One of my goals in Stop & Think is to explore topics that are often ignored or stigmatized in church. This week I’m looking at suicide and healing. I hope this honest essay opens room for you to reveal and listen. Your feedback is always warmly welcome.
Suicide and Healing
I listened to a dear friend this week talk about their struggle with suicide. The darkness had come back, and they found themself thinking about ending it. The loneliness, emptiness, and pain had become unbearable. And yet they also had a nagging sense that their life wasn’t over. So they reached out to a few friends.
I was deeply moved by their courage to reveal themself with me. They talked about a devastating death from their past and enduring pain in their family. They shared about work and friendship and the sense of purposelessness in it all.
My friend then started to ask me a question but quickly interrupted themself. I could tell that what they wanted to say was causing them fear and shame. So I gently invited them to feel safe if they wanted to ask or to save it for later. They said they would think about it and maybe ask me another time. But then, through tears in a low voice, they asked me, “How would it make you feel if I died?”
I didn’t hear this question as selfish, and I don’t believe it was. It was tremendously vulnerable and courageous. They wanted to know something terribly important for every one of us: Does my life matter, and how would it affect my friends if it ended? I answered from my heart about how precious they are to me and how painful it would be to lose them.
We talked slowly and at length, sharing memories of goodness and practices of openness to God and gently, patiently exploring our pain. We even laughed together. We prayed together and thanked one another for many years of friendship. We’ve communicated every day since.
I remain awed and grateful for my friend’s profound strength to share their suffering, struggle, and subtle resilience with me. It’s endlessly amazing to me how the true preciousness, the beauty, the goodness and strength of a person is revealed when we seem to be at our weakest but take the risk of revealing ourselves to someone who loves us. Light shines in the darkness.
I‘ve had my own bouts with suicidal darkness.
Two years ago, I was in a season of depression amidst a violent social crisis, some personal struggles, angry strangers attacking me, and walking with friends through suffering. I was overwhelmed with a maddening sense of life’s cheapness, and it was eating my soul alive. Everything around me seemed to be attacking my pillar conviction that life is valuable.
Like my friend, I gradually became so overwhelmed that I started to share my pain and disorientation with a few close friends. I confessed to one, “I’ve thought, directly or indirectly, about killing myself every day for the last few weeks. It’s almost always at night. I’ll lay in bed and imagine jumping off our balcony. It’s not a particularly developed meditation, and yet it plays through my mind. The image recurs night after night.”
I went on to express my love for the people in my life, my passion for my work, and my trust in God. I was keenly aware of how good my life was and how many reasons I had to be happy. In fact, I was finishing my book on new beginnings after devastation. And yet, and yet: these suicidal meditations plagued my mind for weeks every night when I tried to sleep. Perhaps I needed some kind of harmony between my inner and outer worlds, and my inner world felt like it was falling, and so I kept seeing visions of myself jumping to my death.
The patience of my friends to listen, to be with me, and to embrace me was liberating and healing. What felt crushing and drowning by myself became bearable and manageable with their presence. In time, those disturbing night visions went away, and I was able to look back on this season as a season – no longer as an encompassing totality but as a painful yet meaningful memory.
I asked Dr. John McPherrin, a therapist at the University of Chicago I deeply admire, a question that had been eluding me: “What is healing? What should it feel like?” I found John’s answer counter-intuitive, profound, and practical. He said,
“The ability to listen when someone is suicidal is special. You want to rush in with a plan rather than listening to their pain. It’s actually the listening that helps the pain dissipate. It’s when you feel connected that you’re less inclined to harm yourself.
Healing gets revealed over time. I think of healing as a process. It happens best in a relationship with another human being – talking about things you usually don’t, revealing yourself to a person who shows care and kindness and isn’t freaked out by what you say. That person’s ability to hear what you thought you could never reveal and still be connected to you in a positive way is healing.“
John’s answer, especially that last sentence, literally made me stop and think. He didn’t say that healing is feeling better or regaining self-sufficiency. Healing is vulnerable self-revelation and another person’s unconditional acceptance in a relationship of trust and togetherness. Healing is something that we experience together, not through prescribed formulas or magic fixes but a shared life in all of its pain and joy. In a sense, then, healing is the gift of the other, who assures us that we are not alone, that our life matters, and that we will press on together, come what may. Healing is kind eyes, listening ears, a calm presence when we are breaking apart and simply aren’t sure that anything is good or love is real. (John added that professional and medical help may be useful and important, but we shouldn’t see them as the total or even primary response.)
It has surprised and encouraged me to learn that many of the people we admire most have also struggled with suicide and also embraced the healing Dr. McPherrin described. For example, when I was studying Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s every surviving word during my PhD, I was surprised to find traces of Bonhoeffer’s own suicidal struggle in his prison notes and letters.
In an early fragment, Bonhoeffer scribbled about “suicide, not out of a sense of guilt, but because I am practically dead already, the closing of the book” (8:74). Bonhoeffer was familiar with this sense of deadness and life being over.
Bonhoeffer later wrote a letter to his friend Eberhard and revealed that this depression “with its ominous consequences has often haunted me” (8:180). Bonhoeffer defiantly added that he wouldn’t “do human beings [likely the Nazis] or the devil this favor.” But he then vulnerably concludes, “I hope I can stick to it.”
Later in another letter, Bonhoeffer confessed,
“I have the feeling that what I am seeing and hearing makes me years older, and the world often feels for me like a nauseating burden… I often wonder who I really am: the one always cringing in disgust, going to pieces at these hideous experiences here, or the one who whips himself into shape, who on the outside (and even to himself) appears calm, cheerful, serene, superior, and lets himself be applauded for this charade – or is it real?“ (8:220-21). These are powerful descriptions of agonizing pain: “a nauseating burden,” “cringing in disgust,” “going to pieces,” “hideous experiences,” feeling like a “charade” to oneself.
Bonhoeffer seems to reveal the suicidal undertones of this vulnerable confession in his prison poem “Who Am I?” There Bonhoeffer courageously explores his own burned out exhaustion and disappointment, and asks, “[Am I] too tired and empty to pray, to think, to work, weary and ready to take my leave of it all?” (8:460).
Looking back, Bonhoeffer endured Nazi prison with its suicidal fevers, in part at least, by embracing John’s practice of healing: he revealed his overwhelming pain to his best friend and was met by empathy and love, if only through letters across the distance. And I believe it was Bonhoeffer’s awareness of his own struggles – “often haunted” – that led to his radical sensitivity and empathy towards others in suffering. Soon before his arrest, he wrote,
“We must learn to regard human beings less in terms of what they do and neglect to do and more in terms of what they suffer. The only fruitful relation to human beings – particularly to the weak among them – is love, that is, the will to enter into and keep community with them. God did not hold human beings in contempt but became human for their sake” (8:44-45).
In many ways, Bonhoeffer rewords John’s definition of healing: suffering combined with love or “the will to enter into and keep community” with another in their suffering.
Spiritual heroes like Bonhoeffer may confess to being “often haunted” by suicidal depression. But Christian culture around the world today still stigmatizes and shame-soaks our pain and suicidal struggles.
A few years ago, a friend I hadn’t seen in awhile asked for an appointment in my office. As we talked, I quickly discovered that they wanted to share about their battle with suicide. They too had experienced a devastating loss and a chronic sense of disorientation and emptiness. They were reeling with feelings that life isn’t worth living, and they needed someone to listen and care.
I gently asked my friend why they hadn’t met with their pastor, instead of crossing town and meeting with me in my academic office. Their response was perhaps unsurprising but saddening nonetheless: talking to their pastor would only make it worse. “He would see me as a spiritual failure and judge me for not having enough faith.”
This broke my heart and showed me that tortured self-concealment is the cruel underside of the prosperity gospel. Sunday morning services may seem sunny with their triumphant faith and victorious breakthrough. We sing, say amen, and smile. But when this is the single story, Sunday casts a dark shadow in which suffering people feel like they need to hide and punish themselves. The irony is that something that seems only freeing and enlivening can become imprisoning and condemning for others in unrelenting pain. I wish we could see within our beautiful sanctuaries and their loud programs the lonely Christian in a dark room thinking about killing themself – feeling failed and afraid of strange looks, condescending words, or outright rebuke for their suffering.
This is the hidden reality in every church that silences suffering. My friend is not the only one is the crowd afraid of their pastor and on the brink of despair. Are we offering anything that they need or silently warning them to get healed, hide their true feelings, or disappear?
Even when we have someone in our life who cares, it takes courage to share the parts of ourselves that make us feel small, shameful, and like death is the only relief. But I’m learning that we can invite God and loved ones into these places of pain. We don’t have to burry them, hide them, or feel embarrassed to share them. Our pain is real, and only religion that thrives on control and half-truths trains us to think and feel otherwise. Our tears are drops of an ocean that promise healing, peace, and hope when we share them freely with one another. There should be no shame or stigma in being depressed or filled with despair. The world is a vampire.
I want to encourage you to take a step of faith and reveal yourself to a person in your life who cares about you. Or perhaps your step of faith is to open your ear to another’s pain and patiently listen with grace and embrace. We were not created to be alone. Togetherness is salvation in the fevers of despair.
In Acts 16, a man has lost hope. He thinks his life is over, and so he prepares to commit suicide. But Paul speaks these miraculous words: “Do yourself no harm, for we are all still here” (Acts 16:28).
We are all still here. We are bound together, even in the depths of pain and despair. This is a way to healing.
Thank you for listening and being there.