Not long ago, Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles received a letter from grief-stricken parents who were mourning the death of a teenage son who had taken his own life.
The letter was, at once, painful and familiar. In his many years of service as a Church leader, Elder Ballard has known and offered comfort and counsel to several families impacted by suicide. It is a universal tragedy that affects people of all races, nations and economic backgrounds — both inside and outside of the Church.
Some suicides, such as the recent deaths of actor Robin Williams or Ohio State football player Kosta Karageorge, receive wide press coverage and discussion. Countless others occur outside the eyes of the media — but they still leave deep wounds in the lives of surviving loved ones.
Recently the Church released a seven-minute video on its website entitled “Sitting on the Bench: Thoughts on Suicide Prevention.” The short film includes interviews with a friend of a suicide victim, along with a first-hand account of a young man who attempted to take his own life and, later, found hope in the love and acceptance of his family and the Lord.
Elder Ballard also appears in the video, sharing gentle counsel to those who might be contemplating suicide — and to those left behind following a loved one’s suicide.
“In my judgment, there is no more difficult time for a family than when a loved one takes his or her own life,” he told the Church News. “Suicide is a devastating family experience.”
The Church video notes several reasons why a person might attempt suicide — including depression or other forms of mental illness; feeling alienated and alone; or simply surrendering to an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.
Elder Ballard said much is known about suicide — but many things remain unknown. Battles with depression and hopelessness, he added, can pose difficult, long-term challenges.
“Satan, who is the father of all lies, can cause people to believe that they are worthless and have no purpose,” he said. “When people start thinking that way we need to get to them quickly. They need to know they are a son or daughter of God and that they are loved.”
There is a remedy, he added, for life’s most difficult and painful periods.
“There is the gospel and Jesus Christ and the Atonement,” he said. “There is peace and safety and a future.”
In the video, Elder Ballard invites viewers to “reach out the arm of love” to those who might be struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide. If possible, help them find appropriate professional counseling and care. Be a true friend. Let them know they are never alone.
The apostle said he is troubled to hear accounts of bullying and cruelty that may have pushed some to suicide. Sometimes the bullying occurs through various social media platforms.
“We have to be careful how we treat each other,” he said. “The Lord expects us to be kind to each other and to love one another. Any young person, or adult for that matter, who is guilty of bullying another person or making another person miserable better be careful.
“I think in the eternal perspective, we will be accountable for how we treat one another.”
Losing a child, a spouse, a parent, a sibling or a friend to suicide can cause deep suffering and confusion. But survivors can find peace and hope amidst their grief through Christ and His Atonement, assured Elder Ballard.
“Trust your Heavenly Father. Trust the Lord Jesus Christ. Rely on His Atonement and go on with your life and do the very best you can. Serve others and help others along the way.”
Elder Ballard knows well the pain of losing young loved ones. Two of his granddaughters died before they reached six months of age. Meanwhile, a grandson — a bright and promising returned missionary — was killed in a small airplane crash.
“You can say ‘Why?’ and make yourself miserable, or you can say ‘There’s a lot we don’t know, but we do know that God is there and that He loves us and we will see them again.’ ”
Elder Ballard also warned about judging those who take their own lives. Only God can truly understand the many complexities and circumstances that surround a suicide. He will be merciful and kind.
So be gentle and kind in word and thought for those who have passed, he said, “and let the judgment issues rest with heaven.”
[email protected] @JNSwensen