Suicide affects us all

Patterns of speech and behavior indicating possible suicide and possible responses

Marty Thurber, B.A., is pastor of the Fargo and Valley City Seventh-day Adventist Churches, North Dakota, United States.

Most of my friends are alive today, but one is not he killed himself. I wish I'd seen it coming. I missed it. I know I'm not trained to spot suicidal intentions. I'm not at fault for 100 reasons. I know all these things and believe them. I don't feel guilty; I do feel sad.

My friend was a pastor. He was full of passion, enthusiasm, and drive, and he was results oriented. We used to talk about our churches to try and make them better. We talked over our problems, what we might try to do to change things. We would complain about the things we thought were wrong but could not change.

One day, while we were standing in front of his church, he pulled a pistol out of his leather briefcase and handed it to me. With my military background, a pistol in my hands was not an unusual thing. I held it, admired it, and aimed it with the thought of returning it to the bag after a small performance designed to impress him that I knew how to handle a gun.

Maybe he let me see it because he thought I'd be impressed or not too shocked at a pas tor with a gun. The truth is, however, that I was shocked but didn't say so. Perhaps he wanted to make a statement or even drop a hint about his intentions. I don't really know why he showed me the gun. But as far as I know, the same gun I held that day he later used to end his life, and if I'd known his final purpose, I'd have taken his gun from him that day.

Could he have found another way to end his life? I'm sure he could have. Could we have found a way to prevent this tragedy? I don't know. We might have. What I do know is that from now on I will do all I can to prevent this tragedy from happening again.

I read a statistic recently. Someone dies from suicide every 17 minutes. About three people an hour. Put faces with those numbers and that's a lot of pain.


The important thing is that had I known, I could have taken action. As I look back at the moments we had together, I see some things that happened as a pattern.

A few days before his death, we hung out together at meetings we were attending. They were sponsored by our church headquarters. They were no more unusual or different from any we had been to before. But he was different; he was nostalgic, pensive, pining for better things. He told me about trouble at home with his wife and children. He loved them but didn't see how things were going to work out.

The hopeless feelings he had about his family seemed to spill over into the other areas of his life, especially his work as a pastor. His discouragement with his church was even greater. I didn't know what to say, much less what exactly to do. I listened; I can listen well, at least to the words. But even though I listened, I still didn't hear suicide in his words.

We went to lunch together at a favorite Mexican buffet. He had been there many times before, and he reminisced about the numerous times he had been there with the other pastors and church leaders. He seemed to be glad we were there together, and I enjoyed listening to his stories.

After lunch we went over to the house of one his old friends. I had never met him, but my friend had told me about him. They talked about old times, the way things used to be. The friend was an artist of sorts. His home intrigued me. It seemed to be a cross between a cabin and a cow pasture! It had wide open spaces and narrow spaces; you could feel the up and down of it all, the closeness and the distance all at the same time. I felt as if we were in a refuge, a hideaway. As I look back on that visit, I think we went there so my friend could say goodbye; one friend to another, saying thanks, saying good bye. It was safe for my friend in that place. It could be the last place he felt like the person he wanted to be.

As they reminisced, looking in the rearview mirrors of their memories, none of us looked through the front window to see what was, in fact, coming up. In a few days, my friend would be dead. He went home, apparently more depressed, more certain about his lack of a future, and there he took up the gun designed to kill, and killed himself.

I didn't know he could do that. I was stunned. I felt alone. I lost my composure and cried for a while. I racked my brain for the signs. I fought off the fear that I had failed him. I played the week over like a videotape in my head.

What would I do differently today? I'm not sure. I have some ideas, some things I would look for and ask about. Though I'm a pastor, I'm no expert on suicide. I don't want to recommend anything that is pack aged as a complete guide to helping someone with suicidal thoughts or tendencies. Just the same, here are some things I would do:

I would not be afraid to ask someone about their future. What are their dreams? Their hopes and plans? A person who is drifting, aimless, and hopeless would catch my attention. If they were living in the past, looking for the good back then and seeing little good now or in the future, my antenna would send me signals of significance.

I would start thinking about how they were going to cope or get through their depression. If they had no plans, no thoughts, no way of getting through, no friends, no help, I would start asking about their plans perhaps to get away, to gain perspective, to recharge.

When I realized they had no place set aside for such reorientation, I'd start searching with them for their solution, an escape plan that wouldn't end in suicide. I think most people at this stage have thought about their suicide and have some plan to go through with it.

I suspect that at some time in everyone's life, they have thoughts of leaving this world, but most of the time we don't dwell on these things too long. We don't make plans to carry it out.

In my friend's case, if I could do it over again, I'd ask him about what he was actually going to do and how he was going to get through. If he could not convince me that he had some hope, I'd have switched gears and asked the tough questions. I'd have asked him about his despondency and his thoughts of ending it all.

At least I believe I'd have done something like that. Since that day, I listen much more closely; my radar is almost always on now.

I believe it's my job to help people hear the voice of God. God's voice is hope. Hope when all is lost. Hope when all is dark. Hope when all is fear. For "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out" (John 1:5, TEV).

I will remember that next time a friend shows me a weapon and talks about his past. Hopefully, God's voice will be heard.

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Marty Thurber, B.A., is pastor of the Fargo and Valley City Seventh-day Adventist Churches, North Dakota, United States.

September 2005

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