For Whom the Bell Tolls

by: Bonnie

August 29, 2012

My recent high school graduate son is part of a group of 7 or 8 friends who have been extremely close for years. During vacations they’ve often camped in my family room, and on any given evening they are all at one’s home or another’s. Their senior trip consisted of a week with one of the families at a cabin on a lake. They’re our shared boys.

Last Saturday night, one of them walked home from a disappointing evening and hung himself at a park a few blocks from my home. His suicide note was a text sent to each of the group and his family at 1AM, and after sending it he turned his phone off. It was a frantic night, first trying to figure out if he was serious, and then trying to find him.

We are frayed lately, confused and angry, numb and despondent, sometimes in dizzying succession. There are no platitudes for this.

I am neither in a position to think deeply, nor to moderate conversation. Besides, while this post is being discussed I will be at the funeral. I am curious, however, about your thoughts regarding the next state of those who take their own lives.

In October 1987 Elder Ballard spoke about suicide with considerable candor.  As Elder Ballard quotes, Elder McConkie had the following to say on the subject:

Suicide consists in the voluntary and intentional taking of one’s own life, particularly where the person involved is accountable and has a sound mind. … Persons subject to great stresses may lose control of themselves and become mentally clouded to the point that they are no longer accountable for their acts. Such are not to be condemned for taking their own lives. It should also be remembered that judgment is the Lord’s; he knows the thoughts, intents, and abilities of men; and he in his infinite wisdom will make all things right in due course.

Elder Ballard goes on to say:

I feel that judgment for sin is not always as cut-and-dried as some of us seem to think. The Lord said, “Thou shalt not kill.” Does that mean that every person who kills will be condemned, no matter the circumstances? Civil law recognizes that there are gradations in this matter—from accidental manslaughter to self-defense to first-degree murder. I feel that the Lord also recognizes differences in intent and circumstances: Was the person who took his life mentally ill? Was he or she so deeply depressed as to be unbalanced or otherwise emotionally disturbed? Was the suicide a tragic, pitiful call for help that went unheeded too long or progressed faster than the victim intended? Did he or she somehow not understand the seriousness of the act? Was he or she suffering from a chemical imbalance that led to despair and a loss of self-control?

Obviously, we do not know the full circumstances surrounding every suicide. Only the Lord knows all the details, and he it is who will judge our actions here on earth.

When he does judge us, I feel he will take all things into consideration: our genetic and chemical makeup, our mental state, our intellectual capacity, the teachings we have received, the traditions of our fathers, our health, and so forth.

We learn in the scriptures that the blood of Christ will atone for the sins of men “who have died not knowing the will of God concerning them, or who have ignorantly sinned. (Mosiah 3:11)”

And he quotes Joseph Smith, who comments:

While one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard. … He is a wise Lawgiver, and will judge all men, not according to the narrow, contracted notions of men, but, ‘according to the deeds done in the body whether they be good or evil,’ or whether these deeds were done in England, America, Spain, Turkey, or India. … We need not doubt the wisdom and intelligence of the Great Jehovah; He will award judgment or mercy to all nations according to their several deserts, their means of obtaining intelligence, the laws by which they are governed, the facilities afforded them of obtaining correct information, and His inscrutable designs in relation to the human family; and when the designs of God shall be made manifest, and the curtain of futurity be withdrawn, we shall all of us eventually have to confess that the Judge of all the earth has done right. (TPJS, 218)

This is one of my favorite quotes of the prophet. These observations give me great peace. I have noticed changes in the spirit that emanates from my father the couple of times he has visited me since his death, changes that indicate a refinement of his views. While I understand the importance of doing our work of overcoming here, I believe that significant alterations are inevitable once we pass the veil that separates life here and life after. Hugh Nibley’s youthful experience during an appendectomy forever changed him, not only assuring him of an afterlife, but that it was a fast-learning environment (A Consecrated Life, Boyd J. Peterson, p.115-116). His affirmation that the work of this life was less learning and more repenting and forgiving has changed me. I can see an end to the cycling mania of the last few days.

So, now I invite your thoughts.

  • What do you think happens when we die?
  • How do you think it differs for those who complete suicide?
  • What experiences with death have influenced your outlook on either life or death?

I leave you to the discussion. Please be kind to one another. Life is short.

(Title Reference John Donne: “No man is an Island, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the SeaEurope is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”)

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19 Responses to For Whom the Bell Tolls

  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) on August 29, 2012 at 9:38 PM

    Wow. Had a lot of thoughts about death and loss this week, but not suicide.

    I do like “. His affirmation that the work of this life was less learning and more repenting and forgiving”. Very much.

    All I can offer right now is.

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  2. Molly on August 29, 2012 at 9:42 PM

    One of my friends committed suicide last January. He’d struggled with depression for 15 or so years. At his funeral (he was buried in his temple clothes), the speaker said something to the effect that when you are (clinically) depressed, you have two false beliefs. First, you doubt the love of God and your fellow man. Second, you believe your loved ones will be better off without you.

    Can you even imagine what it would be like to doubt the love of God? My friend had been involved with counseling, medication, repentance for whatever minor sins he committed, a mission, living right, being married to a great person, and still was at a place in his head where he actively did not want to live.

    Helen Keller once said “Death is no more than passing from one room into another. But there’s a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I shall be able to see.” I think those who commit suicide will pass into that room, and their depression and sadness will be gone, because it’s just a manifestation of the mortal, fallen world we live in. In that other room, they shall be able to be happy.

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  3. NewlyHousewife on August 30, 2012 at 4:13 AM

    I see death as the continuing of the spirit, but an end to the body. I wish the culture in America regarding death was like others where it is celebrated. I don’t think how a person has passed influences how it continues on in the afterlife.

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  4. Jenn on August 30, 2012 at 6:00 AM

    I am so very sorry to hear of this, and for your pain and loss. As someone who struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts for years (especially in high school), I absolutely believe there is a point where we are not accountable- depression is a sometimes fatal disease, not something to assign guilt or shame for. I believe wholeheartedly that those who lose the battle against mental illness are welcomed on the other side with open arms. With their disease lifted, they can finally feel the love they couldn’t on earth.

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  5. Bonnie on August 30, 2012 at 7:53 AM

    Just a quick drop-in to share something a good friend said on the subject:

    “We think if we know, if we can somehow understand someone’s why, that we will find comfort in imagining how it could have been prevented. There will never be comfort in imagined control. And there is neither joy nor virtue in wishing we could have exercised authority God Himself will not.”

    Balm for my obsessed soul.

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  6. Mike S on August 30, 2012 at 8:08 AM

    I’m sorry for your loss.

    My personal feelings are that God is much more merciful towards mankind than we are to each other. He is much less judgmental. He is much more accepting of our lots in life and the imperfect efforts we make.

    I hope you and your family can find peace at this difficult time.

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  7. MH on August 30, 2012 at 8:22 AM


    Death is hard to deal with, no matter the cause. I lost my sister to a brain tumor 14 years ago. I lost my brother to a car crash 6 years ago. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about both of them. Even under these circumstances, it is incredibly difficult to deal with. When I think of my sister, I feel profound sadness. When I think of my brother, I feel anger. Despite the fact that he was wearing a seatbelt, driving the speed limit, for whatever reason, he apparently wasn’t paying attention/fell asleep (who really knows) and drifted off the road, flipping his SUV and was killed instantly. If only he was paying attention, he would be with us today. He was in trouble and gone in seconds, and I never got to say goodbye. At least I got to say goodbye to my sister, but the pain of her loss still hurts like hell.

    I had a high school acquaintance take her life within the past month. I have known others more distantly take their lives. No matter the cause, the sense of loss is significant. Soon after my brother died, a good friend of mine died of pancreatic cancer. I couldn’t bear the thought of his poor wife dealing with the sense of loss. On the one hand, I am grateful my sister is no longer suffering, but I miss her dearly. I miss my brother dearly too. I mourn with your son in this loss. Almost all deaths feel like tragic losses.

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  8. Howard on August 30, 2012 at 9:55 AM

    I was stunned by your second paragraph.  I’m sorry for your loss and it ‘s fallout.  Your matter-of-fact tone leaves me hoping that it is because you’ve already thoroughly integrated death and you are not blocking it.   His friends are too young to have integrated death and will need to be coached to talk about and process this.

    I know suicide, I lost two loved ones, their suffering has ended.  It is not for us to judge, but for them to process in the afterlife.  I’m convinced some made the right choice due to limitations of the body that causes suffering beyond any useful lesson.

    Based on an unhurried out-of-body experience I believe death is the loss of the body and it’s richly entertaining and educational senses leaving us with telepathy and mind’s eye vision.  Our second estate provides us with a library of experiences that serve as a thought or concept vocabulary for networking and communicating with others in the next life via. telepathy.  What is an answered prayer if not telepathy?  What is a dream if not a vision?

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  9. Will on August 30, 2012 at 10:00 AM

    I too am sorry for your loss.

    My experience in dealing with the mentally ill and those with significant depression, which is close to home and personal, I have learned that the mind is just like any other vital organ. It can break or malfunction. Like the pancreas that fails for diabetics; or blood cells malfunction for Leukemia victims the mind can and does fail. It fails to release, produce or properly deal with Serotonin levels. This imbalance can and does make people do things they would not otherwise do. I know God is a God of mercy. God is love. He will right all of these wrongs.

    As Alma testified, the body will be restored to a perfect frame. This is comforting to me, especially considering Amuleck’s words in Alma 34:34. A scripture that is so often misunderstood and so often looked at from a negative perspective. Remember, Amuleck is speaking on the atonement. He is speaking HOW mercy can satisfy the demands of justice. This adds new light to his statement “that same spirit which doth spirit your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world” I don’t know the spirit of the young man that committed suicide that you know and love, but I do know that if his spirit was good it will be reunited with a perfect body. A body that is not afflicted with chemical malfunctions, blood disease or damaged organs. It will be reunited with perfect flesh that will allow his spirit to thrive. A body that will allow his spirit to reach its full potential.

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  10. Sean on August 30, 2012 at 11:28 AM

    I am so sorry.

    I know that boy’s sorrow to the center of my bones.

    A life time of failure, a lifetime of lost hopes and dreams and a lifetime of futility struggling in a system that harshly punishes for an entire lifetime those that failed to excel in the first 21 years, have left me unable to feel God’s love.

    Intellectually I know He loves me, theoretically I can see that he would, but in spite of over fifty years of service and prayer and study and commitment, I feel utterly vacuous and without hope.

    God bless that boy, I salute his courage to go to a place where healing and love might be forthcoming.

    Would to that I had such faith and courage.

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  11. Ben on August 30, 2012 at 1:55 PM

    Echoing Sean . . .

    I too can testify firsthand about how depression robs a soul of the ability to feel God’s love. Someone once said that depression is “anger without enthusiasm.” A favorite quote of mine from novelist Judith Guest follows:

    “Geez, if I could get through to you, kiddo, that depression is not sobbing and crying and giving vent, it is plain and simple reduction of feeling. Reduction, see? Of all feeling. People who keep stiff upper lips find that it’s damn hard to smile.”

    I’m what some have called a “DNA Mormon.” I realize the truth of the gospel down to my very core; yet rather than helping me, this knowledge traps me. I feel nothing. I lack virtually all desire or energy to engage with the institutional church on any level. Church meetings are stifling and colorless affairs for me. Scriptural threats or GA exhortations merely produce in me a grim sense of resignation or fitful efforts that soon peter out.

    My SSRI drugs keep me going, but they don’t infuse me with the Spirit or with any feeling of worth or divine approval. The depression solutions prescribed by the leadership inevitably center around increasing one’s participation in the bureaucratic programs of the Church. Such efforts only increase my feelings of inadequacy.

    Suicide is not an option for me because of the devastation it would wreck upon a wife who loves me much more than I deserve (and perhaps more than God does, it seems).

    I like to think that God will be much kinder to suicides than most church members assume; but I have no authoritative backup for that. But, what the hell; I guess being relegated to the faceless masses inhabiting one of the “T” Kingdoms is an example of God’s love too.

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  12. Martin on August 30, 2012 at 3:30 PM

    That’s just brutal. I’m so, so sorry.

    I’ve contemplated what happens to those who kill themselves quite a bit, because I’ve contemplated killing myself quite a bit (seems to be a cyclical thing). The conclusion I’ve come to is simply that if I succumbed to that temptation, I would be guilty of heinous sin and would go through a worse hell than anything I’d yet experienced. An almost overwhelming conclusion when you’re already suffering more than you feel you can handle, let me tell you. I’ve felt to rage at God over it, especially when I’m equally sure the same is not the case for others. But for me, I’m just not that broken to get a pass, so I’d better stay alive.

    I have no idea how to tell who falls in which camp, those who can be excused and those who can’t, or if there’s a continuum, but when I’ve felt completely divorced from the love of God, it’s the fear of hell that’s kept me alive.

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  13. Paul on August 30, 2012 at 4:23 PM

    Bonnie, for not being in a position to think deeply, you’ve certainly given me things to think about. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, despite the pain you and your family and friends must feel.

    I so appreciated the discussion from Elder Ballard (and Elder McConkie and the prophet Joseph), and I find great comfort there. As the parent of children who struggle with mental illness I wonder about accountability all the time, and I am comforted in the end knowing that I don’t have to make that judgement.

    My hope is that the near-death experiences one reads about are true — that one feels love and peace upon death. Certainly a mind plagued by illness, once the physical restraint of this body is removed, should find some solace. At least I hope so.

    I heard Elder Packer once teach the difficulty of the question why, because the answer is often unattainable. And even if it is found, it is not necessarily helpful. In the end, the better question, he taught, was “what next?” That’s a question that signals acceptance, which is, I believe, on the path to peace.

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  14. Bonnie on August 30, 2012 at 11:20 PM

    Thank you for your kind thoughts and your tolerance of each other’s opinions on a visceral subject. We are getting our minds and hearts wrapped around this slowly but surely.

    Paul – I really like your comment about Pres. Packer’s observation, “What next?” I agree that the answer is often more important than the answer to “why?” My bishop shared the address from Elder Ballard with me; he had had occasion to study it as he worked with the family of a former member of our ward who committed suicide about 6 months ago.

    Martin – I have a lot of sympathy for your thoughts. I, too, spent my early years frequently contemplating suicide. I also battled undiagnosed bi-polar. Once I learned to manage my chemistry (which thankfully was not out of kilter enough to demand chemical management) I stopped suffering. I wish peace for you, something besides the fear of hell, but I understand that at some points, like when we hang on by fingernails, the whole thing devolves to “whatever works.” Bless you.

    Ben – my heart goes out to you in your “stiff upper lip” life. I think there is a special dispensation of mercy given to those who move dutifully through their existence because of what they know without the benefit of augmentation in what they feel. My own belief is that while mortality empowers us with a profoundly helpful experience, we will be free of some profoundly limiting mortal issues when we move on. I wrote about that some time ago and called it Foxholes and Tin Punch Lanterns. Blessings to you for the care you have for your wife and the meaning of your life together.

    Sean – I am glad you commented and shared your feelings. I have no intention of trying to talk you out of them. From earlier days I know periods of hopelessness; it is one of the reasons that I consider hope the most powerful force in the universe. I have lived both without faith and without hope, the latter was considerably more terrifying. For some reason, some of us, for short periods or for much of our lives, go through life with our hand over our cup, unable to receive the love of God. I don’t know all the reasons for that, and I can’t fill your cup with hope, but I would if I could. Blessings to you. Glad you’re on here.

    Will – my thoughts exactly.

    Howard – I suppose the matter-of-fact tone is some combination of integrating experience and shock and numbness. I claim no super-speed processing, but I’ve had a few setbacks by my age and I suppose you start feeling like a wizened old farmer after about so much. I actually like your description of the benefits of having a mortal frame.

    MH – I am also sorry for your losses. I’m sorry that pain still lingers for us. I love your oblique reference to the truths behind John Donne’s beautiful lines. We are all affected by each other’s sorrows, drawn together by an intricate web of empathy.

    Mike – Thank you. We have. I do truly think God is merciful beyond imagining.

    Jenn – I agree. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Newly – I also wish we had a different culture of death. I’m not usually so terribly bothered by it, but I suppose there was nothing that felt right in the timing of this. Appreciate your comment.

    Molly – my kids and I have had many conversations in the past few days about “gifts differing.” To have a testimony of God’s love for us is a gift, and to not is … to not. There’s no reason to judge; it’s just a difference. It makes one approach one’s firmly held convictions with a bit more reverence and humility.

    Stephen – I know you have had reason for many tender thoughts. My heart goes out to you. Thank you for the lullaby.

    And thank you all for taking the time to share your thoughts. I do appreciate them each.

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  15. Emilie on August 31, 2012 at 12:17 AM

    I found out yesterday that someone I knew well and with whom I had a complicated relationship had committed suicide. The past 24 hours have been hell. I needed to read this today. Thank you for providing these quotes.

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  16. Hedgehog on August 31, 2012 at 7:32 AM

    Bonnie, so sorry.
    I loved this: “..there is neither joy nor virtue in wishing we could have exercised authority God Himself will not.”
    MH: “Almost all deaths feel like tragic losses.”
    On the questions in the OP.
    1. Onto the next stage – I imagine it to be rather like the arrivals hall at an airport with people to greet us and explain what is going on. Maybe get to talk through what has happened, particularly if the death was sudden. Meet family. Be assigned responsibilities…
    2. I don’t know – does death ‘solve’ the problem or does it go with them? I guess it depends on the problem. I don’t think things would be so very different otherwise.
    3. Not so much my own experiences, as those of my parents and grandparents. Their experiences mean a lot to me, but aren’t really mine to share.

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  17. prometheus on August 31, 2012 at 6:03 PM

    Great condolences for you Bonnie. That is always a hard death to deal with.

    What do you think happens when we die?
    I imagine it is like a glass being taken away and we no longer see darkly – we will see a tiny blip in our lives and wonder that we thought it so long.

    How do you think it differs for those who complete suicide?
    We have no way of judging them, nor should we try. We talk about moral agency, but the part of the discussion we need to stop ignoring is that our agency is never unlimited. It is subject to any number of constraints, internal and external. This is part of why I think we are commanded to forgive everyone. We have no place judging others because we can’t see their hearts, the constraints of agency they are subject to.

    To say it briefly, a merciful Savior will embrace the soul who suffered, there will be no shrinking away, no drawing back. Just love.

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  18. anon for this on September 1, 2012 at 9:28 AM

    What a timely subject. My closest friend died earlier this month. He was a bachelor, in is late 60s and had diabetes since he was a teen. He also taught art at a HS for 32 years, was a Native American potter and loved ot go on history hikes with a group of friends. I considered him the big brother I never had. I was gone a lot this summer and didn’t keep close tabs on him. Finally decided to check on him after he didn;t return phone messages. I, DH and a friend found him dead, apparently it had been a week since he died. I didn’t go in the room. Later we realized his insulin pump was in the dining room, empty beer cans were everywhere and porn (naked women) was in the bedroom where he died, which DH cleaned up before friend’s kids arrived. I struggled with such desperate feelings. WHY did he kill himself (no insulin and drinking beer). I never knew he used porn – this was horrible for me to know as I hate porn – it destroyed three of my daughter’s marriages. I began wondering if my friend had ever looked at me or ny daughter as sexual objects (no – I believe I knew my fiend at his best). The coroner pronounced the death as diabetic coma, but he really did commit suicide. SO – I was left to figure this all out in my head and heart. And I was supposed to speak at the memorial service. I pondered and prayed and raged. WHY????? Finally this solace came into my soul. The porn, beer, suicide did NOT negate all the incredible good my friend did in the world. Period. He was human and in the end he left this life on his terms, the way he wanted. WHo am I to judge him? He was not LDS; he had many Native American beliefs but was not NA. Hundreds of people came to pay their respects and he was highly revered and loved. I suspect the porn was mainly from his artistic side and the beer simply dulled any emotioal pain as he slipped off his insulin pump. He knew full well what he was doing although the brain is dulled by lack of insulin too. So who knows what happened first. Bottom line – none of his “bad” choices negate the incredible good he did in the world. That’s what came into my heart and comforted me. As to what it’s like after death, I so wish I knew. I feel certain my friend had a big welcoming party and is now happy to be free of his old sick body. And I also believe that even if one commits suicide, they are still greeted by loved ones beyond the veil; without judgement and anger. I still have a hole in my heart knowing I can’t pick up the phone and hear his kind voice. It was hard to go on a hike without him. But I know his soul is soaring and I will see him again.

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  19. Douglas on September 2, 2012 at 3:02 PM

    Certainly the Lord will treat those who were in such an awful state that they felt compelled to take their own lives, with as much compassion and mercy without robbing justice. I’m glad the Savior is our judge in all this.
    May I point out that the actual intervention to a suicidal person should be left to the professionals. Our involvement is best if it’s loving support.

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