By Sophia White
Last August, a young man in my church killed himself. He came from a large family, and our community loved him. I decided to chronicle the impact of his death, because a Christian suicide is a troubling situation. If the gospel is a message of hope in the midst of ultimate suffering, what happens when a Christian commits the ultimate hopeless act? My manuscript is now around fifty thousand words long.
Suicide is a rampant problem, and mature writers shouldn’t shy away from addressing it simply because it’s violent and dark. That’s taking Philippians 4:8 out of context. Like me, God may place a story on your heart that involves a character who is either struggling with suicidal thoughts or coping with a loved one’s suicide. As Christians, this bleak part of reality may seem difficult to reconcile with our belief that God made human beings in His image and that the taking of life is a grievous sin. Even unbelievers recognize that suicide damages everyone it touches. But our role is to shine light into the shadowy corners of this world.
When we approach this subject, we must understand that suicide is not merely an abstract issue with rising statistics. People who end their own lives are driven by pain that overpowers the fear of death. They long to escape even if that means facing the grave and eternity. We should show compassion toward these individuals instead of looking down our noses at them in self-righteous confidence. The people who have battled overwhelming depression for any length of time—even if they lose—are stronger than we realize.
Within the constraints of an article, I can’t provide exhaustive advice on writing about self-murder and its aftereffects, but I want to help you be discreet in how you depict it in a single scene.
Guideline #1: Exercise Caution
Except in extremely rare circumstances, describing a suicide on-screen is unwise. Please note, however, that I’m not urging you to avoid writing stories that include suicide. Nor am I implying that you should never explicitly state that a character killed himself, because shrouding the truth with euphemisms causes more harm than good.
Many people are so entrenched in despair that overexposure to violence through the media dissolves any lingering restraints they have. (See the recent study on 13 Reasons Why.) Although a suicide may or may not be the result of a personal trigger, I think we should treat hurting and broken souls with empathy. Graphic suicide is at least unsettling, if not outrightly disturbing, to those who have been (or are) tempted to commit the act.
Regardless of the reader’s emotional stability, though, writers need to tread carefully. Suicide and murder are both attempts to destroy God’s image, except murder involves two people: the killer and the victim, who is usually innocent. As long as the killer lives, he has a chance to seek forgiveness, whereas a suicide victim is guilty and forfeits the opportunity to repent. Moreover, self-murder is violence directed toward oneself. Unlike executions and vengeance that may seem justified, suicide is deeply personal and uniquely horrifying.
In view of these factors, evaluate whether a suicide scene would be gratuitous. What is your goal? To reveal that the character died by his own hand? No one witnessed my friend’s suicide, and few saw the body, but several thousand people know he killed himself. So this doesn’t seem like sufficient reason to recount a suicide play-by-play. Are you trying to impress upon readers that suicide is horrible and unnatural? That’s a better motive, but still not enough.
A vivid suicide scene is only necessary when you need to communicate a point that can’t be conveyed any other way. The alternatives are often more effective at establishing the gravity of the situation.
Guideline #2: Focus on Others’ Reactions
People’s responses to tragedy surpass events, and highlighting the anguish of the friends or relatives who discover the corpse will be much more powerful than watching the character die. As Hope Ann says in her article on darkness, “Don’t concentrate solely on events, but also the characters’ emotions, whether they’re victims or witnesses of the aftermath. No matter how appalling a death, blood spatters and crushed skulls won’t stir empathy, whereas palpable grief and alarm will.”
One little detail or line of dialogue can strike readers harder than gruesomeness.
- An EMT finds his brother’s remains and calls their father to tell him that the casket will need to be closed.
- A mother remembers how she trimmed her daughter’s hair for the last time a couple weeks before, feeling a strange compulsion to save some of it. She chided herself for sentimentality and didn’t do it, but now she wishes she had.
- The news of a teen’s death reaches a bakery, where an employee grips the counter and whispers, “He called me Grandma. He called me Grandma.”
- A once calm and collected businesswoman secretly visits a counselor after work, confessing that she used to believe suicide was unselfish and that everyone would return to normalcy in due time.
- A man who hasn’t been heard from in years shows up at his former church with a carful of cake on the day of a cousin’s funeral, deposits the dessert in the kitchen, and wordlessly drives away.
By zeroing in on the surrounding characters, you can emphasize that a valuable life has been cut short, that we don’t have license to end our lives when we wish, that each of us matters even if we feel useless. The desolation of a suicide victim’s last moments will pale in comparison to numbering the people at the funeral and the distances they traveled from.
Maybe you want to assure readers that, despite the awful final act, the story isn’t over for a Christian. Bring readers to the graveside, where the pastor reads, “In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend our sister to God and commit her body to the ground.” Afterward, show the group of artists in her church expressing their grief through poetry, stories, and music. Let readers follow their steps toward hope.
Think about the temperaments, habits, and flaws of your characters, and you’ll be swimming in poignant moments. If you dwell on the right ones, you won’t need to preach that suicide is selfish and heart-wrenching because readers will absorb those truths through the characters’ experiences.
Guideline #3: Show the Continuing Effects
A traumatic death creates fertile ground for character development. People are irreplaceable, and loved ones won’t recover from the loss within a page or chapter—and perhaps not even by the ending. Memories will haunt them every day, altering their reactions to random and ordinary things like Subway sandwiches, UPS trucks, and church bells. Maybe a mother’s hands tremble whenever ambulance sirens pass her house. Maybe a teenage girl is afraid of being alone in the dark. Maybe certain hymns bring a brother to tears. Maybe a pastor can’t give a benediction without becoming emotional, because he recited it at the funeral. Maybe a husband resorts to drugs or drinking. Maybe an aunt keeps an eye out for people who are behaving oddly and intervenes with kind words and gestures whenever possible.
But this is a limited selection of outward responses. What about characters’ inner monologues? How do they process the death? Some will deny it, while others will accept it immediately. And a few may have one outburst upon receiving the news and then carry on with life, seemingly unmoved. Are these people stronger than the others who openly display sorrow? Do they lack words to express their emotions? Do they suppose that life will be normal if they pretend the catastrophe didn’t occur? No, they’re only being private about their grief or anger—they can’t suppress it entirely.
In contrast to an accidental or natural death, characters who are dealing with suicide will be plagued by moral questions. Is suicide selfish? Is it wrong, and why? Can a person be pro-choice and against suicide? Can a Christian who commits suicide have been truly saved? How the characters solve these quandaries will lead to changes in their lives, either bolstering their faith or destroying it.
People have invented trite answers for every problem under heaven—except suicide. But when hearts are shattered, people become unusually receptive to discussions on deep topics. They desire assurance that hope and healing are attainable, and as Christians, we’re able to deliver precisely that message. In a society that’s shallow and searching for substance, we have a mission to fulfill.
Turning Evil Inside Out
I haven’t explained how to enter into the despairing character’s mind and suffer alongside him without inadvertently suggesting that suicide is reasonable or moral. I’m in the early stages of drafting my story, so I don’t feel equipped to tackle that. I would, however, recommend that you peruse the relevant portions of St. Augustine’s City of God.
With any creative endeavor, we ought to heed Dorothy Sayers’ words in The Mind of the Maker: “We must not try to behave as if the Fall had never occurred nor yet say that the Fall was a Good Thing in itself. But we may redeem the Fall by a creative act. That, according to Christian doctrine, is the way that God behaved, and the only way in which we can behave if we want to be ‘as gods.’ The Fall had taken place and Evil had been called into active existence; the only way to transmute Evil into Good was to redeem it by creation.”
More than an average death (I feel heartless for writing that phrase), a suicide (particularly a Christian’s suicide) forces people to reconsider everything they’ve ever believed. Does their view of the universe account for this? Does their consolation still console? Christians talk of having comfort in times of grief, but what words avail when a person has chosen to violently depart this earth?
This gives us a place to show, without Bible-pounding, the source of our inner peace.
Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
And all is darkened in the vale of tears,
Then shall you better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe your sorrow and your fears.
Be still, my soul: your Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away.
Sophia White, known on the KP and SE forums as Northerner, writes both fiction and nonfiction of various sorts. In her spare time, she holds philosophical debates, does medieval living-history, and tries to get a job not based on her Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing. Her current works most actively in progress are “So that Others May Live” (nonfiction that seeks to answer the question, What happens to a church when a Christian commits suicide?) and “The Two-Legged League” (in 1920’s Britain, four traumatized friends try to spread a Chestertonian joie de vivre), both of which you can read about in greater detail at her blog, Of Dreams and Swords.