About the Guest
Albert Hsu, author of "Grieving a Suicide," talks frankly about the loss of his father to suicide. Hsu shares how suicide heightens the regular grief that comes with the death of a loved one. Not only is this person no longer with you, but you have to grapple with how they left you. Hsu shares how his new wife's presence ministered to him in his time of crisis, and what others did that encouraged him or discouraged him while he grieved his father. Hsu reminds us that God is with us in our suffering.
Albert HsuAlbert Y. Hsu (pronounced "shee") is senior editor for IVP Books at InterVarsity Press, where he acquires and develops books in such areas as culture, discipleship, church, ministry, and mission. He earned his PhD in educational studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. Al is the author of Singles at the Crossroads, Grieving a Suicide, and The Suburban Christian. He has been a writer and columnist for Christianity Today and served as senior war...more
Albert Hsu talks frankly about the loss of his father to suicide. Hsu shares how suicide heightens the regular grief that comes with the death of a loved one. Hsu reminds us that God is with us in our suffering.
Bob: If you have a friend or a family member, and you’ve been concerned that they might be contemplating self-harm, is there anything you can say or do? Albert Hsu says there is.
Al: The Bible actually gives a great example of suicide prevention. In the Book of Acts—in Acts 16, Paul and Silas are in prison in Philippi. The earthquake happens and they’re released from their chains. The Philippian jailer is about to kill himself, because he knows he’ll be held accountable. He’s drawing his sword—he’s about to take his own life—and Paul cries out: “Don’t harm yourself. We are all here.” He intervenes—he gives him hope; he gives him a reason to live—and the jailer and his whole household come to Christ.
We can do the same. When we see people at risk around us, we can say: “Don’t harm yourself. We are all here. We are here for you,” and “Life is worth living,” and “You don’t have to take this path.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, October 5th. Our host is Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We need to be aware and alert to others around us who may be in a season of dark despair, to know how we can help and minister to them. We’ll talk more about that today with our guest, Albert Hsu. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We’re talking this week about double grief—about the loss of someone we love / the trauma when that loss happens because that person took his or her own life—and then, in some cases, Dennis, the need for the person, who’s going through that double grief, to turn around and be a caregiver to others who are grieving in your family or in your circle. It’s a hard place to be.
Dennis: It really is, but there is a passage in Paul’s writings to the church at Corinth—
—he says, “Comfort others with the comfort with which you have been comforted.” God doesn’t want us to waste our grief. He doesn’t want us to feel like it’s minimized either, because there is—I don’t think there is any grief like those who grieve a suicide.
We have the author of a book called Grieving a Suicide, Al Hsu, with us again. Al, welcome back.
Al: Thanks for having me.
Dennis: Your dad took his life how many years ago?
Al: Twenty years now.
Dennis: Twenty years ago. What percent would you say you’re over or you have grieved the loss of your father?
Al: I don’t think any of us ever fully get over anything like this. I was talking to another person, who lost her dad to suicide; and she said, “It’s been 25 years, and I still grieve him every day.”
Just this week, actually, I talked to another person who lost a friend in high school to suicide. There were some recent things that had just triggered some memories, and she’s still grieving that particular loss in a very powerful way. It does stay with us for a very long time.
It does change, though, over the years. When I lost my dad in my 20s, I grieved him, as a father, at that stage of life—I wished he would have been there, present, as a dad. But now, 20 years later, I grieve him in my 40s, as the grandfather that my sons have never known. I lament all the birthdays, and celebrations, and family things that he was not part of—that’s another layer of grieving that we do in this era.
Bob: Any of us, who have lost parents, for any reason, experience that level of grief. How is it compounded, do you think, for those when the grieving has a suicide connected to it?
Al: Suicide heightens and intensifies the regular grief. If it’s a child/teenager that dies by suicide, what would already be a very sad teen death is heightened in even more painful teen suicide. It introduces all different layers of complexity as far as, not only is this person no longer with us, it is also that we have to grapple with how they left us.
If it had been a car accident or cancer, or something like that, we could blame the drunk driver, we could blame the cancer; or if it had been the murderer, we could rage against the murderer. But in this case, our loved one died at his own hand. We grieve them with all the sadness, and love, and pain that would be normal; but we also rage against them, and we are angry at them, and we hate them for doing this to themselves.
Anger is very common as another emotion after a suicide.
Dennis: Al, thank you—thank you for saying that anger is a normal response. I have a feeling that there is more than one survivor of suicide in their family who has felt that rage and felt like it was wrong—it was wrong to feel that way. But you’re saying, “No; anger is a secondary emotion that is expressed when one’s hurt.”
Al: Right; and it’s very common. One bereavement counselor told me that she sees people in cemeteries, all the time, yelling at gravestones. Anger is a very common response to grief.
Bob: When you got the news of your father’s suicide from your mom, you got in the car and drove from Chicago to Minnesota. You were grieving; but now, you were in a position to try to comfort your mom in her grief.
So, how did you handle the grieving that you were going through and the need to be a comforting son in that moment?
Al: In many ways, we just sort of kicked into handling logistics and being busy—taking care of details with the funeral home—and things like that. I was feeling pretty numb. People who specialize in trauma tell us that, after trauma, we are often immobilized in many ways. Our normal fight-or-flight response shuts down, and we have a freeze response. In some ways, I’m very grateful for how my wife and others helped fill in around us; whereas I didn’t always know what to do / I couldn’t always act—
Dennis: Yes; let me stop you there. You’d only been married a few months; hadn’t you?
Al: Yes; yes—nine months.
Dennis: So, Ellen stepped in. How was she a helpmate?
Al: I’m so grateful for her walking with me throughout all this. She was my shoulder to cry on; she gave all the practical support needed as we were running around, taking care of stuff.
In many ways, our marriages, our families, our churches provide that kind of surrounding structure and support in a time of loss like this.
Dennis: So, you were in your early 20s; right?
Bob, I’m thinking, “How prepared were you, in your early 20s, to come alongside Mary Ann, me, alongside Barbara, if there had been a suicide, to even—
Bob: —to know what to do?
Dennis: —“even know what to say, how to be there, how to just provide that shoulder to cry on?”
Bob: I think that’s where a lot of people feel inadequate in the moment, whatever age they are. When they hear about a friend, they go, “I don’t know what to say; I don’t know what to do,”—so that’s where they withdraw.
If you’re coaching someone to know what to say or do, what do they say or do?
Al: Well, I have a list of things not to say. [Laughter] I think Christians are often quick to give the pat answer—and even if they’re biblical / even if they’re well-intentioned—
—they sometimes come across as too quick to assure somebody of, “Oh, God has a plan for this,” and all—
Bob: Romans 8:28 is out at this point; right?
Al: —all those phrases that are often given.
I do have to say, in particular—one of my relatives used the line: “You’ll get through this. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It is like—well, first of all, it’s not from the Bible—it’s from Nietzsche. Even though it’s a catchy Kelly Clarkson song now, it’s not biblical. To someone who has lost someone to suicide—how you hear it is that, “Oh, my dad was not strong enough, and so he died because of this.”
I think it’s much more helpful to just be present with somebody—to listen and to say, “Are there things I can do to help?”—to not have to have the answers of why this happened or where God is in this.
One phrase, or one question, that has been helpful is, “What do you want to remember about your loved one?”—
—because, often, we are grieving in the moment. We’re thinking about those awful last days / those awful last moments. We forget that is only one chapter of a fuller life. If you are able to invite somebody to tell their story—tell their family story and to practice remembrance—this is a very biblical practice of remembering how God has been faithful in the past, how this person has lived and loved, and their story is bigger than just how they died.
Bob: Did your dad leave us a suicide note?
Al: No; he did not. Only about a quarter of suicides leave behind any kind of note or message.
Bob: Did you wish he had?
Al: I don’t know. It’s—a suicide note—it’s often said that they’re unreliable indications of the loved one’s last moments or thoughts.
I’ve been comforted more so, I guess, by seeing old letters, and cards, and emails from my dad—to remember him at his best times.
Dennis: Yes; and not have words that were his last words before he passed.
Bob: And it was clear that it had been suicide. There was never any question of whether it had been an accident of some sort?
Al: Right; no. Actually, that’s another thing that often we, as survivors—we want to find an alternate explanation. Some suicides are explained as accidents: “Oh, he didn’t mean to take all those pills,” “Oh, she didn’t mean to…” whatever it is, you know; because our minds may not be able to process the reality.
I think it’s important for us to tell the truth about what actually happened. We don’t have to put it on the news or anything—but just to acknowledge: “This is what actually happened,” and we can’t—let’s not self-deceive ourselves.
Dennis: You mentioned that people ask the question, “Why?”
That becomes an urgent issue—to try to get an answer to it.
Al, I have made it a habit, when I go to a funeral, to make notes on the funeral program of what lesson I could learn from the person who’s died. You’ll see here—I just pulled this one out of my Bible. This is Chuck Colson’s remembrance, 1931-2012; and it has lessons from him.
I had another one from a little girl, who was 12 years old, killed in a tragic car wreck, whose father was a doctor, who spoke at her memorial service. He made, to me, the best counsel I have ever heard around this question of, “Why?” He said this—he said, “I refuse to ask the question, ‘Why?’ until I can ask it of the One who can answer it.” What he was saying there is: “I’m not sure there’s going to be a satisfactory answer here; but when I get to heaven and I see Love, face to face—
“—I see Almighty God, face to face—I can ask that question, at that point, and it will make sense. The answer will be profound.”
Al: And in the meantime, we are not even really looking for the answer to the “Why?” We’re looking for someone who can comfort us in the midst of the “Why?” questions.
Al: I think of an analogy that somebody once told me. Let’s imagine that you break your leg, and that you’re rushed to the hospital, and they’re working on you. You ask the doctor, “Doctor, why did this happen?” He says, “Well, you were running at this speed; and you fell at this angle, and you broke your leg; and that’s why it happened.” And then they leave. You know, at that point, I don’t really need the explanation.
Al: I need the doctor to set the bone; I need the physician to heal me. That’s really what we’re looking for when we’re asking the “Why?” questions. We’ll never get a full answer to the “Why?” questions; but we need the Great Physician to heal our broken heart.
Bob: Well, and we think, if we get an answer, that somehow that will bring us comfort—that: “Oh, if I understood why, then I can be at peace.”
Well, in the case of people, who are experiencing deep depression, and they’re at a point where they’re no longer wanting to live—if we know that’s the answer—I don’t know that that solves anything for us.
You had somebody, not long after your dad had died—you learned of a friend, who was battling depression and had attempted suicide; right?
Bob: You can reach out in those moments and go, “Why would she do that?” but your response—I thought your response to that was very interesting. How did you respond when you got that news?
Al: Well, I sort of cried and wailed: “Why is this world so broken that people feel this loss, this pain, this abandonment—that they feel like this world is not worth living?”
What is helpful for us, as Christians, is to realize that God is present with us in a suffering world—
—that, in fact, it’s not only that Jesus understands—you know, God is not the kind of abstract philosophical God that looks at us from a distance. Jesus became human and experienced the suffering of the human body and died on a cross. But that wasn’t the end of the story. He made a way on the other side—after the crucifixion was resurrection. That is the hope of the Christian story—that we are not left in our pain / we are not left in our suffering—that there is more to the story—that we have hope of resurrection.
Dennis: I have never forgotten my dad’s funeral. I mentioned earlier that I received a phone call early one morning—Sunday morning—that my dad had gotten up, and made himself a cup of coffee, and went back to the bedroom—said he had some heartburn and lay down.
By the time my mom went back to see him again, he was dead; so there were no goodbyes. There was no opportunity to say anything to him.
I’m wondering what your recollection was of the funeral; because my recollection of the funeral was: “My dad worked hard, but now he’s at rest. There is no struggle; there is no more pain.” What do you recall about your father’s?
Al: The main thing I remember is that my wife and I—I play piano / I’m a pianist—and my wife is a worship leader. We sang and played It Is Well with My Soul.
Bob: How long does it take you to get to the point where you can say that with—not just by faith—because you went from a period of being numb to then a period of having to kind of come, face to face, with your own emotions. Was it an easy step for you to get to where you could say, “It is well with my soul”?
Al: I’m glad that the song made me say words that I was not necessarily able to fully believe until later. I think, in some ways, that is symbolic of the church holding us—that the church says, “We believe in God the Father,” and that even when we are in the midst of the pain, there’s a church around us that is believing on our behalf—holding us up on our behalf and saying/professing our faith and hope in Christ—even when we’re in the midst of the pain.
There are no linear stages of grief. There are always cycles of—you’re going through different stages over and over again. You don’t finish the anger stage and then move on to the acceptance stage. There’s an ongoing process of grief and grieving and re-grieving over and over again. But in the midst of it all, I do think we can have hope that God is present and walking through us.
Bob: Twenty years afterwards, the waves of grief are, I’m imagining, farther apart and less disorienting than they were; but still regular for you?
Al: Less so now. There’s—to some extent, every time I’m asked to talk about my dad’s death, I’m grieving him all over again.
Bob: You’re back into it; yes.
Al: But to the extent that it helps others—share their own stories and deal with their own grief—and to say, “You are not alone in this,”—it’s worth it.
Something that I’m grateful for is that, in the past few years, the church has spoken a little more about suicide, and depression, and mental health, partly because of the loss of Rick and Kay Warren’s son, Matthew, in 2013. They lost their son to suicide. But, out of that, Kay Warren and Saddleback Church have launched mental health initiatives to help the church grapple and to help those who have been struggling.
Countless lives have been saved—people who have been struggling with depression, who have heard Matthew’s story, who have said: “I need help, and I will find hope. I will find the strength to go on.”
I’m glad that the church is active in helping those who struggle.
I should say this: “The Bible actually gives a great example of suicide prevention.” In the Book of Acts—in Acts 16, Paul and Silas are in prison in Philippi. The earthquake happens, and they’re released from their chains. The Philippian jailer is about to kill himself, because he knows he’ll be held accountable. He’s drawing his sword; he’s about to take his own life. Paul cries out: “Don’t harm yourself. We are all here.” He intervenes—he gives him hope / he gives him a reason to live—and the jailer and his whole household come to Christ.
We can do the same. When we see people at risk around us, we can say: “Don’t harm yourself. We are all here. We are here for you,” and “Life is worth living,” and “You don’t have to take this path.”
Dennis: You mention in your book that they had a visitation.
The thing you took note of was the number of family members that went near the casket and wanted to say things to your dad.
You may not know this, but my dad died before I got a chance to say everything I wanted to say to him. It ended up with me writing a tribute to my mom and framing it and taking it to her. But I ended up writing a tribute to my dad, after he was gone.
I’m assuming you had some of the same regrets that I had—different reasons; but nonetheless, you’d like to have said it. If we had the ability to seat your father across from the table right now, could you give him a tribute?
Al: In some ways, this book that I’ve written is a tribute to my dad. I would want to say to him:
We have lived our lives. I have lived my life in a remembrance of you—to honor you. I hope, that by telling our family story, it is helping other families in their grief.
My dad was a very private man—he was an introvert; he did not want to call attention to himself; but I was impressed, at the funeral, how many people he was connected to that came and gave their tributes. All of our lives are interconnected in ways that we don’t always realize, and the impact and ripple effects that we have is significant.
Losing my dad to suicide is the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced, but I hope that it has changed me in a way that has made me more available to other people in their own grief and suffering.
Dennis: That’s a good word. That really is a good word—to take something that you didn’t ask for—
—but to take a trauma, and not turn against God, but ask Him to use that in your life to comfort others, bring encouragement, hope, perspective—and if nothing else—just your presence to their lives.
Bob: Well, and in that way, your book is the tribute that you’re talking about to your dad. It’s also a needed resource in our day for people who are grieving a suicide—that’s the title of the book that Al Hsu has written. You can order Grieving a Suicide when you go online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can call 1-800-FLTODAY to request your copy. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com, and the phone number is 1-800-358-6329—1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
By the way, we have some additional interaction with Al Hsu available online—
—it’s a podcast of continuing dialogue on the subject of suicide. That’s available for you if you’d like to download that or go deeper on this subject. Find the audio at FamilyLifeToday.com.
I’m thinking, Dennis, of the archive of programs on difficult subjects. Through the years, we’ve talked about domestic violence; we’ve talked about infidelity in a marriage relationship; we’ve talked about rebellious teenagers—I mean, there have been programs that we’ve developed over the years to help individuals / help couples and families with the hard issues that come at us in this life. Our goal, here, is to equip you with practical biblical help and hope for the challenges you face in your marriage and your family.
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And we hope you have a great weekend this weekend.
I hope you and your family are able to worship together in your local church, and I hope you can join us back on Monday. Have you ever had the situation where you’ve hit “Send” and then regretted it? Emerson Eggerichs is going to join us Monday to talk about how we can keep that from happening—what we can do before we hit “Send” so we don’t wind up wishing we hadn’t pushed that button. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. Have a great weekend. We will see you Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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