A Son's Suicide

Some days it just doesn’t work out. Late on Saturday evening our time news broke across social media that the son of one Evangelical Christianity’s best known leaders had committed suicide. Of course this shouldn’t really be a public issue; it’s one family’s deeply personal soul-wrenching pain. But because of Rick Warren’s profile – this was a man who gave a prayer of invocation at Obama’s 2009 inauguration – the news was flashing around the world at the press of a button.

The story is best absorbed directly, the better to filter out speculation and innuendo. Warren’s pastoral letter to his congregation is beautiful, simple and almost impossible to read. Matthew Warren -Rick and Kay Warren’s youngest son – died at the age of 27, committing suicide after years of struggle with mental illness. What’s especially striking in all of this is a simple sentence:

“Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life.” He goes on to say something which rang bells for me: “I’ll never forget how, many years ago, after another approach had failed to give relief, Matthew said ‘Dad, I know I’m going to heaven. Why can’t I just die and end this pain?’ but he kept going for another decade”.

 To many  - Christian or not – that seems mysterious and confusing. Doesn’t Jesus give us life in all its fullness? Well, yes. But if there’s a black dog foaming and snarling in your face, your fullness can feel very small.

A few years ago, before I entered ordained church ministry, I worked in a long-term stay hostel for young homeless people in Bermondsey, South-East London. Most of the staff were Christians; we dealt with young men and women who, like us, were all broken in some way. One profoundly gifted young man – a budding film-maker – was destined for big things. He’d got his life back on track and his career looked like it could head in a very positive direction. He’d made a profession of Christian faith (by no means an ‘object’ of the hostel’s work, but it still happened) a short time after leaving the hostel. He told us about that profound spiritual encounter in a long letter he wrote to us as a staff. Within a month he’d committed suicide.

We were floored. It took some of us months – maybe years – to process. Maybe some of us still are processing it. Processing is such a cold word really for integrating such a devastating reality into your life. What about his faith? He had something to live for now, surely? Why do this, now? The truth is we don’t and can’t know. The truth is that the option he took, and the option Matthew Warren took, is an option that’s always open. To all of us. Whether it’s in the impulse of a moment or planned meticulously, depression does this to you. It can sweep other options away in a dark tsunami, leaving you with just one, tempting you like the only ripe fruit on a tree when all the bounty of other branches looks rotten. Sometimes it’s taken, plucked almost reluctantly and gradually over times; or in this young man’s case grabbed as if time was of the essence, in a rush to get somewhere else.

I’ve heard suicide called giving in to being a victim. I don’t think that’s fair or true. It can feel in the moment like the only way of transcending the moment. That’s not to say it’s the right thing to do. It’s not. Of course it’s not. But to pass it off as victim-hood, as giving up, is too easy. Sometimes it may just make some kind of awful sense in the moment you’re in.

When you’re caught in the tsunami’s grip, what you need most is people. Checking in, asking, loving, holding you against the force that’s threatening to sweep you away. I wish I could say holding always works, always saves the life. I wish I could say that love trumps darkness every time. Eternally, it does. But in individual moments, when lies loom large with a whirlpool’s seemingly irresistible force, it doesn’t. Not for everyone. But that doesn’t mean the love was wasted, unheard or unfelt. It just meant that one day the black dog couldn’t be trained. But our God is one who hung, suffered, ached, cried and died – so we know He’s there, we know … He knows. Somehow.

We’ll always want to know why. Of course we do. We need to hear that some questions can’t be fully answered and still be answered truthfully. That doesn’t mean you can’t sit, though. Sit with the person for whom a snarling dog is the only reality. And sometimes, sit with the ones whom have been left behind.

Dave Meldrum, 10/04/2013
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