No Match for Love: The Church & Suicide

The church has a bad track record dealing with mental illness, and those who have lost loved ones to suicide. I know because I saw it happen to my father.

[Warning: This article includes graphic discussion of suicide.]

“Oh my, Robert, your father got himself made away with out in the shed. What am I going to do now?”

That’s how I found out my father had died by suicide. It was a text message from my mother.

It was just a couple of days after Labour Day. I had decided to take an extra day off work to finish staining my deck. When I got the text I was coming up the stairs from my basement after retrieving something for the day’s task. I read it as I got to the top.

Immediately it felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room, making it hard to breathe. My heart tightened as if in a vice. I could feel the heat rise in my cheeks. Panic ensued.

I called my parents’ house and my aunt answered the phone. She was the one who found Dad. She was beside herself. I asked if anyone had called the police. In a state of shock she said she didn’t know how to do that. I hung up the phone and desperately tried to call the police in Botwood or Grand Falls. I’m not sure where I called, but I didn’t get any answer. I called back to the house. Another aunt answered the phone. She said the police were on the way. She put my dad’s brother on the phone. He was in tears. He said he was sorry—he had tried to help, he never thought it would come to this. I can’t remember what I said back to him.

I called my wife and told her what happened. She asked me some details and all I said was “I need you to come home, right now.” She called our daughters and told them to come home right away. In a moment of lucidity I called my friend and associate priest. I told him what happened and said I would be gone from work; for how long, I could not say. I got in the shower to get ready for the five-hour drive home. That is where I broke.

Soon my wife and I were in the car heading out over the TCH. I drove because I just couldn’t sit there and do nothing. By now I really only had one thought: I needed to see my dad. Like Thomas on that first Easter evening, who needed to see and touch the body of the resurrected Jesus, I needed to see and touch my father’s body. Not because I doubted he was gone and needed proof, but because, like Thomas, I just wanted what everyone else gets to experience when a loved one dies. I wanted the dignity—the tenderness to hold my father’s hand, wipe his brow, look into his eyes and release him to death. I had been robbed of that, so now I just wanted to see his body… to touch it, be in his presence. My wife tried desperately to make this happen for me. She called the hospital, the police and the medical examiner. Because it was a suicide I would not be permitted to see him.

So that evening we sat around my parent’s living room. Family came and went, as did the tears. Almost immediately, and understandably, the questions began: questions that there are no answers for. How could this happen? Why would this happen?

That evening, and in the days and weeks ahead, people offered their feeble attempts at answers. Like Job’s friends they mused about things they know nothing about. They meant well, but they only rubbed salt into fresh, open wounds.

Their words rang hollow then, as they do now:

“It’s part of God’s plan. We don’t understand, but everything happens for a reason.”

“He’s with the angels now.”

“God needed another flower for his garden.”

All of it from the heart. All of it meant to try and bring some solace in a terrible situation. All of it bullshit.

Some, too, could barely contain their contempt for my father and what he had done. Even on that first evening my aunt said she thought my father was selfish. Others said they couldn’t understand why he would do such a thing to my mother. Even the pastor said to my wife that Dad had taken the coward’s way out. She wondered if my father had done something that would make him kill himself, maybe infidelity. At the time I said nothing because I was too upset. If I did speak I probably would have given them a fairly heaping portion of my mind. My father was the most unselfish, loving person I knew. As for being a coward, I wanted to scream at them whether they would have the guts to tie a piece of rope around their neck, fasten it to a beam and jump, ending their life. No, probably not.

At the viewing in the church I saw people whispering and sombrely shaking their heads. The shame, the scandal, the sin was just too much. No one said anything to my face, but I could tell what they were thinking. Eventually a cousin of mine bluntly told me that she thought my father was in hell. My first thought was fuck you! My second thought was I don’t believe in hell. What I said was that I don’t think the bible says what she thinks it says. I calmly told her that I don’t think that God would condemn a man who lived in constant mental anguish, and who ended that pain the only way he knew how, to hell.

I wasn’t angry with her because she was just parroting what she had been taught about suicide and mental illness. They all were. To be honest, the church has a lousy track record of dealing with mental illness and has done horrible things to families who have lost loved ones to suicide.

The church has a long legacy of shame, blame and silence that it has heaped on the faithful.

We have Saint Augustine to thank for the dominant Christian view that suicide is a mortal, unforgivable sin deserving of eternal punishment in hell. He is the fifth century Bishop and theologian who first writes in a systematic way about the moral implications of suicide from a Christian perspective. In his influential City of God, Augustine argues that suicide must be a sin because it clearly says in the Ten Commandments that “Thou shalt not kill.” His interpretation rests on the omission of any explicit biblical exemptions from this decree: nothing says otherwise, so killing oneself must be condemned.

If you think that Augustine is grasping at theological straws here, it’s because he is. The bible says nothing regarding suicide. It does list a smattering of suicides like Samson, Saul, and Judas, but it offers no real commentary on these deaths.

But Augustine’s view has won the day—as do most of Augustine’s ideas, whether good or bad. Catholic and Protestant alike are in agreement on the sinfulness of suicide. This has led them to deny burial in consecrated ground to those who have died by suicide. It has led them to comfort the survivors of suicide with the thought that their loved one who suffered here suffers still in the fires of hell, and will for all eternity. Understandably this has led to shame on the part of surviving family members, and a growing social stigma as the emerging Christian sensibilities gain cultural hegemony. The legacy of this shame and stigma is silence. If someone was suspected of dying by suicide, well… you just don’t talk about it.

How can you grieve properly if you don’t talk about it?

Another shame tactic is to equate mental illness with moral or spiritual weakness. The Pentecostal tradition that I was raised in favoured the latter. Another way of saying this is that the person lacked faith. If the person had more faith, if they just believed more, then they wouldn’t be depressed or anxious. If the person who took their own life had just had more, stronger faith, then they never would have ended their lives this way.

Let me be clear: this kind of thinking is toxic, dangerous and non-biblical. This is true not only in the context of mental health, but in any situation where people suffer any kind of physical, emotional or psychological pain.

This type of thinking is victim blaming, plain and simple. Lack of faith on the part of the sufferer keeps God from healing the individual. Or in other words: it’s your own fault that you continue to suffer. It is particularly insidious for those who struggle with mental health issues, to the point that anyone who takes anti-depressants or anxiety medication shows the worst kind of lack of faith. If they just believed in God, tapped into some as yet virgin well of faith, they wouldn’t need to take those awful pills—sure you’ll get hooked on those!! Yet another dreadful sin.

So the person in need of medication goes without. The darkness grows, and the pain multiplies, until it seems that death is the only way out. I know this to be true because I saw it happen to my father.

This view of faith is just not biblical. In the New Testament, faith is not some commodity that you can accumulate. The Greek word is pistis, and is used in both noun and verb form: faith and faithing. In English we turn the verb form into believe, which in the West we’ve turned completely into an intellectual thing. For the early Christians faith meant trust. It was to order one’s life around the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth. It was to do what he did, say what he said, and go where he would go. To have faith, to have more or a deeper faith, was to follow Jesus more intently. There was no faith bank where one could go and take out more faith. You didn’t save up faith so that you could then send away to God for that healing you’ve been wanting for so long.

When people use the language of “more faith” what they are saying is code for “snap out of it” or “pull yourself together.” It’s the classic mind over matter cliché. Have more faith means believe with your mind, think positive, name it and claim it. Do this and the darkness will disperse like fog retreating from the sun. Anyone who has struggled with depression, anxiety, bipolar, OCD or any mental health issue knows that’s not the way it works. Hell, anyone with a grain of sense knows that’s not how it works. That kind of talk only ever makes things worse.

Two days after my father died, I finally got to see him when they brought his body to the church the day before the funeral. Up until that point everyone had assumed that I would do the eulogy at his funeral, but I wasn’t sure I could. I felt too small, too weak, too broken. I felt like I was balancing on the edge of a cliff, about to plummet down the sheer drop, rocks and crashing waves of grief threatening below. The pain was just too raw and I didn’t trust myself to keep it together.

That all changed the moment I walked into the room and saw dad for the first time. He was much thinner. One of the things that the depression had stolen from him was his love for food. But what I saw was my dad… my dad at peace. In all my life I had never seen him look so at peace, so rested. No anxiety. No despair. No running here and there doing everything for everyone else. Just peace. I reached out and touched his lifeless, rigid body. There were other people in the room so what I said, I said in my head—or better yet, my heart. It’s ok Dad. Everything is taken care of. It’s ok to go. I love you. We all love you. It’ll be ok.

I took his wedding ring off of his finger and put it on my own finger, right next to my own. It was my small sacramental act to remind me that the best of him goes with me: his gregarious laugh, his delight in cooking for and eating with those he loved, his kindness, his work ethic. So much had been taken from us, but not those things… not those good things. What is loved, those we love, can never really be lost.

As horrible as it is, suicide is no match for love. The lie that the darkness of my father’s own mind told him—that there was no other escape from the pain but to end his own life—could not steal away who he was to me and my family. Death did not have the last laugh or the final word. Those who have true faith know that it never does.

Rob Cooke is a priest at St. Mark’s Anglican Church in St. John’s, NL.

Photo by Gourami Watcher.


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