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,