I was 16 that October day in 1982 when the girl who shared my stand in band died by suicide. In a moment of abject fear after an imprudent choice with a boy at the beach, she lost her flashlight, couldn’t find a path forward and everything went dark. Permanently.
It wasn’t my first brush with suicide. That would be the neighbor lady, the one with kids who lived in the blue house on the corner. My mom’s yard sale buddy. I was too young to understand mental illness and addiction. All I knew was that she jumped from an overpass and was no more. For decades, I unpacked that tragedy in my nightmares. Then there was the older boy who rode my school bus. He sat a couple of rows behind me one morning and the next his seat was empty. There have been others— always too many- and each death or threatened loss leaves a mark of indelible black ink on the soul.
My baby was 16 last August when her frenemy died by suicide. After a turbulent relationship in middle school, they made peace with a more mature high school version of each other. One day they were living the dream. Camping at the beach. The next it turned nightmare and he was gone.
There is no mathematic equation with an absolute solution for quashing suicide. The human experience is bound up in the amalgamation of a physical body and a tender soul. Both can be bruised, crushed and ultimately overwhelmed. The CDC lists suicide as the 10th most common cause of death in the United States. While it can confound the powers of reasoning for a mature, healthy mind, it honest-and-true can seem like the only viable option for pain relief to a brain that goes offline or is sick. The most common bottom feeders for suicidal outcomes are:
- Psychiatric Disease. These are the suffering souls who often navigate multiple diagnosis at once—things like traumatic stress, severe depression, substance abuse, anxiety and psychosis. Like a constantly dripping faucet, their brain chemistry torments them day and night with ungracious, self-incriminating, hopeless thoughts and feelings until they succumb to its despair.
- Crisis intersecting with an immature prefrontal cortex. These are mostly teenagers and young adults who feel desperately alone, ashamed or angry after an emotionally charged incident like a relational fissure, bullying or abuse. Because their brain is not yet fully developed, their fuse is short. Their toolbox of coping strategies is near empty. When triggered by an extremely undesirable circumstance, their thinking brain goes offline and they become neuro-physiologically disregulated, like a toddler who throws themself down onto a cement floor with a thud, kicking and screaming as they dispel energy from the cortisol rushing through their bodies. This is the teen who grabs the family gun, a belt, a rope, a container of pills and acts before they consider the permanence and irreversibility of their action.
- A cry for attention. This individual is less motivated for the perceived relief that death brings and more intent on finding a means to communicate the need to be seen, soothed and secure. It is a desperately dramatic SOS call whose intent is not to die but sometimes they actually do.
- A toxic all-play. The perfect storm. All of the above.
For every single one of God’s image bearing creations who die by suicide, the devastation ripples through families and communities. On average 200 people in the orb of the deceased are left traumatized and grieving.
Last fall, almost 40 years later, I meandered through the cemetery where my grandparents are buried and stumbled upon the grave marker of my band stand partner, the one who’s death at fifteen was not God’s best plan. This was not how it was supposed to be.
In God’s Book, He says that as Creator, He gets to decide the days, hours and minutes that we spend on our mortal pilgrimage. But sometimes, He defers to our recklessness instead. He assents to mental illness. He yields to our madness. He permits us volition to murder others and to terminate ourselves. And we are left with the tiny word that asks the biggest question ever—WHY? Theology teaches us that humanity’s sinful rebellion toward God plays out in our mortality. It unpacks the implications of free will and agency in our choices. But those cerebral explanations fall short of addressing the deep, guttural, personal anguish in the question. Why him? Why her? Why us? Why now? Why this? And so, it is good to know that the God of theology is the same One who also counts our tears and saves them in His bottle. The One who cries, even weeps, over the death of His beloved and we are His beloved.
Today we stood at the fresh new grave marker of my kid’s buddy. The marker said “Beloved Son, Brother and Friend”. There was a cross etched into the stone and heavy chain necklace with a ring lying on top. My girl, she added the flowers she picked from our yard, the ones I planted and God made grow. We stood together quietly because sometimes there are no words. Only thoughtful silences that whisper softly of caring.
To those who remain, the nearest and dearest, survivors, the ones with an empty spot in their family pictures and at their kitchen tables, I honor the life of your precious.
And, I honor the courageous journey that you are on.
There is no blue ribbon path through this. No winners. No best of show. This is a participation ribbon only experience.
And you are participating. You didn’t choose to. You didn’t want to. You shouldn’t have to but here you are.
Taking on your life one day at a time the best you can.
Groaning to Jesus a language only He understands.
The conundrum of our temporal existence is that life is so incredibly beautiful and so excruciatingly hard.
We don’t get one without the other.
It’s not either-or but both-and.
So, blessed are you, grieving mamas and daddies, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, all of you who greet your complicated lives with shaky hope.
Yours is God’s promise of fresh mercies, new every morning and somehow, always enough.
Yours is the guarantee that this temporal existence is not the final tragic end of the story but rather an introduction to eternal life.
And yours is the confidence that when the story reaches its climax, the broken will be fixed. The sick will be healed. The dirge will become a dance for all who have collided with God’s undeserved forgiveness and unfathomable grace.
God’s mammoth family reunion.