Left to grieve
After a suicide, loved ones left behind deal with waves of shame and guilt, but life can become good again
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For the last several weeks of his wife Harriet’s life, Pete Deison monitored her every activity and medication regimen and held her hand as she lay in a deep funk. Every day, Deison prayed his wife would drift out of this “black cloud,” as she described it.
It was November 2012, and the antidepressant pills Harriet had been on for 38 years weren’t working as well anymore. Her doctor prescribed new medications, but the effects wouldn’t kick in for about a month. Deison believed she would get better. After all, they had had a scare like this early in their marriage when Harriet had suffered from postpartum depression. This added to the stress over her parents’ divorce, and Harriet had almost died by swallowing handfuls of sleeping pills. Her family sought medical help.
From then on, Harriet was able to maintain a mostly normal life, and the Deisons enjoyed 44 years together. Deison became associate pastor of Park Cities Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas, while Harriet took care of their two daughters. She also encouraged many others who struggled with mental illness as she did—and the Deisons believed that was God’s purpose in Harriet’s struggles.
So it was a shock to everyone when on Dec. 29, 2012, Harriet took her own life. That Saturday morning, Harriet had woken up smiling. She felt so well that she went swimming with her friends, who noted that Harriet seemed more lively. She even drove herself to get her hair done for an upcoming wedding. Deison was delighted: Perhaps the Harriet he knew was finally back.
But as they sat down for lunch, Harriet once again complained that she felt terrible, so Deison ushered her to bed. She said she felt “very, very dark” and asked Deison to play hymns for her while she napped. Deison remembers gazing down at his wife and trying to encourage her: “Don’t worry, sweetheart. We’ll make it through this.”
“You promise?” Harriet murmured.
“I promise,” Deison said. Once Harriet slipped into sleep, he retreated to his study to prepare his sermon for Sunday.
Less than an hour later, Deison got up to check on his wife. She was gone. He wandered around the house, but she wasn’t there. Panicking, he ran to the garage—her car was missing. He jumped into his car and roamed the neighborhood searching for Harriet. Then his cell phone rang—it was the police. The officer said they had found Harriet’s car but wouldn’t tell him more.
Deison felt he might explode from anxiety, and he called 911 repeatedly for more information. Finally, the police said someone would meet Deison at his house. There, two officers told him his wife was dead. Harriet had driven to a gun store, purchased a handgun, and pulled the trigger in her car. Deison felt himself sink into the nightmare of a world without Harriet, and he cried, “Lord, how do I even begin to understand this?”
All kinds of people end their own lives. Harriet, a pastor’s wife, mother of two, and grandmother of eight, did it. In the past year or so, celebrities such as Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington, fashion designer Kate Spade, and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain did so, too. This August, a charismatic 30-year-old megachurch pastor in California killed himself, leaving behind a wife and three young sons.
According to the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 45,000 Americans died by suicide in 2016. The rate of suicide in the United States rose 28 percent between 1999 and 2016 and has been rising in every state except Nevada. Yet the stigma on talking openly about suicide persists. And even though the theology and history of the church are intertwined with suffering, the church has not yet developed a language for suicide: What do you say to a mother who lost her son to suicide? How do you recover from a loss so entangled with shame, regret, confusion, and guilt?
I talked to mothers, fathers, husbands, daughters, and sisters about how they processed their shock and grief after a loss from suicide. One of them is Hannah Bates, a 25-year-old mental health graduate student who lost her half brother to suicide 13 years ago. One day during a class on suicide prevention, her classmates took turns calling out words that come to mind when someone mentions suicide, and the words they used—“selfish,” “coward,” “wrong”—hurt Bates so much that she realized the depth of shame and embarrassment she had been harboring over the years.
After her brother’s death, church members brought her family home-cooked meals, but nobody seemed to know how to address her brother’s death. It didn’t help that Bates’ family rarely talked about what happened, either. “We were more like, ‘We’re OK, we’re fine, we’ll be happy,’” she said. “We didn’t know how to invite people into our pain.” But shame, Bates learned, grows in the dark: “The enemy loves to use shame to close people off from community.”
Questions besieged Pete Deison for weeks after Harriet’s death, especially questions about where God was when Harriet died. Deison went to the Bible for answers but didn’t find much peace until he read Exodus 4:10-11, where Moses frets over confronting Pharaoh since he wasn’t a good speaker, and God responds: Who makes the mute? Who makes the deaf? Who makes the blind? Is it not I, the Lord? To that verse, Deison added his own question: Who makes the depressed? Is it not I, the Lord? So he wondered, “Can it be true, God? Do you take responsibility for Harriet?”
Deison says he felt God asking him two questions. One: Am I sovereign? To which Deison promptly answered, “Yes.” Two: Am I good? “Now that,” Deison told me as tears filled his eyes, “was harder to answer.” Because if God is sovereign over something as horrible as Harriet’s suicide, how can we still trust that He’s good? Yet Deison found himself responding, “Yes, Lord, you are good.”
Many people have no logical, linear pattern to their grieving process after a suicide—they tumble in and out of various stages of grief, and even the most mature Christians wail bitter, angry tears at God. For these people, the journey of grieving is a long walk with periods of overwhelming pain, followed by decisive steps on learning how to live with it.
Rick and Kay Warren, pastors of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., vividly remember the day in 2013 when they stood outside their youngest son Matthew’s house, holding each other and sobbing, dreading what they knew had already happened. Matthew’s door was locked, and he was not answering their knocks and cries even though his car was parked outside. And as they waited for the police, Kay Warren turned to her husband and held up her necklace, which spelled out the words “Choose Joy.”
Choose joy—is that possible in the midst of such excruciating pain? From the day Matthew died to the memorial service, the Warrens swayed through waves of emotions from numbness to shock to hysterical weeping. Kay Warren remembers the anger, disappointment, and hurt she felt against God: “No! I put all my hope in You! And Matthew still died!” She also felt guilt: “I should have seen it coming. Why couldn’t I have stopped this? Maybe if I had been a better Christian, a better parent. …”
Like many families dealing with suicide, the Warrens had been through years of anxiety before Matthew’s death. When Matthew was 7, doctors diagnosed him with clinical depression. At 8, he showed signs of ADHD and panic attacks, and at 11, doctors diagnosed him with early-onset bipolar disorder, then OCD, body dysmorphic disorder, major depressive disorder, and borderline personality disorder. As early as 12 years old, he was voicing thoughts of suicide.
One day when he was 17, Matthew went to his father and wept: “Dad, it’s obvious I’m not going to get well. Why can’t I just go to heaven now?” By then Matthew had tried the best doctors and the latest medications and attended multiple prayer sessions, but each day was a battle to live on. Warren told Matthew they couldn’t give up hope, that he believed God would either heal him or carry him through his problems. The Warrens say their prayers were raw and simple: “Lord, heal him! Have mercy on our child!”
For the last five years of his life, Kay Warren kept a little granite box with the word “HOPE” on it. She filled it with Bible verses that she clung to as declarations of hope and faith that God would one day deliver her son from death. Then when Matthew died, Warren moved those verses into her drawer: “It’s not that those verses aren’t true—they just weren’t true for Matthew.”
The Warrens said they never doubted God’s goodness and mercy, but Matthew’s death was like a sledgehammer to their souls. They had to reorient their whole understanding of God’s purpose. For Kay Warren, that meant filling her Hope Box not with verses about what God will do, but about His never-changing character: “I know that my faith and joy are stronger than they’ve ever been because they’re now placed in a certainty that cannot be shaken.”
It also means refusing to be silent about what happened and to continue glorifying God, Rick Warren said: “Satan has taken something so precious from us, and we’re not going to let him take anything else if we can help it.”
For the seven years that Michele Madden has facilitated a support group for suicide survivors in San Diego, she has been telling newcomers that they are not alone. “But no matter how many times I tell people that, they don’t believe it until they walk into our group, because suicide is just not talked about,” Madden said. She herself lost her brother to suicide 14 years ago and remembers when she couldn’t even pick up her Bible, until she joined a local support group for suicide survivors. Now she leads one such group.
Some of the newcomers at Madden’s support group lost their loved ones as recently as two weeks prior, while some come 20 years after the loss. There, they talk about how to give up self-blame and guilt, how to trust God and rely on Him during their struggles. They also talk about dealing with birthdays and anniversaries without their loved ones, about how it’s OK to laugh and enjoy life once more. There’s a healing yet humbling power in community, Madden said: “Because they are so broken, they realize they need help and can’t do it alone.”
There’s no timeline for grief, however. The people I talked to tell me of the constant phantom pains they feel from the loss. Julia (WORLD agreed to use only her first name to protect her family’s privacy) was 9 when her father died by suicide. Several days after her father checked into a mental health clinic, her mother sat the kids down and said Daddy was gone, and that he had done it to himself.
Even as a kid, Julia wrestled with guilt: Perhaps if she had written, “Daddy, I need you,” on her get-well card instead of “I love you,” he would have stuck around. Or perhaps she was too much trouble? A week after her father’s death, Julia was waiting backstage during a ballet recital, when a girl asked her, “Why did your dad kill himself?” Julia was speechless. Each time another kid asked her that question, she felt fresh wounds splitting open again. She was relieved when, a year later, her mother moved the family to another town, where people wouldn’t identify them with their past.
Julia, now 38, remembers her mother telling her and her two siblings to fight to trust God, because otherwise, bitterness would ruin their lives. “I needed to hear that,” Julia recalled. “It sounds cliché, but it made an impression on me as a 9-year-old.”
Even so, Julia still feels the soreness of her father’s absence. When she got married, she missed her father walking her down the aisle. When she suffered from postpartum depression, she felt bittersweet empathy for what her father must have gone through. And when her fifth child was born, she choked up looking at his face, because he looks so much like her father, who will never know his grandson.
Life will never be the same for people who lost their loved ones to suicide. But they tell me there’s hope, that life does become good again. It took four years for Pete Deison to be able to think about his wife without hurting. But he finally accepted that while God’s grace does not obliterate pain, it is sufficient for each day. And when he sees the empty spot in bed and feels a twinge of sadness, he reminds himself that God is always with him. When he thinks about Harriet now, he enjoys the memory of her laughter, smiles at how she could name every wildflower during their hikes.
For Julia, the absence of her earthly father drove her into the arms of her heavenly one: “When I feel like a little girl who needs her daddy to hold her, the Holy Spirit reminds me again and again that God is a father to the fatherless, that He covers us with His wings. He is enough.”
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