It Was Suicide
The obituary reported that he was 49, a loving husband for 21 years, survived by a teenage son and daughter, and that he was “surrounded by his family” when he “entered into eternal rest.” He was also the husband of one of our South Carolina daughter’s long-time friends. What the obituary left out was that he took his own life. It was suicide.
Word of that man’s death came just a couple weeks after the death of a 17-year-old young man in Tampa. I was one of their pastors when his deeply faithful parents were married. We baptized him shortly after he was born. I had observed some of the challenges he faced growing up and had seen the way his parents did everything they could to help him. Recently I had heard good news that gave hope for his future. But now he was gone. It was suicide.
It took me back to the day one of the most Christ-like women I ever knew called to tell me that their middle-aged son was gone. She didn’t hesitate to speak the word; it was suicide. His friends who spoke at the memorial service reminisced about all the good times with him but it was my task to speak the word that was rumbling around silently in all their hearts. I remember an almost palpable sense of relief in the room when I spoke the truth that everyone knew but no one wanted to speak. It was suicide.
A recent report on the PBS News Hour underscored the disturbing increase in suicide, particularly among young people. In 2017, it was the second leading cause of death among young Americans age 15 to 24.
Between 2000 and 2007, the suicide rate among youth ages 10 to 24 hovered around 6.8 deaths per 100,000 people. Then, the rate curved upward, reaching a rate of 10.6 deaths per 100,000 by 2017 — a 56-percent increase in less than two decades.
What Shall We Say?
So, what’s a preacher to say about this?
I know how the preacher felt in the funeral scene in the Boomer movie classic, The Big Chill. Without speaking the word, he angrily named his anger at the way Alex died and asked the question we always asks:
When a man like Alex chooses to leave us, there is something very wrong in this world… It makes me angry and I don’t know what to do with my anger. Where did Alex’s hope go?
My friend, pastoral colleague and successor at Hyde Park, Magrey deVega, had the task of speaking the word in the memorial service for that 17-year-old. It was — as most of Magrey’s sermons are — a thoughtful, sensitive and graciously honest word. (You can hear it here.)
Magrey acknowledged that “in moments like these, there is an excess of questions, and a shortage of answers. An excess of painful emotions, and a shortage of words to express them.” He named our natural tendency to say, “If only…” including, “If only Ryan had made a different choice last Saturday. If only he felt the love from us that he knew in his head but did not feel for himself.”
He reminded that packed sanctuary of pieces of Ryan’s life “that make us smile, as we can picture him smiling.” At the same time, he named “the pieces that were stolen away…the ones that have been claimed by the menace of mental illness and addiction….He was a person who felt tortured in the crucible of his own suffering.”
In what may have been the most honest and courageous passage in the sermon he said:
God never stopped loving Ryan. And God wasn’t finished with Ryan.
That’s what makes this so hard. Ryan cut short the work that God had been doing in his life. There were steady signs of progress and transformation. Mileposts of improvement that showed us that God was at work, and that God wasn’t done.
So it is also permissible to say, “Ryan, we love you and we always will, and we are mad at what you did. And we are mad at the sadness that we feel in its wake.”
God was not done with Ryan. And God is not done with you. For even though it feels like suicide is the last word, it does not need to be the last word for us.
After describing the practical, flesh-and-blood ways we experience God’s love, Magrey gave this strong word of hope.
When there is a shortage of words, and an excess of pain, when there is a shortage of answers for an excess of questions, there is one thing that is greater still: Love. The love of God that will never leave us, and the love that we can make real for each other. For surely, nothing can separate us from God’s love.
Finding Grace in the Darkness
The Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah, heard the Lord say, “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness.” (Jeremiah 31:2)
The truth of those words comes through in “It’s Quiet Uptown” from Hamilton. Following the death of Alexander and Eliza’s son, Phillip, Angelica sings what any parent who has buried a child knows:
There are moments that the words don’t reach.
There is suffering too terrible to name.
Watching the grief-stricken parents, the company sings, “They are going through the unimaginable.” But at the end of the song Eliza and Alexander move through unimaginable pain to find equally unimaginable forgiveness and a “grace too powerful to name.”
No matter how dark the darkness appears, there is still hope in the darkness for all of us.
Grace and peace,
9 thoughts on “The Word the Obituary Left Out ”
I always appreciate your messages, but this one is a special gift. Thank you.
Thanks, Jim. The toughest pastoral care times for me have been in the wake of the death of a child, an accidental death (especially of a younger person) and in the wake of a suicide. It is a word that needs to be said as part of the grief and healing.
Pastor Jim, In the last few years I have lost two people very dear to me to suicide. First was the love of my life. She had uterine cancer. They operated on her and removed most of her organs below the ribs, she had to wear two ostomy bags and she was in constant pain. She was only 57 years old when she intentionally overdosed on her medications. Her note said that she couldn’t stand the physical and psychological pain any longer. She was a Christian with an exceptionally large heart who worked hard to give her grandchildren a decent life, when she had them each summer. The other person that I cared deeply for was in her late 60’s. She had lyme disease. She too was in awful pain. It fluctuated between being tolerable and not. She search to find providers who could relieve her pain, but couldn’t get the treatment she needed. She was a faithful follower of Jesus. She didn’t have any children of her own, so she taught Sunday School to the little kids and called them hers. How are we to understand these situations? I hope to meet them when I get to Heaven. Was this a way of escape that God had provided for these women? Will God’s mercy cover such an intentional act? I think on these things every day. Paul Prose
Thank you, Jim, for those encouraging words. I was in the congregation for that 17 year old recently and heard Magrey’s words. They were powerful and honest. He spoke, at one point, directly to the teenagers. The 4 boys sitting in front of me were riveted to Magrey’s words and nodded as he told them how much they were loved and to never ever forget it. It was very emotional as I wanted to grab them and say the same thing to them. As always… we love you and your family. Much love!
Jim, I am very sorry for your dear daughter’s loss. It’s just awful.
Personally, I think suicide is very misunderstood and can only be fully understood by the victims. It must be an extremely lonely experience. Can we possibly imagine the magnitude of the torture of living that makes suicide feel like the lesser of the evils? It’s the only way to explain how many victims seem to have everything and probably do (including mental illness): their non-mental health, amazing accomplishments, very loving friends and families, a strong faith, access to the best counseling and treatment, etc. I think many are very strong people. And yet despite their best exhausting efforts, they just can’t shake their anxiety and depression. I’ve had glimpses of what it feels like my entire life. It’s biological. (I feel the same way about alcoholism… you’re either allergic to alcohol or not). Fortunately medicine and counseling has worked for my mood disorders. One thing I’m very sure of, willing yourself to be happy and to have a good attitude doesn’t always work and can be devastatingly exhausting. A younger guy in our Sunday School class often discloses how he was tortured daily by his depression for years and years until he was given the right combo of medicine. He is a very upbeat affable person today.
I think the answer is along the lines of your funeral remarks. Our society needs to be educated by the victims, bringing the dirty dark secrets out in the open so new approaches to treatment can be found.
I find it very difficult to articulate and describe my down moods. I can’t even remember exactly what it feels like in good times. Very weird.
Little by little I am talking more about my mood issues but there is still such a stigma. Who wants to be around a Debbie Downer regardless of the cause? That’s why the victims are so good at hiding it. They become very good actors.
I vividly remember something your Martha said to the Cloars when their son in law was diagnosed with cancer. She said “God has some splaining to do when we all get to heaven!” I think it’s a terrific quote and applies to the torture of mental illness.
Best to both of you.
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Thanks, George, for sharing yourself with us!
The same experience is in mine and lots of other’s ministries. Suicide always raises impossible questions and we preachers simply must name the demon and deal with it. This week, in my community, an extraordinary musician – and person – took his life. We have to try to remind people that their untimely deaths will leave holes in people’s lives big enough to drive a truck through. Well done … by you and by Magrey.
Such wise words, Jim. Beautiful. Thank you.
It frustrates me that we continue to hide information like this. If we won’t talk about it, we can’t fix it! I am burying my oldest child on Saturday. She drank herself to death . I’m not sure if fully grasped the damage she was doing to her body, she staunchly claimed she was no longer drinking right up to the point she slipped into a coma. My ex and other children are completely unwilling to acknowledge this publically or privately for the most part. My ex actually suggested we hold her celebration of life at a winery he got her a job at a few years ago (oh yes, great choice there). So we bury her alcoholism as we bury her. And doing so we miss the opportunity to share her struggles in a way that could help de-stigmatize alcoholism and promote openness and self-reflection, potentially helping others.