Suicide: I lost my friend, too.

Dear Young Friend,
I know that you do not know me that well, but I heard about your friend today, and it broke my heart.  I am sad for him.  I am sad for his family.  I am sad for everyone involved.  But you, being his friend, pulls at my heart strings and floods my mind with memories.

I remember the day it happened to me.  It is burned into my mind vividly.  I arrived at school and headed for my locker and friends, just like any other day.  I was cheerful, but I quickly noticed that friends around me were somber.  Finally, one of them mustered the courage to tell me what had happened.  First period was a blur.  Did I even believe this was true?  It can't be true.  He is funny.  This must be a joke.  At lunch, I went home, and finally had the space and comprehension to feel the true emotion of it.  I buried my head in my hands and sobbed... and sobbed... and sobbed.

At age 15, I had never experienced a loss like this.  I had attended a funeral once, for a great-aunt, but that was my only experience with death.  This was different on so many levels.  He was young.  He was my friend.  He made the choice.

I tried to sleep that night, but was so afraid and physically pained.  My head, aching.  My eyes, dry and swollen.  I was not scared of my friend, but in the fear of the darkness and the depth of the night, I kept imagining him there, almost haunting me.  Afraid and hurt, I pulled the covers over my head and cried most of the night.

Days and weeks went on.  That initial fear subsided, but the sadness resided in my mind.  Other emotions were present to keep it company:

Guilt often crept in.  What should I have done?  I should have been a better friend.  This is my fault.  If only I would have...  

Sometimes anger interrupted.  He is so selfish.  How could he do this to everyone?  How could he do this to me?

The sadness stuck around.  I miss him.  I wish I could talk to him just one more time.  I wish could hear him laugh.  

Through all of this, I also felt confused.  I believed in Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the afterlife, but what does this mean when someone breaks one of the greatest commandments in their last moment of mortal life, "Thou shalt not kill"?  Was my friend... my funny, smart, artistic, tender-hearted, light-blue-eyed friend... going to hell?  What happens in the afterlife to people who commit suicide?  Will I see him again?  What will it be like?  What will he be like? Will God give him mercy?  He was only 15!  He may not have been in a healthy state of mind.  He struggled.  

I felt like I was getting information about this from all different directions.

At school, I overheard some girls talking about him and passing disrespectful judgement.  That hurt my heart badly.

In the many years following the tragedy, I have heard the world express and bicker over what they believe about suicide and God's judgement. Most of it has felt incorrect to me.

There is one place, though, that I have found assurance and peace.  It is through studying and pondering the teachings of the church.  The most comforting words have come from a message given by Elder M. Russell Ballard.  He is one part I really like:

"Not long ago I was asked to speak at the funeral of a dear friend who had committed suicide. Knowing the person and the circumstances as I did, and researching the doctrine on the subject, I had some difficult moments in preparing for my remarks. I know that any fully rational person who contemplates suicide must realize what a terribly selfish act this is. Peace came to me only when I recognized that only the Lord could administer fair judgment. He alone had all the facts, and only He would know the intent of the heart of my friend. I was reconciled with the idea that a lifetime of goodness and service to others must surely be considered by the Lord in judging the life of a person."

I don't know what the situation was with your friend, but mine suffered from depression.  The most touching talk was given by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland about this last year in General Conference.

Lastly, Young Friend, I want to tell you what experiencing this tragedy and heartache as a teenager lead to.

I looked up.  When I was in the busy halls of my high school, I tried to look people in the eye, smile, and say hello.  You NEVER know what people are going through.  Be kind.

I fell to my knees.  Some moments were so dark and so lonely that I felt like nobody understood me.  Even my parents didn't get it.  The only person I felt I could turn to was a loving Father in Heaven and understanding brother, Jesus Christ, in prayer.

I studied.  Because of all my questions, I had more of a desire to learn about the afterlife and the atoning sacrifice of the Savior.

I wrote in my journal.  Writing was (and is) very therapeutic for me.  It is also a good way to remember how you feel and what you have learned.  I still have those journals and love having captured that part of my life.  I hope it will make me more empathetic when the times come that I am raising my own teenagers.

I grew up.  I honestly feel like this was one of the major turning points in my life.  I look back and there is a clear split in the way I acted and thought in my teenage years between before and after this tragedy.

Let me be CRYSTAL CLEAR, in no way am I ensuing that this loss was a good thing or the right thing... nor am I saying your experience is or should be just like mine.  I am just, hopefully, helping you understand that this trial can make you a stronger, more caring, more faithful person.

When it had been ten years since his death, I drove to the cemetery and stood in the snow by his grave.  I thought about him and wondered what he would be doing now, if he were still alive.

I also thought about me... How time had changed me!  I thought about my confused and sad 16-year-old self who used to stand in this exact spot and cry.  My perspective has changed so much.  He was so young when he died.  Just a child.

Now I had a son of my own.  My thoughts rush to the pain his mother must have felt in losing her child.  Suicide is so tragic for those left behind.

It has been now thirteen years.  Sunsets remind me of him, as well as some other close friends or family members who have passed since then.  I still blow my friend a kiss when I drive past the cemetery where his body rests.  I feel at peace.  I believe my friend has been learning and growing beyond the veil, and my hope is that he is at peace too.

Young Friend, I pray for comfort to come to you and anyone else who loved your friend.  Hang in there.  Remember to pray always and look up.


Art by Greg Olsen