Searching for Solace: Suicide raises difficult religious, personal questions

Religions have softened their condemnations of suicide, offering the dead a chance at salvation. But for those left behind, deliverance often depends on more than just faith
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Dante put suicides in the Seventh Circle of Hell as thorny black trees, the only figures in his Inferno without human form. They spend eternity being nipped at by winged monsters, and their branches bleed when they are broken.

Not a pretty picture, but one that grew naturally out of the ancient Christian view of people who kill themselves.

By the fifth century, St. Augustine was unequivocal: Suicide is self-murder and an unforgivable sin.

From then on, those who took their lives lost their property, their burial rites and their place in heaven. They were posthumously excommunicated from the church, their corpses were often defiled, their memories erased, their families humiliated, shunned and disinherited.

In France, bodies were thrown into the sewer; in parts of Germany, they were stuffed into barrels and floated down river.

Much the same revulsion at suicide is clear in Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and every other religious tradition. It was even a felony in some U.S. states until 1963.

Time has softened that view . . . somewhat.

Today's clergy are still firmly opposed to suicide on principle but are more likely to see the forces that drive people to end their lives as compulsions or mental demons in the form of illness, depression, drugs, addictions.

The issue is further complicated by technology's ability to keep people alive long after nature would have, spawning debate about the end of life, the right to die and faith vs. reason. The nature of sin is no longer so clear.

"After Vatican II, the 'Roman Catholic" Church's position gradually evolved," says the Rev. Charles Ruby, founder of LOSS (Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide) in Chicago. "It took suicide out of the moral realm, where it didn't belong anyway, and moved it into the medical realm."

In the Greek Orthodox Church, it takes a note from a suicide's doctor before religious rites can be performed.

But is it always an illness? Could a sane person ever commit suicide? Are there no rational or even moral reasons to do so? That's certainly what proponents of physician-assisted suicide argue: Those of sound mind should be able to end their lives on their own time. After all, Hamlet said "to be or not to be" was the central question of his life.

Whether driven by madness or meaning, suicide has become uncomfortably commonplace in our society in general and in Utah in particular. No doubt, nearly every cleric in the state has had to grapple with notions about its eternal consequences.

The Rev. Donald McCullough's first funeral was for a suicide.

A man was having an argument with his wife, then said, "Watch this," went into living room and shot himself in the head.

McCullough, now president of Salt Lake Seminary, was numbed by the weightiness of the assignment for such an inexperienced man of the cloth.

He said then what he always says now: "Nothing can separate us from the love of God."

Against the darkened wood:

Catherine Poelman shudders at Dante's graphic depiction of suicide.

"It is so unforgiving," she says. "Horror at its worst."

Though outspoken and open, Poelman had a lot of trouble even using the word "suicide" after her son threw himself off a Salt Lake City parking terrace the day before Mother's Day in 1991. It conjured up Inferno nightmares.

"I couldn't pronounce it," she says, "let alone attach it to someone I loved."

Fortunately, the Poelmans' Mormon faith spelled out a more hopeful fate for Stephen in the afterlife. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' theology, there is no traditional hell, but three levels of heaven and the possibility of "eternal progression."

At the funeral, LDS Apostle Neal A. Maxwell said Stephen would have to "work through whatever Heavenly Father wants him to work through . . . and Stephen will do it. He has taken with him all his fine qualities. They are not to be rescinded. They are to be further developed."

But, Maxwell added, he will do the working without the "chemical imbalances" that plagued him during this life. Though Stephen had a "cheery disposition" and was "up" most of the time, he suffered from manic depression.

Poelman, who explored her feelings about his life and death in a book, Since Stephen: A Parent's Examination of Reality, believes her son is "working out his salvation in the heavenly realm while we work out ours here."

Adds Stephen's sister, Cathy Poelman Boyden, "I believe suicide is wrong, but that he can make it to the top 'of heaven" with a lot of work . . . more than he would have had here on Earth."

Like other Christians', the Mormon position on suicide has been tempered by psychology. Not so long ago, those who killed themselves were refused a church funeral and prohibited from being buried in their temple clothes.

"I feel the Lord also recognizes differences in intent and circumstances," said LDS Apostle M. Russell Ballard in a 1987 speech that was later published as a book. "Only the Lord knows all the details, and he it is who will judge our actions here on Earth."

But that doesn't mean the LDS Church approves of people taking their own lives.

It is the purpose of religion to spell out clear boundaries between right and wrong and to tease meaning out of life's traumas. Suicide makes both tasks more difficult.

"Saying that life is the most precious thing we have is a reasonable stance for any culture, and I don't think many religions, including the LDS faith, are going to change their position that suicide is the wrong thing to do and that there are consequences for doing it," says Richard Ferre, a Mormon psychiatrist in Salt Lake City.

Such strong language might deter some religious believers, he says, helping anguished souls resist the impulse to give up on life.

Once they succeed, though, that's when faiths need to turn compassionate.

"A person's spirit is in part captive to the brain itself," Ferre says, "so they can't be held accountable."

Life over death: Last month, Margaret Jackson was joined in the Walk for Suicide Prevention and Awareness at Sugar House Park by 41 of her friends from Vine Baptist Church in Layton. It seemed fitting because church members had rallied around her on Jan. 22, 2002, when her son Eddie shot himself.

"My church was there for me, the Mormon church was there, all the churches in the Intermountain General Baptist Convention were there," Jackson says. "It was totally different from what I had previously heard."

Vine Baptist hosted a "homegoing party" for Eddie, rather than a funeral. It was a chance to celebrate his leaving the world and going home to be with God, as he wrote in his farewell note.

As they rejoiced in Eddie's life, though, the pastor and family were careful to encourage the survivors not to follow his lead, to keep on living in this world.

Jackson doesn't know whether her son is in heaven. That's up to God. But she does believe he's in good company.

"Suicide does not discriminate in terms of religion, political, social or economic standing; it affects everybody," she says.

Religious communities of every kind need to create a "healing atmosphere" within their congregations so that people can feel safe, Jackson says.

That's not always possible.

"Suicide is the complete and total abandonment of hope," says the Rev. Mario Giannopoulos, a Greek Orthodox priest in Salt Lake City. "The church's understanding is that 'people who kill themselves" abandon hope in the resurrection and in God himself."

The church forbids funeral rites for suicides unless they have been under a physician's care for mental illness, although Giannopoulos thinks anyone desperate enough to take her own life is, by definition, ill. And it's been tough explaining to survivors why the church won't honor their loved one with church services.

"If you believe the Orthodox Church is the ark of salvation, you will expect that the church will be there in a compassionate way, loving way to help you when you are grieving," he says. "Sometimes we are unable to do that."

Ditto for some Eastern faiths.

Hindus believe every lifetime has a purpose and a series of obligations. Cut it short and a lot of things are left undone. If a person takes her own life, the cycle of reincarnation is broken. Her soul wanders around stuck in ghostlike limbo until those obligations can be fulfilled, maybe by a living relative.

"The normal funeral rites would still be done," says Indra Neelemegham of Salt Lake City. "On top of those, there are different kinds of peace offerings made to the gods for people who kill themselves."

But it is a lonely, sad fate. The same is true for Buddhists.

"If you kill yourself, the next life will not be good," says Zhang Jie, a professor of sociology at the State College of New York.

In general, Chinese Buddhists are not as quick to claim mental illness as the cause of suicide as people in the United States are, he says. "Even with a mental disorder, though, it would still not be justified."

Whose life is it?

Eskimo, Norse, Samoan and Crow Indian accepted and even encouraged "altruistic" self-sacrifice among the elderly and sick, according to suicide expert Kay Redfield Jamison. If a Yuit Eskimo of St. Lawrence Island requested suicide three times, relatives were obligated to assist in the killing.

In ancient Greece, suicide was often seen as an appropriate, even noble choice. Socrates is the epitome of virtue for drinking hemlock rather than renounce his teachings.

Even the Bible does not explicitly condemn taking one's life. Samson pulled down the temple around him rather than submit to the Philistines. And it is Judas' betrayal of Jesus that is his most heinous sin, not hanging himself.

Still, the Judeo-Christian tradition has always seen life as a gift from God that should be treasured until God takes it away. Killing yourself is to deny God, or to play God.

The question of individual choice vs. submission to God is central to the physician-assisted-suicide debate.

For Chris Gay, a Salt Lake City family physician, the question has become personal.

Last month, a close relative took advantage of Oregon's Death With Dignity Act to end his life. Suffering intractable pain from terminal cancer, the man easily met the law's requirements: He was an Oregon resident, two independent physicians confirmed that he had less than six months to live, and he signed a written request for the prescription of lethal medication in the presence of two witnesses who attested to his mental competence.

Even so, the man's wife was overcome with grief and had to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital unit, he says. "I'm concerned that, for whatever reason, my cousin Sue is not coping well. It makes me worry that they didn't talk about it enough before he did it. My recommendation is not to take that step lightly."

Gay is not religious and, as a physician, feels it is important to respect the patient's wishes. He recently helped a patient, another physician, by turning off his respirator.

"I've assisted suicide indirectly," he says. "In principle, I don't have objections to physician-assisted suicide, but when it comes to writing a prescription, I don't know. . . ."

Gay's brother, Tony Gay, is more certain.

"As a Christian I am morally opposed to physician-assisted suicide," says Tony Gay, a family physician in Hood River, Oregon. "I don't think humans are able to make that decision."

Tony Gay sees it this way: If someone dies from cancer, you say, well, it was meant to be. You did everything you could to alleviate suffering and they the patient died anyway. If you choose to shorten their the suffering, then you have all these what ifs.? What was supposed to be the natural course?

"You hate to see people suffer, but I believe there's some greater plan," Tony Gay says. "The suffering may have some reason, maybe not for the person but for the people around them."