He Descended into Hell: a book review

Suicide is a hard thing for us to talk about. Someone has died, the circumstance seems unnatural and we don’t know what to say. We feel the stigma and the sting. Personally, I haven’t been really close with anyone who died by suicide but I’ve seen from a distance, the way a suicide can wreck those left behind. I’ve seen people shoulder the grief, shame and anger of suicide after they lost a child, a friend, a pastor. It is hard to sit with them in their pain. Harder still to know what to say. Our pronounced platitudes, which really bring no comfort to grieving people anyway, come off as cruel and tone-deaf after someone has taken their own life.

bruised-and-woundedRonald Rolheiser has written a helpful little booklet, Bruised & Wounded: Struggling to Understand a SuicideRolheiser is a priest, renowned speaker and author of books on Christian spirituality. Here, he approaches the topic of suicide with grace and pastoral sensitivity. I generally would not advocate throwing a book at hurting people, but this is one that I think would be appropriate, welcome and helpful for those in the wake of losing someone they love to suicide.

There several features of this book which commend it. First, it is brief. It is a small book that fits in the palm of your hand and it is just 77 pages long (including table of contents and front matter). People grieving a suicide do not need a complicated theological treatise and this is not that. Second, Rolheiser is careful throughout this book to avoid victim blaming.  Often people react with anger and judgment on the suicidal for their selfishness in taking their own life. But Rolheiser observes:

Just as with physical cancer, the person dying of suicide is taken out of this life against his or her will. Death by suicide is the emotional equivalent of cancer, a stroke or a heart attack. Thus, its patterns are the same as those of cancer, strokes, and  heart attacks. Death can happen suddenly, or it can be the end product of a long struggle that slowly wears a person down. Either way it is involuntary. As human beings, we are neither pure angels nor pure animals, but we are always both body and soul, one psychosomatic whole. And either part can break down (10-11).

Later, he writes:

Many of us have known victims of suicide, and we know too, that in almost every case that person was not full of pride, haughtiness and the desire to hurt anyone. Generally, it’s the opposite. The victim has cancerous problems precisely because he or she is wounded, raw, and too bruised to have the resiliency needed to deal with life. Those who have lost loved ones to suicide know that  the problem is not one of strength but of weakness—the person is too bruised to be touched (20).

and again:

Suicide in most cases, is a disease, not something freely willed. The person dies in this way dies against his or her will, akin to those who jumped to their deaths from the Twin Towers after terrorist planes had set those buildings on fire on September 11, 2001. They were jumping to certain death,  but only because they were already burned to death where they were standing (28-29).

By framing suicide as emotional cancer destroying the person instead of as a self-centered volitional act to ends one’s life, Rolheiser doesn’t minimize the tragedy of suicide, but he does give the victim back to us. Their struggle can be honored and life celebrated.

Third, he doesn’t describe suicide, per se,  as ‘sin.’ So where the Catechism of the Catholic Church  says “‘suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life’ and is thus ‘gravely contrary to the just love of self'” (38), Rolheiser draws a distinction between the ordinary suicide —where a sensitive soul is “overpowered by the chaos of life”and the killing of oneself. by the “pathological narcissist acting in strength” to freely end their life (39). It is  the latter, that Rolheiser sees as condemned by the Church, though he notes that the victims of suicide he has known have been ‘the very antithesis of the egoist, the narcissist, or the strong, overproud person who congenitally refuses to take his or her place in the humble, broken structure of things” (39-40).

Fourth, Rolheiser emphasizes throughout the grace of God and the way Jesus comes to meet us in our alienation and brokenness. Reflecting on the line of the creed, He descended into hell, Rolheiser writes:

To say that Christ descended into hell is to, first and foremost say something about God’s love for us and how that love will go to any length, descend to any depth, and go through any barrier in order to embrace a wounded, huddled, frightened and bruised soul. By dying as he did, Jesus showed that he loves us in such a way that his love can penetrate even our private hells, going right through the barriers of hurt, anger, fear and hopelessness (14).

Rolheiser also gives the example of Jesus in John’s gospel, penetrating walls and locked doors to meet the grieving disciples (15). Speaking of one victim of suicide, Rolheiser writes:

I am sure that when the young woman . . .awoke on the other side, Jesus stood inside of her huddled fear and spoke to her, softly and gently, those same words he spoke to his disciples on that first Easter day when he went through the locked doors which they were huddled and said: “Peace be with you! Again, I say it, Peace be with you!” (16).

The book concludes with reflections on God’s prodigal, forgiving nature, his power to raise the dead, his understanding and trustworthiness (76-77).

Finally, this book is endorsed by Kay Warren and Marjorie Antus, both of whom lost a child to suicide and find comfort in Rolheiser’s prose. Rolheiser never diminishes the difficulty, anger, and grief of those left behind, but he does offer words of consolation and hope.

I’ve read other books on suicide and pastoral care for the suicidal (notably Albert Hsu’s Grieving a Suicide and Karen Mason’s Preventing a Suicide, both from IVP). This is the book I would recommend for those picking up the pieces at ground zero in the aftermath of a suicide. This is hopeful and gracious. I give this five stars –

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete in exchange for my honest review.