Understanding Suicide: Help for Those Left Behind

Whenever we take too much responsibility for the choices another human makes, misery is sure to follow. When the choice we’re taking responsibility for caused the end of another person’s life, the resulting guilt can be life stopping. And yet as is always the case with overwhelming guilt, the theory that you would have, should have, or could have prevented someone else from taking their own life is based on assumptions which are simply incorrect. Education is the key to getting freed up from damaging guilt, and in this post, I’m going to explain some of the internal mechanics that lead up to suicide. I believe that understanding is critical to the healing process, and the underlying mechanics of suicide are very poorly understood. My goal is to equip you with information that will help you form more realistic expectations–both for yourself, and for the person you have lost. As your expectations become more reasonable, your guilt will subside, and you will be able to move forward with your own life.

Two Kinds of Attempts

Now because this is such a vast topic, I am going to narrow the focus by only discussing the mechanics of serious suicide efforts. Suicide attempts can be divided into two categories: serious and non-serious. Serious attempts are typically better planned, more successful, and rarely discussed beforehand, which gives the effect of having loved ones feel like a horrible shock was sprung on them without warning. Serious cases may or may not leave behind some kind of explanation for why they did what they did. As preferable as it sounds to receive some kind of explanation (such as a note or video message), such explanations sometimes do more harm than good. When humans are in an extreme state of distress, their judgment skills are negatively affected, and this can cause them to give a very misleading account of their actions. If your person left behind some kind of note that seems to be pressuring you into taking full responsibility for their death, it would be very advisable for you to talk to someone who can help you put that note in proper perspective. It is never reasonable to claim that another human is entirely responsible for the choices we make. While humans can certainly upset each other and try to drive each other into despair, there are always many other variables involved which can’t be ignored if we’re going to make an accurate judgment.

In cases of serious attempts, the person is dedicated to destroying themselves in the moment that they act. There are many possible ways to arrive at the moment of action. Sometimes we rush into the moment, perhaps aided by other factors, like medications or drugs that we ingest which skew our thinking in unexpected ways. Other times we slowly arrive over a long period of building stress. Regardless of how we reach the moment of action, certain mechanics must occur for us to follow through with killing ourselves, and those are the mechanics I will be explaining in this post. I will also explain some common ways that people arrive at the moment of action so that you can get a feel for what a private and complex process this is for each individual.

In cases of non-serious attempts, the person is usually trying to gain attention. While non-serious attempts are often labeled as “a cry for help,” this isn’t always the case. Some people view dramatic suicide attempts as a handy manipulation tool that they can use in maintaining dysfunctional relationship dynamics. Often what triggers manipulative attempts are when someone who an abuser is used to dominating tries to draw healthy boundaries and reduce the abuser’s power over them. The abuser might then threaten to kill themselves or even stage a phony attempt in order to morally guilt their victim into falling back into a dysfunctional doormat role.

When non-serious attempts succeed, it is accidental and unwanted. But once an attempt is successful, how can you tell whether it was accidental or intentional? Analyzing the person’s behavior prior to the attempt often reveals whether their attempt was serious or not. Because non-serious attempts are generally about getting attention from others, the person will often discuss their intentions well in advance, testing out different styles of announcing their plan to die to see which style provokes the desired response in others.

Because serious and non-serious attempts are driven by very different motivations, they should be handled differently. Taking non-serious attempts seriously only encourages manipulative behavior, but serious attempts do need to be taken seriously. Serious attempts also need to be responded to realistically, and that means understanding that those closest to the suicidal person are often unequipped to give them the kind of help they need. Helping a serious suicide case requires an understanding of the mechanics I’m going to explain in this post. The window of opportunity tends to be very brief in these cases, and a counselor who acts fast and takes the correct approach will have the best chance at helping someone who has lost the will to live. But that said, not all serious suicides can be talked out of their despair.

The theory that we can always fix each other with the right kinds of discussion and/or medication is simply not true. Human beings are limited creatures, and sometimes our limits have been stretched to the max and there are simply no resources left to work with. In addition to resource limitations, there is also the issue of choice. Human beings are very complex creatures who have multiple elements to their beings, each of which is capable of independent thought. While one part of a person might want to live, another part might want to die. Which element wins the internal debate depends on many complex factors which are simply not things that a third party can control. What all of this means for you is that it is totally unreasonable for you to assume you could have pulled someone back from the brink of despair if you’d just done or said something differently. Resolving despair of this magnitude requires a lot more than a few well timed phrases or actions. Humans are extremely resilient creatures, and they have been designed by God with a very strong self-preservation instinct as well as an automatic fear of what is unknown. It takes extreme internal mechanics to extinguish that will to live and to reach a point where the great mystery of death is preferable to continuing on in a world that is very familiar. But now let’s dig deeper.

The Mind-Body Connection

All humans have three main elements to their beings: mind, soul and body. The mind can be further divided into the conscious versus the subconscious. Among these four elements, the subconscious and soul act as alphas over the submissive body and conscious.

Suicide is the shutting down of the body and mind. Suicide does not shut down the soul. It is not possible to kill your own soul or cause its existence to cease. What humans think of as death only brings an end to the mind and body. But the great shock we all have when we die is discovering that we continue to live. What is promoted as a final end turns out to not be an end at all, but the beginning of a whole new chapter of existence.

Your subconscious and your body have a very mysterious relationship with each other. Forget about the theory that that bizarre organ resting in your skull is your actual subconscious. Just as your emotions are very real, yet they do not exist as a physical part of your body, your mind is not your brain. Your brain is part of your body. When doctors scan your brain, the data they collect is actually your body responding to your mind. Studying the body’s response to the mind (such as noting which parts of your physical brain become active when you think certain things) is entirely different than studying the mind itself.

Brain activity could be thought of as the footsteps that an invisible man makes on a beach as he walks along. We can study and measure his steps all day long, but that will never give us the depth of understanding that we’d have if we talked with the invisible man directly. When scientists study the human brain, it’s like they are measuring those footsteps in the sand, and then they claim to be experts on the invisible man himself, when all they’ve really done is study the effects that the man has had on a limited patch of ground. The fact that modern science refuses to acknowledge what it can’t see, hear, and touch is why the “experts” demonstrate such a poor understanding of how the human mind actually works. You can’t know the human mind until you first acknowledge that it is an entirely different thing than the physical brain. You then have to spend a lot of time talking to minds directly and listening to them explain themselves.

Now all of that said, the mind plays a central role in committing suicide. It’s quite impossible for anyone to kill themselves without the cooperation of their subconscious. The soul, body, and conscious can each individually vote for suicide, yet none of these elements have the power to shutdown the entire mind-body system. The subconscious is the only one with this ability, and to understand why this is, we need another metaphor.

To understand the power difference between your mind and body, imagine that your subconscious is like an astronaut while your body is like the astronaut’s high-tech space vehicle. As he drives about in his vehicle, the astronaut is constantly sending the vehicle instructions on what to do from his driver control panel. If the vehicle becomes damaged in some way, the astronaut types in special maintenance instructions to tell the vehicle how to fix itself. The astronaut is an expert on his vehicle: he has an intimate knowledge of how it works, and he has all kinds of repair tricks at the ready for any problem that might arise. But while the astronaut is the one keeping his vehicle in top condition, he can also force it to shut down. If he intentionally rams his vehicle into a boulder or yanks out some critical wires, the vehicle will be unable to function and it will completely shut down.

Now suppose the astronaut were to try to leave his special vehicle and go for a walk by himself. The moment he opens the door of his vehicle, he would die. The planet he is on can’t sustain human life; there is no air or water and the temperature is well below freezing all the time. Just as the vehicle depends on the astronaut for its own well-being, the astronaut depends on the vehicle to keep him alive on an alien world.

This metaphor helps us understand that your mind and body each depend on each other to expand each other’s abilities to function.

When it comes to death, things get complicated. Suicide is self-inflicted death. If the astronaut were to intentionally trash his vehicle, the vehicle would be destroyed and the astronaut himself would die from exposure to hostile elements. The astronaut can’t live without his vehicle, and the vehicle can’t function without the astronaut. But of course not all death is self-inflicted. If some bit of space debris flies past and rips a hole in the astronaut’s vehicle, then both the vehicle and the astronaut will die–not because they want to, but because death was forced upon them. Or suppose the vehicle is working fine, but the astronaut comes down with a deadly illness inside the cab. Once he dies, he stops giving critical commands, and without his guidance, the vehicle can no longer maintain itself.

So now we see that there are two ways to die. If either your mind or your body become too damaged to function, the injured element will end up taking its partner down with it when it dies. A soldier who receives a fatal bullet wound experiences this domino effect of death with his body going first, then his mind. In some very severe cases of psychological trauma, the mind will stop performing critical functions for the body, and once it stops doing its job, the body dies.

When people think of death, they tend to imagine scenarios which all involve the body being the responsible party. When a man dies from hanging himself, it seems logical that he died of suffocation or a broken neck, both of which are body problems. And yet in cases of serious suicide attempts, it’s never the body that kicks things off. In these situations, death always begins with either the subconscious or the soul.

Soul Driven Suicide

As I said earlier, your soul and your subconscious are the two dominant elements of your being. But where does the soul fit in to our astronaut metaphor? Well, let’s imagine our man driving about in his space vehicle again, only this time he has a partner in the front passenger seat. That second fellow is your soul. Your soul doesn’t have any control board in front of it that lets it control what the vehicle does. The most your soul can do is make requests of your mind, who is in the driver’s seat. “I want to go left and check out that mountain,” your soul can say, and when it makes this kind of request, your mind then decides if it wants to go along with your soul’s preference or do something else.

With this kind of setup, it would be easy to assume that your soul has very little influence over your actions. But if you’ve ever been stuck in a car with a screaming child or a furious adult, then you know that passengers can greatly influence a driver’s actions. The same is true for your soul and your mind. While the subconscious part of your mind is the fellow in the driver seat, it actually cares quite a bit about what your soul is up to. While your subconscious and soul often disagree with each other, and while they both have different priorities and agendas, if your soul becomes agitated enough, your subconscious will actually do some extreme things just to get your soul to calm down.

In cases of soul driven suicide, the soul is the element that first locks onto the idea of death being extremely desirable. The soul then harangues the subconscious to such extreme degrees that the subconscious concludes that killing off itself and the body is actually preferable to living with such an unhappy soul.

A person’s motivations for killing themselves are shaped by which element is pushing for death. In cases of soul driven suicides, there is often a focus on morality and/or the afterlife. Your soul is the only part of your being that cares about the issue of morals, but it cares about this issue quite a bit. Your soul has a core need to be able to respect you as a morally decent person. If it feels that it is unable to do this, it can become so miserable that it might decide its own existence is unbearable. In these cases, death can seem like a great relief and the only escape from overwhelming shame and self-disgust.

Your soul has many beliefs, and this results in soul driven suicides having many possible motivations. Overwhelming self-disgust is just one unbearable situation your soul can get into. Another common one is a terror of Divine wrath.

Not all souls believe in the concept of a God or an afterlife. Your soul constantly revises its beliefs as it gathers new information from your experiences in life, so what you believe today will be different than what you believe ten years from now. When a soul has strong views about an afterlife, those views impact the decision to commit suicide. Some souls are terrified that they are going to end up in a state of terrible torment when they die (such as the Christian concept of Hell). If you really believe that an all-powerful God has damned you to suffer for eternity, than you might decide that your only hope of getting that God to be merciful is to voluntarily rush into the punishment He has planned for you. Perhaps if you do, God will be impressed with your willingness to accept your just punishment, and decide not to punish you after all. Using this and other similar logic, some souls push for suicide in a desperate effort to appease a wrathful God (“Perhaps He’ll be merciful to me”).

Other souls have decided for God that He must hate them for what they’ve done (even if He doesn’t), so they attempt to force themselves into a hellish afterlife in order to appease their own sense of justice (“I deserve to burn for what I did”). In some cases, souls refuse to accept God’s mercy even when He offers it to them quite clearly, and instead they insist that their personal assessment of themselves trumps His (“God should never forgive me for what I did”).

Not all cases of soul driven suicides have negative motivations driving them. In some cases, souls want to die because they firmly believe that their next chapter of existence will be far better than it is now (“I couldn’t wait any longer to get to Heaven” or “I can’t find any joy in this world, but I know that I will in the next one”). Some souls are in a hurry to die because they are trying to connect with a being or beings who they believe are waiting for them on the other side (“I want to be with Jesus” or “I’ve gone to be with my wife again”). Of course believing something to be true isn’t the same as it actually being true. Sometimes we rush into death with one clear picture of what we’ll experience on the other side, only to be plunged into something entirely different. Many souls who were certain that they were going to be blasted with the wrath of a hateful God ended up shocked by a God who is far more merciful than they imagined possible. Other times the opposite occurs: souls who are certain they are in for the ultimate party life end up in a nightmare situation. The theory that death is a “choose your own ending” affair is total hooey, and yet right or wrong, our beliefs greatly affect our choices and behaviors.

Serious attempts aren’t always successful, and when they aren’t, there can be an opportunity to try to help the suicidal person change their current beliefs about the value of staying alive on the planet. In cases of soul driven suicide, the soul’s beliefs are the ones that need to be revised if the suicidal person is going to abandon their plan of self-destruction. But by the time souls become suicidal, their beliefs tend to be very strong and well-rehearsed, and that makes changing them rather challenging.

Your soul and mind are very logical elements with an exceptional ability to adapt to new information. But while they can change their beliefs, they aren’t necessarily willing to do so. How do you even begin to persuade a soul to keep living in this world when that soul is convinced that perfect bliss or a loving God or dearly missed humans can be instantly connected with the moment they die? In real life, souls are not always receptive to changing their views. Just as you’ve seen yourself be very stubborn at times and unwilling to listen to or consider information that counters your current views, human souls can shut down and refuse to listen when someone starts trying to talk up the idea of pressing on in this world.

If you have lost someone due to soul driven suicide, here is an important question to ask yourself: at the time they died, were you personally equipped to persuade their soul to choose a different course of action? Loving someone deeply does not automatically give you the ability to form persuasive arguments on subjects like morality or God. Even if you do think you could have made a persuasive case for why your person should have stuck around, their soul might have simply refused to listen to you. Souls are independent thinkers, and God has not given you the option of forcing another human to change his or her choices. So you see, blaming yourself for soul driven suicide is like saying you definitely had the power to effectively talk that soul out of its plans. Well, no, you do not have that power; no human does. Even when a soul is overwhelmed with self-disgust (“I’m a worthless monster”) and you try your best to shower it with true, hope infusing facts (“No you’re not, you have so much potential and nothing is unforgivable”), that doesn’t mean the soul you’re working with will be willing to listen. Souls have a God given right to say “no” to hope, love, and truth. And they do. Very often. Is it sad? Of course it is. But if you start taking personal responsibility for every sad reality in this world, then your soul is soon going to conclude that your life is too depressing to live. Such a self-blaming mentality takes you nowhere but down.

Failed Attempts

When a serious attempt fails, the suicidal person is often frustrated and depressed by the failure, not happy. They are also very likely to plan another attempt as soon as possible, which is why serious intervention needs to happen quickly. In cases of soul driven suicides, there is a greater chance for the suicidal person to feel relieved that they failed in their attempt than there is in mind driven suicides. This is especially true when souls believe in God and they interpret their failed attempt as a sign of His positive intervention. While it’s quite true that God is always the One responsible for blocking suicide attempts, His involvement won’t be acknowledged by souls who aren’t aware of His existence.

Mind driven suicides tend to be more difficult affairs. For starters, the mind does not care about God, and so it isn’t receptive to seeing Him as a potential Ally. Mind driven suicides are usually motivated by a subconscious that feels too exhausted to go on. Unprocessed trauma is a very common factor in these cases, with minds slowly building up a mountain of stress over upsetting experiences from the past until they reach their breaking point.

When an attempt fails and people react with shock and horror, the suicidal person’s stress load becomes greater. The very fact that they tried to kill themselves indicates that they were unable to see a better way to solve their problems. Having family and friends react with hurt and anger will often intensify the suicidal person’s desire to try another attempt as soon as possible so that they can escape a situation which now feels even worse than it did before. It’s important to realize that in many cases, people are unable to give detailed explanations of why they want to end their lives. A counselor who knows what to look for should be able to quickly pinpoint the underlying motivations and help the suicidal person better understand their own behavior. But without a calm guide to help them gain self-awareness, the suicidal person can often slide down into guilt and shame as they see the pain they are causing their loved ones.

Despite the urgency of the situation, it’s best not to put pressure on the suicidal person to hurry up and change their views. The extreme fatigue of suicidal elements needs to be respected, and an emphasis on the positive is desperately needed in any intervention efforts. Often providing this kind of help is beyond the abilities of friends and family. Strong emotional attachments and a shared history often make it impossible for the suicidal person to feel safe enough to discuss their fears and stresses. Just as you will instinctively try to hide many aspects about yourself from someone you greatly respect, a suicidal person often feels too embarrassed, awkward, or ashamed to share their burdens with those who are or have been close to them.

Mind Driven Suicide

In mind driven suicides, it is the subconscious part of the mind that pushes for death. Mind driven suicides are more likely to result in action because, unlike the soul, the subconscious has direct access to the body. Your “survival instinct” comes from your subconscious. It is the part of your being that cares immensely about your physical safety and well-being. Under normal circumstances, your subconscious will go to great lengths to try to keep you alive. Unlike your soul, which is the part of you that thinks “there must be more to life than this,” your subconscious has no interest in pondering why you exist and if you will somehow continue to be after death. It’s the here and now that matters to your subconscious, and it will fight hard to keep you alive on the planet as long as possible.

When your soul crashes into despair and wants to die, it is your subconscious that refuses to cooperate with it by killing off your body. Your subconscious’ power over your body is an asset when it comes to pushing you through periods of soul depression. But your subconscious’ unique position of power also makes its own depression more dangerous. If your subconscious reaches a point where it wants to die, it doesn’t need your soul’s cooperation to carry out its plans. It can just go for it, despite your soul’s protests. But how does an element that cares so much about your physical well-being reach a point where it is willing to go against its own value system by killing you off? The answer is extreme stress.

Minds use a wide variety of strategies to cope with stress. In cases of severe trauma, subconscious minds often use memory suppression to protect their conscious counterparts from becoming too stressed by upsetting memories. When suppression is being used, the suicidal person can have no conscious awareness of what the true cause of their internal stress is. They will just know that they feel too internally exhausted to keep going on, but they won’t be able to explain why. Most cases of suppression aren’t as mysterious as movies make them out to be when they weave dramatic stories of amnesia. It’s often quite possible to quickly pinpoint underlying stresses if you know what kinds of questions to ask. But again, it is not reasonable to expect this sort of thing from yourself. Just as most people can’t sit down at a piano and play a smooth rendition of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, most people don’t know how to have productive conversations with extremely stressed out minds. Instead of persecuting yourself for not having a rare skill, you need to recognize that your expectations are unreasonable and lighten up on yourself.

When friends and family members endlessly berate themselves for not saying the right thing to the suicidal person, they often envision conversations that simply wouldn’t be helpful to a suicidal mind. Desperate minds are very guarded, very tired, and actively looking for reasons to take offense. In the face of that kind of challenge, it’s quite reasonable to feel tongue tied and helpless. While we’d all like to believe that we’d swoop in and save the day when our loved ones are hurting, in real life we often feel alarmed and threatened by someone admitting they tried to kill themselves. Sometimes our overriding instinct is to put distance between ourselves and the suicidal person, not volunteer to get tangled up in their mess. These are all reasonable responses to have when you’re faced with a problem that feels overwhelming and complicated.

When extreme suppression is being used as a coping method, the suicidal person often won’t ever mention the issues that are bothering them the most. It’s quite possible to know someone for decades, think that you are close to them, and have no idea that they’ve been secretly lugging around huge burdens of pain from their past. In these situations, it often comes as a genuine shock when the exhausted mind finally decides it’s had enough of fighting a losing battle and destroys itself.

Substance abuse is another very popular coping tool for stressed out minds. The goal here is to ingest substances that give the mind a temporary break from thinking about its unsolvable problems. The mind learns through experience which kinds of substances give it a strong dose of relief, and when it finds one it feels especially helped by, it can latch onto it fiercely. Of course the resulting drug addictions create even more problems for the struggling person, with one of the greatest problems being an angry soul.

Many of the trauma coping methods that minds come up with are things which their soul partners strongly disapprove of. Watching porn, taking drugs, sleeping around, binge eating, self-harming, assaulting others, volunteering to be assaulted, lying, stealing, hiding out from the world…the list goes on and on. The mind always has logical reasons for what it does, but once the soul feels the mind is acting immoral, it will refuse to respect the mind’s problems. Instead, souls tend to react to trauma coping methods with anger and shaming–a response which only increases the mind’s stress load. In cases of mind driven suicide, the soul is often making a difficult problem much worse by heaping on constant shaming lectures about what a loser/monster/sinner/rebel/jerk/scum/burden the suicidal person has become. This makes intervention even harder, as the soul will often try to block the mind from receiving the help it needs. To effectively help this kind of suicide case, you have to work with both the soul and the mind. Until the soul agrees to stop attacking the mind with its moral shaming, the mind will often refuse to talk about what’s bothering it because it doesn’t want to give the soul more ammo to use against it.

Unlike soul driven suicides which often focus on moral issues, mind driven suicides tend to be motivated by a general feeling of internal exhaustion (“I can’t go on”). Your subconscious doesn’t care about the morality of what you have or haven’t done, but it cares immensely about keeping you safe, getting its core needs met, making sense of your past, and preserving your ability to live among other humans without being trampled on. When it feels that one or more of these things can’t be done, it gets dragged down into a state of frustration, fear, and fatigue until it decides it simply can’t see any point to going on. Subconscious minds are extremely impressive fighters and they can press on against impossible odds as long as they can see some kind of hope on the horizon. But when success feels impossibly removed from their reach, they can reach a point where they logically conclude that it is pointless to stay alive just to suffer.

Like your soul, your mind is an independent thinker with a God given right to say “no” to help and hope. By the time they are stuck in a constant war with their partner souls and feeling overwhelmed by their own unresolved fears and problems, minds might decide that they simply don’t want to try anymore. This is a choice that you can’t take away from another human being. We can’t force each other to see hope, we can’t instantly fix traumatic beliefs, and we can’t always make life seem worth living to someone else. When you tell yourself that you should have been there to stop your person from ending their lives, you’re talking about method, not motivation. Sure, you can block someone from using a particular method in a certain moment. But if they are truly suicidal, they will simply find a different method and be more crafty about when they carry it out. Serious suicides are complex cases, and there are not quick fixes to these things. Underlying causes need to be identified, streams of logic need to be revised, and unprocessed issues need to be addressed. All of these things take time and a willingness to work on some painful issues. In most cases, friends and family members are simply not going to be the ones that minds and souls feel comfortable opening up to. This isn’t anyone’s fault; it’s just the way humans are designed to think. We all struggle to be totally honest with ourselves about our personal issues, and we find it even more difficult to be honest with those we care about. Strangers who we are free to cut ties with at anytime feel much safer and easier to open up to when we are grappling with difficult issues. But here again, you can’t make someone talk to a counselor, pastor, or other crisis adviser, nor is it entirely on you to come up with that kind of suggestion. There are always limits to how far you should go in your attempts to influence someone else’s choices in life. Once a life has come to an end, it’s time to stop obsessing over what you could have or should have done and work on accepting what is.

Conclusion

When we care about our fellow humans to any degree, it’s impossible not to feel moved by someone taking their own life. Once you understand the intense misery that is going on behind the scenes in these moments, you can’t help but feel compassion for the person who died. Your own misery is always worse to you than anyone else’s, and wanting relief from suffering is a sentiment we can all identify with. Thankfully the God who made us all understands our limitations and He is a very kind and merciful Judge. While we can’t help but feel that many lives end before they should, the truth is that no one dies before their time. The same God who gives us life is the only One who can take it away, and this is another reason why it doesn’t work to blame ourselves for not keeping someone alive on the planet. The power to create, extend, or destroy life is simply not within our reach. All we can do is attempt to do these things, but it is God who controls the final outcome.

When someone you know commits suicide, their actions can bring your own unresolved stresses and concerns to the surface. If that happens, take advantage of the opportunity by talking to someone about what you’re feeling. A few productive conversations up front can save you from years of misery. It’s often best to talk through your own reactions with someone who is not also upset by what is happening. People process grief in different ways, and while keeping the lines of communication open is very important, you shouldn’t try to have in depth conversations with someone who is clearly upset by the things you need to talk about. If no one in your circle seems able or willing to talk about the things you need to talk about, find someone else you can talk with, such as a pastor or counselor. The sooner you start talking, the less you’ll need to talk, as concerns are always easier to resolve early on.

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