A Survivor’s Look at Suicide
About the Guest
Today on the broadcast, David Cox, a marriage and family counselor, talks honestly about his father's suicide.
Today on the broadcast, David Cox, a marriage and family counselor, talks honestly about his father’s suicide.
A Survivor’s Look at Suicide
Bob: There is a memory from childhood that David Cox will never lose.
David: My dad got in his car, and as he was driving away, I hollered over the noise of the lawnmower, "Dad, where are you going?" Expecting his familiar reply – "Going crazy, want to come along?" And, very oddly, he said, "I have somewhere I have to go." And that was the first time I realized something was not quite right. And as he drove just a very small distance, he stopped the car and turned and looked back at me one last time, almost as if a man who was drowning and is reaching out for someone to rescue him.
Boy: Dad! Dad! Dad! [echoes]
David: And that was the last time I ever saw my father alive.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, March 19th. Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. How do you help a family member deal with the reality of suicide? We'll talk about it today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us. I remember two occasions when I was in high school, Dennis, where I was confronted with the reality of what we're going to be talking about today. There was a classmate in my high school. He was in the same grade I was in, and I don't know the details, don't know what surrounded it, but I remember the news that came to us that our classmate had taken his life; he had committed suicide.
And then I had a friend who – she actually lived three doors down, and she was dating a friend of mine. Again, I don't remember how I got the news, but one day I learned that her father had gone into the basement of their home and had taken his own life.
And when you're confronted with the reality of suicide, you really don't know how to respond, how to react. You don't know how to help folks. It's a troubling, confusing time for those of us who are on the outside, and it must be incredibly confusing and painful for those who are right in the midst of it.
Dennis: Yes, in fact, you and I received an e-mail from a listener who, just a couple of weeks ago, wrote us. She writes, "Good morning. Our family has suffered a tragic loss recently. My 15-year-old son has taken his life just a few days ago. May I please ask for your prayers for my family? I'm a single mom of two other teens as well. Do you have any other resources of godly guidance that I might read to help us through this process?"
She goes on and says, "My son was depressed, and we were actively participating in community resources for his help and treatments. It seemed as though we were turning a corner, and he was getting better. I admit that I do not understand this, and I am at a loss. Thank you very much."
You know, unfortunately, Bob, I think by the time you live to be 30 or 40, you're going to be touched by the subject of suicide today, perhaps not through your own family, but through a friend or an acquaintance at work or in the community.
This is a growing problem in our culture, and we decided to do some research as to who had really written on this subject and who could help us create some tools and resources for you, as a listener, to be able to reach out to people who perhaps are survivors of a suicide, perhaps your mom or dad committed suicide when you were a child, or you know of someone who has lost a family member or a friend due to suicide. And we ran across a book called "Aftershock," and it's co-authored by Candy Arrington and Dr. David Cox, and David joins us here on the broadcast. David, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
David: Thank you, Dennis. It's a pleasure to be here.
Dennis: David is a marriage and family coach in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is a graduate of Wofford College, and has his MDiv, along with his Doctorate of Minister degrees from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and you actually – David, you did your study when you did your doctoral work in this area of suicide prevention, right?
David: Yes, I did, Dennis. My doctoral thesis was more intervention. It was counseling and suicide intervention, hoping to sort of meet the problem on the front end and see if we could make a difference in folks as they are depressed and becoming suicidal. The book, "Aftershock: Help, Hope, and Healing in the Wake of Suicide," is really more of a survivor's book, because we really saw that there was a much greater need for something like this, sadly, after folks have been through it.
Bob: Your interest in this subject was not purely clinical, but it's because you are, yourself, a survivor of suicide.
David: I am, Bob, and by "survivor of suicide" we mean a surviving loved one, family member or friend, after someone has completed suicide. It does not necessarily refer to someone who has survived a suicide attempt on their own.
Bob: In your case, your father committed suicide when you were nine years old. Were you aware, prior to his suicide, that there were things in his life that could be leading him in that direction?
David: None whatsoever, and not just because I was nine years old, but I think our entire family was oblivious to the trouble that he was in emotionally. Now, of course, looking back, we could see that he had changed jobs three times in a two-year period; we had a home in Richmond, Virginia, which would not sell; my mother had recently gone through breast cancer surgery; he was very depressed. He'd had had some medical problems, and so he very much fit the profile for someone who is suicidal. But, as many families are – most families are – we were completely caught off guard by his suicide.
Dennis: You know, as a nine-year-old boy, your world is that of a boy, you're not thinking about how is Dad doing, how is Mom doing? And yet one day you were mowing the lawn, and you looked up, and your dad got in his 1966 Mustang, and you asked him where he was going. What did he say?
David: Well, mowing the lawn was a big deal for me when I was nine years old. I don't enjoy it now, but I was excited to get to do that, and my dad got in his car, and as he was driving away, I hollered over the noise of the lawnmower, "Dad, where are you going," expecting his familiar reply, "Going crazy, want to come along?" And very oddly he said, "I have somewhere I have to go." And that was the first time I realized something was not quite right. And he drove just a very small distance from the house, he stopped the car and turned and looked back at me one last time, and that was the last time I ever saw my father alive.
Dennis: You wrote in your book that the look your father gave you when he looked back will forever trouble you. Describe what you saw in your dad's face when he looked back at you.
David: I saw a cry for help, almost as if a man who is drowning and is reaching out for someone to rescue him. And I'm sure, at that point, it would have taken a miraculous intervention to have turned him around from what he had probably been planning for months at that time. And that always haunted me, Dennis, because I felt, as being the last person to ever see my father alive, the last family member, that somehow it had been my responsibility to have stopped him, and that I had failed him, and that I failed my family by not doing so.
Bob: At the time you were aware that he had given you an unusual response, but you probably just thought, "That's odd," and went back to cutting the grass, right?
David: That's exactly it.
Bob: So when did you realize that his look meant something more?
David: My mother and sister came home that afternoon and apparently discovered his suicide note in the house, and they whisked me off to some neighbors across the street. I spent the night with those neighbors. I knew that we were in some sort of trouble, because there were many cars in front of our home; there were what I recognized to be police cars at our home; and early the next morning I ran to my home to try to get in. I was assuming that my mother might be in some sort of danger. It never dawned on me that my father might have met with death. And after a very difficult time of getting in the home, I saw her and realized that she was okay, and I thought our family was okay, and then I was told the news that my father had died.
Bob: How were you told that?
David: I was initially told by my Sunday school teacher. My mother was so emotionally upset that she could not break the news that my father had died. It was not until several days later, actually right before his funeral, that my mom sat me down on the end of her bed and told me, I'm sure, what was the most difficult news she ever had to break in her life – that my father had died by killing himself with his handgun that was his souvenir from World War II that he had actually – was his service weapon that he had had in the Army.
Bob: He had driven off to an isolated location somewhere?
David: Something called "The Horse Show Arena," in Memphis, Tennessee, where my family lived at the time, and as I traveled here to Little Rock to do this broadcast, my flight took me through Memphis, and I had a layover there of about an hour. It is the first time I had been in Memphis, Tennessee, since July of 1967.
Dennis: How does a nine-year-old boy process the news of the death of his hero …
David: … hero.
Dennis: Yeah, his father?
David: I don't remember much about that. It was a blur. I was in shock. We quickly came back to South Carolina where my mother's family lived. We had another funeral, which was very painful, again, and I think I was in limbo for several months. I don't remember much about that summer. I stayed with relatives back in Spartanburg as my mother and sister returned to Memphis to sell the home and tie up loose ends.
It really wasn't until I started school in the fourth grade, when a teacher asked me, "Father's occupation," that it hit me, and I think for the first time I realized that my father was dead. And following that was a lot of anger, a lot of very self-destructive anger towards myself, towards my mom.
The full brunt of this really probably didn't hit until I was 13. And, as an adolescent, missed a lot of school; was very depressed; even composed suicide notes myself, as the fallout from our family not doing a very good job of processing this.
Dennis: You know, and those that I've talked to about suicide, I've found that denial – the denial of the event is almost standard operating procedure. It's how people cope with the pain of someone that they loved intensely rejecting that love and rejecting the family.
Bob: You're talking about somebody just kind of walling off the event and sealing it up and not going there?
Dennis: Yeah – families completely denying that it's even a part of their ancestry; that family members in times past experienced this. Have you found that to be true?
David: That's exactly what we did. That is my personal and professional experience. No one ever mentioned my father's suicide after the funeral. I wasn't even sure that my family that I stayed with – my extended family – knew how he had died, and I got the message loud and clear, this was a taboo subject, this was something that you did not talk about, which only intensified the shame and guilt that I was feeling – there was something really wrong with us.
Dennis: And I think it would be important for our listeners to understand why someone does wall this off, because the guilt – you mentioned guilt; the anger – you mentioned that; the fear; the shame.
Dennis: All of this bubbles in, like a stew, within a person, and it's so shameful to deal with with other people – those that I've interacted with around the subject have told me that they didn't want to talk to anybody except a very select few, very close friends about the subject because it's so threatening.
Bob: Well, and there are so many questions that pop into everybody's mind. I mean, with a death by natural causes, you've got a lot of those questions answered. You may still go to the Lord and say, "Why did this happen?" But you know it's kind of a natural occurrence. Here there are questions that can't be answered that plague you, and everybody's mind kind of races to fill in the blanks, and we come up with our own vain imaginations in the face of that.
David: For example, where did I fail? What could I have done wrong? Why didn't I see this? What will people think about my father? Will they only remember him in the way he died and not in the way he lived? Will they somehow pigeonhole me as being, "Well, you're crazy, too," or "You must be insane," or "You will commit suicide just like your father did."
Dennis: And that's part of the danger of suicide, because once it enters into the family bloodline, into the family history, family members on downstream think of it as an option.
David: The sins of the fathers are visited on the children under the third and fourth generation.
Let me say, Dennis, that there is no genetic predisposition to suicide like there is blond hair and blue eyes, but many families find that it runs through generations and generations, particularly of the men.
Dennis: Here is one thing you can be certain of in any family where there has been a suicide. All of those family members that have been touched by that now, all of a sudden, that is a live option in that family.
David: Yes. There is no other manner of death that immediately predisposes the survivors to the similar manner of death like suicide. Survivors of suicide are three to four times more likely to be depressed and suicidal themselves.
Bob: You'd think it would be the opposite.
David: You would.
Bob: You would think that the trauma of the event would be enough that you'd run so far away. What is it that draws you like a moth to the flame here?
David: I think it's a spiritual battle, in some ways. It's certainly an attack of the enemy on that family, and the Word tells us, "Be sober and vigilant, you have an adversary who is as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour."
And then I also think, because you were so devastated and depressed when you have experienced a suicide, the depression that you go through makes you more at risk for it as well. So it's a compounding effect. You feel so angry, so guilty, the questions of why and why didn't someone see this and what was so horribly wrong in this person's life that they chose this?
Suicide has been best described as a permanent solution to a temporary problem. And so those people who remain, they almost feel as if their lives are shattered and at ends, and they simply can't go on, either, because they've lost this one they loved.
Dennis: I've heard it described as a plague; that it feels like the most devastating thing that could ever come upon a couple who have experienced the suicide of a child or of a brother or a sister; that rejection, that finality, is a plague you can't run away from, and there's really no A+B+C=D process to be able to grapple with it.
And so it presses people either toward denial or into their faith in God, in the Scriptures, to begin to try to make some sense of it, and there's where the Scriptures really offer the only hope for someone who has experienced a family member who has experienced suicide, right?
David: Absolutely. Proverbs 13:12 says "hope deferred makes the heart sick," and that is the only consistently common theme that I see in folks who are suicidal; is that they absolutely cannot believe that their situation could ever improve. In their minds, it's as bad as it can be, and they're not really choosing death as much as they are trying to escape the pain.
Dennis: All the way through high school and college, you only told two people during – what was that like – a 14-year process?
David: Yes, pretty long.
Dennis: Yeah, who did you tell and why?
David: The first person I told – I was 16 years old, and I was at a Young Life Camp in Canada, and there was a skit where a person committed suicide, which I found to be in very poor taste, as a survivor of suicide. And one young woman got up and left the room in tears, and I asked someone, "What happened with her? What's this about?" Her brother had taken his life just days before we went on this trip, and she's the first person I ever reached out to. I felt, for the first time in my life, like I was on the other side – not the victim and the one so much in need of help, but maybe I could help her. I had no idea what to say except, "I'm sorry."
Dennis: You know, there's a passage in 2 Corinthians, chapter 1, that says "comfort others with the comfort with which you have been comforted." And even as a 16-year-old young man, even though you hadn't talked to anybody else about it, you reached out and touched her life at that point.
David: Because I know the Holy Spirit had comforted us. Interestingly, my dad died on July 17th. I had made a profession of faith on June 11th and was baptized on July 2nd, just 15 days before his death. And I knew that God had put His hand on my life in a special way, and it was only that very new relationship that I had with Jesus, as a nine-year-old, that got me through that time.
Bob: Who was the second person you told?
David: The second person was a friend in seminary whose mother had attempted suicide, and she survived and, as far as I know, is still alive to this day. And he was the first person that I ever really heard talk openly about it. But this friend, someone who has been a very close friend of mine ever since, talked about his anger at his mother for doing this. How could she do this to us?
He is the first person that ever expressed the abandonment and the rejection that went along with it and how personal it felt to him. So I say that I talked to him; probably, in reality, he talked to me more and helped me work through some of my pain.
Bob: You know, I think one of the clear messages in our conversation today is that if you know somebody who has experienced this; who is a survivor of suicide; you can't underestimate the level of trauma and pain that is going to leave a scar on the soul of a suicide survivor. And maybe we need to be a little more proactive in reaching out to those who are friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and invite them to open up on this subject.
Dennis: You know, I started the broadcast by reading a letter from a single-parent mom, who just had a 15-year-old son take his own life. In the coming months and in the next couple of years, she is going to be faced with whether that suicide becomes the defining point in her life, or whether she uses that tragedy to press into Jesus Christ, into the Scripture, where there is that hope that you talked about, David, where someone can look at the circumstances that will never make sense; that will never repair their broken heart but will give them a perspective to be able to deal with it, because they know God can be trusted, and they know God wants to use every tragedy in our lives for His purposes and for our good.
Bob: I know our team here was pleased to have a resource to be able to send to that woman to recommend to her in the book that David has written. It's called "Aftershock," and we have it in our FamilyLife Resource Center. If you know somebody who needs a copy of the book, contact us at 1-800-FLTODAY or go online at FamilyLife.com, and we can send a copy of the book to you.
We have also created a month-long devotional that deals with the subject of tragedy or grief. It's called "Encouragement for Broken-Hearted Homes," and if you'd like to order both resources, we can add, at no additional cost, the audiocassette or the CD of our conversation this week with David Cox.
The number to call is 1-800-FLTODAY or, again, you can order online at our website at FamilyLife.com. You can get more information about the resources there. Again, the toll-free number is 1-800-358-6329 or go online at FamilyLife.com.
You know, being able to provide practical, biblical resources to families that are going through this kind of a situation, these kinds of tragedies, is right at the heart of our mission to effectively develop godly families who change the world one home at a time.
We want to be able to equip you with resources so that you can reach out to others and at those times when a situation like this hits home for you, when you're experiencing some kind of a tragedy, something that you don't know how to deal with, we want to be a resource available to you. We want you to be able to call us or to go online, and we want to be able to point you in the direction of biblical help.
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Well, tomorrow we're going to continue our conversation about this difficult subject of suicide, and we want to look specifically at the alarming rate of suicide among teenagers. I hope you can be back with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We'll see you next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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