Saints & the Suicide Stigma
Actor, Kristoff St John, died yesterday at the age of 52. Kristoff’s cause of death has yet to be released, but suicide is strongly speculated. As expected for a celebrity, the social media tributes started to pour in. One Facebook post read, “He can be reunited with his son now.” A quick search revealed that St John’s son, Julian, did, in fact, die from suicide in 2014 after a lifelong battle with mental illness.
I returned to Facebook hoping to locate the message again, but I couldn’t find it. I regretted that I couldn’t remember who had posted it because I wanted to be able to confirm the kind of comment I knew would inevitably come. At some point, on that post or another like it, someone would feel compelled to cast a shadow on an already dim reality. Some devout Christian would dutifully bear the “truth” that no one wanted to hear: there are no blissful reunions for those who decide to take their own lives; there is only judgment and torment. Suicide, after all, is the unforgivable sin.
Whenever I see this theology, I always want to respond, “What kind of sick God do you serve?” Seriously! What all-powerful God would allow people to experience unbearable suffering, and get mad when they can no longer shoulder the burden? What kind of loving God allows you to live a miserable life and then condemns you to an eternity of torture because you did the only thing you could think of to alleviate your suffering? Who needs a God like that?
Imagine how much pain you have to be in to end your life. Imagine how bad it has to hurt for you to override your survival instinct and facilitate your own death. I don’t even want to imagine it, but sometimes I don’t have a choice. I will never forget the morning I woke up to multiple missed calls and texts from several family members. When my brother didn’t answer, I came across a text from him that simply said, “Call Grandma”. At almost 90 years old, it would appear that she was still alive, but it was also becoming clear that someone else was not. As soon as she recognized my voice she began dutifully reciting the message she never imagined having to deliver, “I don’t know how to tell you this…”
“Your father is dead!”
She said it forcefully as if it was the only way she could possibly manage to get the words out. Her words sobered me, but they did not surprise me. I feared that this could happened, but I had hoped that it never would.
My father seemed always to be searching for something that would settle him. He was a man of 3 wives and a million hobbies: weight lifting, martial arts, saxophone, triathlons, e-trading, yoga, gun collecting, vegetarianism. With each, he would fully immerse himself—reading all the information he could find, purchasing the best equipment and developing a strict practice regimen for months, sometimes years on end. He had tried religion too. He didn’t grow up going to church, but he and his second wife dove deep into Christianity soon after they were married. He stopped attending church after they divorced, but gave it another go around the last time he tried to get sober. On my last visit to his house, his 3rd wife felt compelled to explain why they had a Buddhist shrine, and how they were not abandoning Christianity, but embracing a meditation practice. People feel compelled to offer these kinds of explanations because I’m a Christian minister, but there was no explanation needed. I would have just been happy for him to find something that worked—anything that could have settled him.
Though I never knew my father as an alcoholic, my stepmother would sometimes report to me that he had stopped drinking…again. So I knew that he had a problem, but he always seemed to have a handle on it. I had always admired his ability to discipline himself. Whether it was smoking or drinking, he could always stop just as suddenly as he had started. But when I called to wish him a happy 60th birthday, it appeared as if things had gotten a bit out of control. With some hesitation in his voice he told me that he had checked himself into a facility where he could “dry out”. I applauded him for getting help and told him that I was proud of him. I hoped this would be a positive turning point because I had developed a quiet concern for him in later years.
The oldest of his children, I had watched him cycle through all the wives, the hobbies and addiction. At some point it became clear to me that he was searching for something that he was never quite able to find. I don’t know whether to call it happiness, or peace, or fulfillment. Whatever one calls it, I guess it’s that thing that makes life worth living. The thing that makes you want to get up in the morning even when you know you’ll face some challenges. The thing that makes you want to show up for life rather than retreat. The thing that makes you ‘say no’ to the substances that could ease life’s pains because you can’t risk missing out on the beauty that is always present. My dad searched hard for “that thing”, but he never found it, and I wondered how long he could keep up the pursuit. Aware of his issues with alcohol, nagging financial troubles and an affinity for firearms I confided in a couple of friends my fear that he might one day choose to end his life. On September 29, 2017 that fear became a reality.
Some people experience anger when a loved one leaves in this way. I understand that response, but I couldn’t be angry. It’s not that felt compelled to suppress the emotion; it just never surfaced. All I could think about was how much sadness he must have felt; how much pain he must have been in to make the decision he did that night. And as I considered the pattern of his life, it occurred to me that he’d probably been in pain for quite some time. With every new marriage and hobby came the hope that he would find “that thing” that would settle and sustain him. But inevitably following that hope was always the disappointing reality that what he sought still alluded him. Reflecting on my father’s life in this way made me appreciate all the times he must have pushed through the pain and disappointment and heaviness to show up and be the father I needed. It also helped me to forgive him for the times that he didn’t. I became convinced that he had done the best he could, and, for that, I was grateful.
Now, if I could extend this grace and compassion to my father, why would I expect God to do any less? Why would the God who was acquainted with the depths of his lifelong pain condemn him to an eternity of the same? My God wouldn’t do that! But if you’re convinced that your God would, you can post that twisted theology on your own page because, I can assure you, I don’t want your God! I’m going to stick with the God I’ve got—a God whose love, grace and compassion far exceeds my own. A God who welcomes Kristoff, and his son, and my dad, and all who suffer to a place where suffering is no more and those weary of searching can finally rest.
If you are considering suicide, please seek out support. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or Text TALK to 741741.