I just heard the news about the terrible loss your family has suffered. My heart and prayers go out to you as they do for all families that are struck by a sudden tragedy. But today I feel more compelled than ever to offer you some advice. It seems strange, I know. You are the go-to guy for so many people in this country (and around the world) and I, a small-town Appalachian preacher, is going to offer you some pointers for the days ahead?
So, maybe I should start by telling you why I think I have anything to offer to this discussion at all. You see, I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and I am prone to bouts of intense depression. As a thirty-five year old woman, I have a diagnosis and many long years of self-searching that have allowed me to name my demon (more on why I call depression a demon later in this letter). But as a teenager I had none of that. My family and I were woefully ill-prepared to deal with suicidal depression, as are most families. To make a long story short, the depression that plagued me did not just plague me, it plagued my whole family.
The day I attempted suicide, I was not just harming myself, I was harming everyone who had ever loved me. Statistically speaking, women attempt suicide more often but complete it less often than men. This is largely due to the methods employed by the different sexes. Basically, the fact that it was one of my parents’ daughters who struggled with depression rather than their son was a mixed blessing because it made the difference between heading to the medicine cabinet rather than the gun cabinet when the despair temporarily won out.
Because I survived the attempt, I have lived my entire life haunted by the pain I know I have caused others and a driving need to explain to and comfort those who are suffering from the effects of depression and suicide heaped upon their families. I have thought a great deal about this subject over the years. And I offer these thoughts to you in the hopes that they may help you to cope more fully with the tragedy that has befallen your family.
First of all, depression is a mental illness. You mentioned this in your letter to your church, and I appreciate that you can understand this. Our society tends to stigmatize mental illness, which makes it far more difficult for families to seek help. But mental illness can touch anyone, anywhere. There are no boundaries to it.
Because depression is a mental illness, it is important to note that it’s not rational. Mental illness doesn’t give way to the thought processes of rationality and logic. If it did, there would be no mentally ill people. If we could think away our dark moods, we would have done that long ago.
So, as you cope and work through this loss, remember that all the explanations in the world won’t stand up to the irrationality of depression. When you can’t find answers to that incessant question of “why?”, know that there was never an answer to be found. Depression doesn’t make sense. It just doesn’t. Not being able to explain why it struck your son or why all the love, medicine, treatment, and prayers in the world didn’t wrench those bony fingers away from your son’s life does not mean you failed. It does not mean that your son doesn’t know to what ends you went for him. But depression clouds the mind and distorts reality to the point that those who suffer from it are caught up in a cyclone of turmoil and despair. And when you are in the midst of a cyclone, you may know that you have a loving family willing to go to the ends of the earth for you, but all you can see is the cyclone spinning around you.
Secondly, mental illness is demonic. This may sound harsh, but think about it for a moment. Back before we had sciences like psychiatry and psychology, before psychoanalysis and diagnoses and the DSM-IV manual, people with mental illness were understood to be possessed. Families and communities alike sought healers to cast out those demons and set free their loved ones. It was understood that what was troubling their loved one was not something that person could control, but something that defied all other explanation and need to be expelled.
Isn’t that what we do for the people we love who are struggling with mental illness? We know that what is happening to them is not a reflection any shortcoming on their behalf, but the result of some dark force that “possesses” them and prevents them from being able to see the light in their lives. We may have different ways of seeking healing than people had two thousand years ago, but we still seek healing and we still pray for those things that possess our loved ones to be cast out.
The demonics in the Bible usually recognized Jesus, but the dark forces possessing them prevented them from being able to ask for the sort of help and liberation from those chains that they needed most. For me, depression is often much the same. I call it SAD, but I understand that it is a dark force that from time-to-time enters my life and prevents me from being able to see the light. It changes my outlook on life. It fills me with despair. It steals my hope away from me.
It is not the result of any sinfulness on my part. I don’t invite the darkness in. I don’t seek it. In fact, I have found that when I am actively living in the healed life Jesus has offered me, that is when depression swoops in and attacks hardest. Most of us who have struggled with depression will tell you that those moments of suicidal impulses often came after an upturn in our lives. Psychologists have pointed out that it is often when a deep depression begins to lift that suicide occurs. I don’t necessarily understand all the medical and scientific reasons behind it; but, I do know that depression has always fought me the hardest when I was defying it by finding hope.
And it’s that sense of hope I pray you cling to. Depression is a perfectly natural response to tragedy, and if you weren’t depressed for a while after losing someone you hold so dear to you, I’d wonder about your over-all mental health. But depression is hopelessness and it feeds on fear and anger and uncertainty. The best way to fight hopelessness is with hope. So, hold on to that hope that you find in our Lord and Savior. Don’t let go of it. Not even when the darkness swoops in on you and tries to persuade you there is no reason to hope. Never let go of it.
And this brings me to my final piece of advice. Trust in Jesus Christ to be merciful and loving, and let Jesus Christ alone be the judge of your son. We lose hope and let the darkness win when we assume we already know what Jesus’ decision on our loved ones will be. Don’t let that sort of hopelessness sweep you way. Instead, think of the love and mercy you have for your own son. Think of the ways you’ve been able to love him, even in his most unlovable moments. Think of the ways you have been able to forgive him, even when he did not seem to really understand what you were forgiving him for. Think of the ways your love for him defied logic, was completely unconditional, and was never dependent on how he loved you in return. He was your son, and you would have loved him no matter what. Remember that.
The love that we share for one another on this earth, profound and strong as it might be, is but a glimpse of the love that our God has for us. When we love each other here in this life, it is just a hint of the love God is offering us through the eternal Kingdom.
So, if you can have love and mercy for your son with the imperfect love of this earthly life, imagine how much more love and mercy God has for your son in the perfection of his divinity.
For people like us, Pastor–people of faith–suicide is a tough subject. We acknowledge the sacredness of all life and we do not like to see any life destroyed. Suicide is indeed a destruction… and throughout the history of the Christian church, we have been quick to brand the person who commits suicide as being outside of God’s love. But we can’t be the judge of that. We can’t let the darkness win by convincing us that God is incapable of showing mercy to a hurt and suffering soul. While it is true that suicide is a destruction of life, we must remember that what was destroying that life was not your son–the one you loved, the one you identified as being gentle and kind and loving and helpful–but the dark despair and destructive force of a mental illness.
So, please Pastor Warren, allow yourself room to grieve in the days ahead. Be angry. Demand answers. Shake your fist at the heavens. Fall to your knees in prayer. Rend your clothes. Hold your family close. Seek the comfort of others. Seek the solace of a solitary moment. Do what you need to work through these difficult days at the start of a tragedy…
But please don’t lose hope. Cling fast to the hope that your son knew he was loved unconditionally. Cling fast to the hope that our God is loving and merciful and is the healer of all pain and suffering. Cling fast to the hope we have in the grace of our Lord and Savior. Cling fast to the hope we have in God’s just wisdom. Cling fast to the hope of eternal life.
Never, ever, give up hope.
Your Sister in Christ,
Learn More about depression and suicide by clicking here.