Someone I knew from the recovery group at my former church died by suicide this week. He had been dealing with mental illness for a while but everyone thought he had it under control. Tragically, that was not the case.
I found out about his death this morning and I’m still trying to process it. My friend, whose first husband also died by suicide and who also helped me tremendously when my own husband died by suicide, warned me that the next time I encountered someone who had died by suicide, I would be transported back to Paul’s death. A kind of survivor of suicide PTSD, if you will. It happened when Robin Williams died and it happened this morning. Upon hearing the news, I sat in my recliner wavering between anger and extreme sadness. Memories of Paul’s suicide began to weigh heavily on my shoulders. I went through the rest of the morning burdened, unable to think straight, barely getting out the door to go to work.
All day, I’ve been thinking about suicide, mental illness, and the church. When was the last time you heard about either of these in any kind of church context? Can you remember a single time? When Paul died, I didn’t want to share that the cause was suicide for fear of what people would think. After all, church people just don’t die by suicide.
Except they do. Every day. Even pastors.
Although a very real and powerful thing, the saving grace of Christ does not exempt us from the tragedies of this world, including mental illness and suicide. As fallen creatures, we are subject to pain and suffering just like every other person on Earth.
If we really believe this, then why are we so afraid to talk about these things? Why are we afraid to share our struggles with others? Maybe it’s because deep down, we really do think that our afflictions indicate a lack of faith.
If only we would pray more. If only we went to church more or read our Bibles more.
Do these things help? Undoubtedly they do. Can God heal us from these afflictions? Absolutely he can. But interventions from other sources such as recovery groups, therapists, and medication are sometimes needed. And that’s ok. You’re not a bad Christian if you use these resources. I really need you to hear that.
You are NOT a bad Christian if you
attend a recovery group,
see a therapist,
or take prescribed medication.
Even if you still struggle to find hope.
I started regularly seeing a psychologist about a month after Paul died and that doctor helped me keep my sanity. I even took anti-depressants for a short while to give me a little space from my grief. I didn’t stop reading the Bible or going to church. I pursued all of this in conjunction with my faith.
Eventually, I started telling people that Paul had died by suicide. Deep down, I knew I had to start talking about it. In church, with friends, with family. It hasn’t been an easy story to tell, but it has opened up doors to talk about Christ where there wouldn’t have been an opportunity otherwise. I’ve met several people whose lives have been affected by a loved one’s suicide attempt or completion and in one or two instances, I’ve encountered someone who has been the one to attempt suicide. It’s these conversations that produce the most healing for me because I realize I’m not alone.
I am convinced that the feeling of not being alone is the key. Mental illness often causes us to isolate ourselves from the world around us. And isolation breeds more isolation until you feel like you are completely alone and without hope. And once you’re deep into isolation, it’s very difficult to emerge from it. My friend, Ben, wrote the following:
Share your pain, brothers and sisters. You don’t have to suffer alone…you AREN’T alone. Don’t wait until the pain and the shame are too much. Share your pain and your failure and your doubts and your fears and your brokenness everyday.
We ALL know these things. We ALL fall so far short. We ALL wish we were better. We ALL hide our weakness until someone shows us theirs. Show someone your weakness. Set them free to share theirs. And be set free from the prison of self.
So where do we go from here as a church?
First and foremost, we need to make sure we are creating safe communities in which anyone that walks through our doors will feel that they can share their burdens and that we, as a church body, will help to shoulder those burdens. Part of shouldering these burdens is keeping in contact with people. If you haven’t seen or heard from someone in a while, give them a call to check on them. Not a Facebook message or a text. An honest to goodness call.
Second, we must educate ourselves and those around us about these “taboo” subjects to assist in removing any associated negative stigmas.
Lastly, we’re all hurting in some way or another. As my friend Ben wrote, we must be the pioneers in sharing our struggles with those around us so they will feel free to share theirs.
I’ll leave you with this passage from Ecclesiastes to consider.
Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their toil.
For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.
Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone?
And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.