and my husband hates me.” (240)
This pattern of destruction would repeat itself in continued alcoholism, leading to drug abuse and nearly to death.
9) Strong Emotions Circulate for Decades
In many ways, Jack’s life is bookended by suicide. Between his father’s suicide when Jack was a child, and his son’s suicide when Jack was a parent, emotions circulated for decades, going unnoticed and unattended to. For Jack, a large effect of these suicides was anger.
An intensive week of therapy after his son’s suicide included an exercise to release the years of anger that had imprisoned Jack’s heart. He writes of the experience:
It seemed like twenty minutes had passed. But the clock on the wall told me two hours had flown by.
“It’s a miracle you’re still alive,” said one woman.
“I thought you were having a heart attack,” said another. “I’ve never seen that much rage in anyone.” (256)
Afterwards, Jack went outside and sat on a bench behind a building, where he had this realization: “What I had been told earlier in the week must be true. Anger circulates in our bodies as negative energy until we discharge it. We can carry it for years, punishing people we love, never understanding why” (190).
Fortunately for Jack and his family, he discovered the roots of his anger, and then released it.
The effect of suicide is suffering.
Jack’s story reminds us that God understands our suffering because he himself suffered. And God enters into our suffering along with us—sitting with us, holding us.
Read Jack’s book for an honest, compassionate reminder “that light was always pushing through the darkness” (14). Even—especially—through the darkness of suicide.