Through Mormon Eyes: Coping With Suicide
It’s now been more than seven years since I lost my brother to suicide. Some memories have become much easier with the passing of time, partly because I have trained my mind to simply not think about certain things that can’t be changed, and therefore they have no purpose. Some memories will always be completely fresh when they come into my mind even against my strongest efforts to hold them back. But whatever my mind might hold onto, the peace I have come to feel over losing my brother so tragically has deepened with my ever-growing and certain knowledge that all is well with him, and therefore I can think of him and feel nothing but peace.
I find it strange to note how I have very clear memories of things that happened for hours preceding my being made aware of his death—as if the trauma of getting the news created a reverse effect in holding onto the time that led up to it. It had been a day busy with mostly trivial things, and in the evening I sat down with my laptop to work on my current novel. My young daughter came in at one minute after seven to tell me that someone was at the door for me. I know the time because I saved the file at that very moment. Of course I was surprised to come down the stairs to face two police officers. I quickly tallied the whereabouts of my children and knew they were alright, so I couldn’t imagine what they might want. When they mentioned my brother’s name, I first wondered if he’d gotten into some trouble. When they told me his body had been found, that he’d apparently taken his own life, I wasn’t surprised at all. But shock made me weak and unable to fully take in what this meant.
Nathan had always lived a difficult life; right from his infancy there had been evidence that something wasn’t right. But he didn’t grow up in a day when average parents were aware of things like ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and other such possibilities for acute challenges. By adulthood certain behaviors and attitudes were deeply imprinted on him, and in spite of certain bursts of success and happiness, he always spiraled back into self-sabotaging behaviors and failures. There had been times when Nathan and I had been very close. He had helped me with some projects in my career that had proven how incredibly intelligent he was. And he was a very spiritual man, even though he had a problem with being a part of organized religion. But Nathan hadn’t spoken to me for nearly a year at the time of his death, and I was struck with the utter tragedy of his life, as well as the horrible way he’d died.
I made the mistake of thinking that because I had studied and written about suicide, and even more so about death and grieving, that I might be able to get through the process of dealing with it more easily than someone else. I learned very quickly that no one is exempt from grief. No amount of knowledge spares a human being from feeling the reality of such a personal trauma. If we don’t allow ourselves to feel it, then it festers and impedes our lives and creates new problems. And feel it I did! I had never imagined such pain! I’d lost my mother to cancer, and also a friend. I’d faced many personal challenges with difficult relationships, financial nightmares, career setbacks, and many other pitfalls of the human experience. But nothing had prepared me for the continual assault on my mind and heart of images from Nathan’s tragic life that had led up to his horrific death. I felt so much pain that I could hardly breathe at times, and I wondered why people didn’t look at me and notice, as if I should have broken out with some kind of emotional boils that would show the world how much I was hurting on the inside.
I was surprised to realize that I was grieving as much for Nathan’s life as I was for his death. It just didn’t seem right; it seemed he’d never really gotten a fair chance. If he had multiple brain chemical issues that had been present right from the start, then how could he have been expected to come to any other end than this? And if this end had been inevitable, then what was the point? I have always been a very spiritual woman, with a great deal of faith. I have always grounded myself in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and I was well accustomed to going that direction for help in any matter. I had and still have a firm testimony that Jesus Christ is our Savior and that through His Atonement all things are made right. But being confronted with the reality of how wrong something in this life could be, I had to find answers that would soothe my aching spirit.
I had grown up a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often mistakenly called the “Mormon Church”), and being a Mormon has always meant more to me than any other aspect of my life. I had been taught that through prayer and faith and studying the scripture and the words of our living prophet and apostles, we could always find answers to help us in times of need or hardship. I had also been taught that through the power of the Holy Ghost it was possible to receive tangible comfort and personal inspiration to get me through hard times. I knew from vast experience that this was true; I had countless times found strength and guidance through these means. But days and weeks beyond my brother’s death, I felt some frustration in still being wrought with grief and not feeling anything more than a little twinge of comfort here and there. I was doing all the right things, all the things I had been taught and believed in. I was reading the scriptures, and I was studying words of modern-day church leaders who had specifically addressed the topic of suicide. I was praying a great deal, and I was also spending time regularly in the Mormon temple, a place where I knew I could feel closer to God and be more likely to receive the comfort and peace I was seeking.
While I struggled along, I didn’t give up hope that my prayers would be answered, but I do recall feeling some impatience and frustration. I knew well, however, that these feelings were typical of being human, and I just needed to keep doing the right things and trust that the Lord would not let me down. About six weeks after Nathan’s death, in the midst of the Christmas season, I was driving to an appointment and listening to Christmas music in the car. One of my very favorite Christmas songs is “For Unto Us a Child Is Born,” and I had it blasting on the stereo. I wasn’t thinking about Nathan at that moment, but I had a sudden impression come into my mind, as if a concept and corresponding words were planted in my brain instantaneously. And in the very same moment, I felt a quickening of my heart, a warmth in my chest, and a distinct breathlessness. I knew beyond any doubt that it was the Holy Ghost answering my prayers on behalf of my Heavenly Father, in a way more profound and powerful than I had hoped for or imagined. I knew that it was rare for a witness to come with such strength; the Holy Ghost usually comes in a more quiet way, which is why it’s often called “the still small voice.” But this immediately became one of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life. It’s impossible to fully describe it, any more than I could describe to someone what chocolate tastes like if they’ve never eaten it. I can only say that I absolutely knew that my brother was alright, and that I would also be alright. It was as if I could hear the word us being emphasized in the lyrics of the song. “For unto us a Child is born; until us a Son is given.” And I felt as if I had a tiny degree of understanding of how Isaiah must have felt when those words had come to him, and the power of what it means to know that everything our Savior did, He did for us.
I can summarize what I learned in that moment by saying that I know beyond any doubt that the Atonement of Jesus Christ performs its greatest miracle with the things in this life that we will never be able to add up with any degree of logic. Why would a child be born with such insurmountable challenges? Why would a life come to such a horrible end? Why would his loved ones have to endure the heartache of both his life and his death? And I know that this situation is just one in millions of horrible things faced by human beings. When it comes to suicide alone, there are so many different reasons it can happen, and they are all senseless. How does a parent ever recover from losing a child in such a way? Or a spouse? Or a dear friend? How do we go on and not become emotionally incapacitated by such an event? The answer is—and I must repeat—that the Atonement of Jesus Christ performs its greatest miracle with the things in this life that we will never be able to add up with any degree of logic.
Nathan’s life was not wasted. He did some amazing things, and he taught a great deal to the people who love him. And his death, however tragic, taught his loved ones a great deal about humility, compassion, empathy, and the true Source of healing. Since that day in my car, I have cried over missing Nathan, and I have cried over the heartache of his life and his death. But I have never once felt even a tiny bit of the pain I had experienced previously in regard to those things. I have since had quiet thoughts and feelings that have assured me through the Comforter that Nathan is progressing and doing well. He is not doomed to eternal damnation because of his choice. It was a less-than-ideal choice, but God understands his heart and the challenges he was facing, and He in His infinite wisdom has allowed Nathan to come to a place where he can continue to learn and grow and find the happiness and peace he couldn’t find in mortality.
My gratitude for the gospel truths that got me through this experience, and many other struggles in my life, is something that cannot be put into words. Nevertheless, it exists continually inside of me and it makes me who I am. So, after passing the seventh anniversary of Nathan’s death, I feel nothing but peace and joy to think of him. I don’t have to worry about him anymore. I know he’s doing great, and I look forward to the day when he and I can be reunited in a world where the disappointment and heartache of mortality do not exist.
This article was written by Anita Stansfield, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Anita Stansfield began writing at the age of sixteen, and her first novel was published sixteen years later. For more than fifteen years she has been the number-one best-selling author of women’s fiction in the LDS market. Her novels range from historical to contemporary and cover a wide gamut of social and emotional issues that explore the human experience through memorable characters and unpredictable plots. She has received many awards, including a special award for pioneering new ground in LDS fiction, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Whitney Academy for LDS Literature, and also a Lifetime Achievement Award from her publisher, Covenant Communications. She has fifty-six published books. Anita is the mother of five, and has three grandchildren.