Rarely did I get a phone call while in the middle of class. Even more uncommon was pausing my sophomore Bible class to answer it. But this day I did.
The slow, steady voice of my husband immediately informed me that this was not going to be good news. As he unfolded the brief story known at that point, I felt my lungs gasp and my heart weigh down with information that would forever change our family.
At sunrise our nephew had been discovered dead, atop a portico at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts. All evidence confirmed that he had taken his own life. The unthinkable had entered into the heart of this young man. He acted upon it to completion, leaving us, his family, to sort out the trauma, reorganize our picture of God, and continue living by whatever means we knew at the time.
I wish I could say we all grieved well, but I can’t. But we all grieved. Suicide creates its own grief storm, and we each navigated it with the limited tools we carried. While we were able to talk freely of our love and memories of Garrett, each of us found our own isolated places to hold our feelings.
I remember a brief conversation with Garrett’s dad about the hope he held of seeing his son in the earth made new. I, on the other hand, found my inner thoughts questioning and doubting my nephew’s salvation. I harbored pockets of judgment and condemnation. His action was certainly a result of his drug and alcohol use.
My heart shriveled as I drew my own conclusions for his future judgment. Bear with me—I have never disclosed these damaging inner thoughts. (I beg you, reader, to stay with this narrative so you might learn from my mistake.)
Shortly after Garrett’s death the family became aware for the first time of his bipolar diagnosis. “If only we had known” was our hearts’ common cry. How much we would have done differently.
As details of the last days and hours of Garrett’s life began to become visible through the fog of our broken hearts, I began to reevaluate my immediate position of judgment.
It didn’t really matter what the details were; what mattered was that my heart began to make a shift. I began to notice that my personal conclusions were out of alignment with what I knew to be true about God. As the years have passed I am ever reminded that God has not left the judgment of my nephew (or anyone else) to my limited scope of knowledge. I have only the ability to see outward hints of someone’s inward life. But God sees from the inside out!
He perfectly understood Garrett’s struggles. God perfectly knew his darkest secrets and his deepest hopes. In the words of Ellen White: “He traces from cause to effect.”* In His perfect knowing God continued to love Garrett unconditionally.
Did not the heart of the universal Father break to see our nephew live out his mental illness to the death? Yes! Could He have stopped him? Yes.
So the bigger spiritual questions regarding suicide might be: Where is God when people contemplate, plan, and prepare to end their own lives? Where is God when mental illness, depression, and pain take any of us to the point of wishing to end it all?
I must add another line of questions: Where is God’s enemy, Satan, at all times and at all places on this earth? Is he not a vicious lion prowling about to kill and destroy? Is he not intent on harming and bringing as much pain as he can to God’s beloved children, and thus to God? Is there a real influence of evil that we all struggle with every moment of our lives?
While our Christian faith speaks of victory over evil, when anyone of us is overcome by our own desire to end our lives, God knows and understands the struggle. It is not the unpardonable sin to take one’s life. Just as it is not the unpardonable sin to break the Sabbath, to lie, to commit adultery, or to steal. We all mess up, we all sin and fall so deeply from God’s original plan for our lives. All that saves us is the limitless grace of Jesus. There I was in judgment of my beloved Garrett, just as much in need of saving as he was.
O God, please forgive me! Please heal my hard heart! Help me trust that You alone know Garrett’s heart, his struggles, his limitations, and his need for a Savior. Help me come close to others who struggle with depression, mental illness, and pain. Help me to listen more and draw conclusions less. Please open my capacity to trust You with all the final outcomes of each of our lives.
My turnabout has developed slowly yet profoundly, all because of this: Would you look at the cross with me and see God hanging by spikes, taking in the screaming judgments of the crowd? Will you listen to the demonic mocking mob cruelly misrepresent the Father? Will you consider that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit went through this experience? Will you grant Them the full right and authority that is Theirs, that They have earned to read each heart perfectly?
As a grief coach I receive phone calls from people with heartsick voices explaining the trauma of living after loved ones take their own lives. Families struggle with the assurance of seeing their loved ones again. I could never begin to come close to their broken hearts if I carried judgment about suicide. Condemnation never brings anyone comfort, hope, or healing.
My hope about Garrett’s future isn’t built on him or me. I gave that up: now it’s built on God.
* Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898, 1940), p. 517.
Karen Nicola is an author, speaker, and grief educator who writes from the foothills of northern California.
The weeks and months following our son’s death to leukemia were immersed in the varied experiences of grief: shock, chest pains, fatigue, listlessness, sorrow, despair, lack of focus, anguish, overwhelming memories, guilt, regrets, and baby steps toward adjusting to life without our Dawson.
Interacting with friends, family, and acquaintances had its moments of awkwardness. With our hearts deeply crushed, many didn’t know how to be with us. Sadly, yet common to those who grieve, others ignored us. Their loss for words and limited comforting skills created a perfect storm for our isolation.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we and our church members knew better how to minister to those who mourn? Wouldn’t we like to confidently assist others through their seasons of loss? Before Dawson died we, too, wondered what to say or do. We felt inadequate to come alongside and comfort the grieving. Many of us assume that after the burial and traditional meal that follows in some cultures, the bereaved are “over it.” Yet in reality they are just beginning their journey through the dark valley of the shadow of death.
Years later, as a grief coach, I have come to understand that the only cure for grief is to grieve. To take the pain away from mourners robs them of the important, necessary, and natural process of grief. When a well-meaning child tries to assist a butterfly struggling to release itself from the familiar cocoon, it only weakens the butterfly’s ability to take flight. In the same way, only the griever can do their grieving work. It is not our job to take it from them.
All people grieve, but not all grieve well. People who find the path of healthy grief work with their pain, understanding that pain is a shout for help and attention, not something to ignore or medicate away. They might write a prayer journal about their feelings of loss, sadness, anger, despair, and so forth. Sometimes they exercise as a way to release confusing emotions. Tears of love are no cause for shame. Mourners often reach out for others’ help with ordinary daily activities that are overwhelming under the pressure of grief.
Healthy grievers need people in their lives to listen to them tell their stories, memories, and questions of faith. Healthy grievers need us to let them grieve with support and free of judgment. They don’t need us to take their grief away. They don’t need us to fix their pain. They don’t need us to ignore them or leave the name of their deceased loved one out of the conversation. They don’t need us to compare our stories with theirs.
They simply need us to be present; to show up with a listening heart and ask for permission or clarification before we jump in to help. We need to follow their lead, to think about their needs, and allow our time with them to be about them.
If these are the needs of a healthy griever, how much more will that be true for someone who doesn’t know how to grieve well? Each culture has ways of grieving that more or less direct the bereaved toward adjusting to the death of a loved one. However, not all cultural norms that influence our grief cooperate with the healing God has in store for our broken hearts.
As an example, some cultures suggest we ignore or downplay the pain of loss, while others might create an exaggerated or unnatural display of grieving that leaves emotions frayed and raw, and the griever exhausted. Neither of these cultural extremes cooperates with God’s healing.
Even if we have not yet experienced grief ourselves, we can still come near to others in their journey with words of God’s comfort from Scripture. When we weep with those who weep,1 together we share the hope in Jesus’ second coming and His powerful resurrection. When we feel the burden of sorrow,2 together we are reminded that God is the expert heart healer who knows how to mend our wounded hearts.3 When we know the God of all comfort,4 together we are assured that our God is good. He is profoundly and faithfully restoring the lives5 of humans all around this planet.
One local church6 started a grief care team ministry that operated for the express purpose of supporting grieving members for as long as needed. So when the Gomez family was devastated by the sudden death of Mr. Gomez, age 40, the grief care team was prepared to support Mrs. Gomez and her three daughters. After the funeral, and after the extended Gomez family returned to their homes, several women from the church scheduled themselves to spend nights with Mrs. Gomez for as long as she needed their support. A member from the grief care team checked in with Mrs. Gomez every eight to 12 weeks to update changes the grieving family might need. Others in the church wrote weekly or monthly cards or letters of encouragement, always including personal notes to the girls.
The team organized meals, groceries, child care, tuition assistance, yard care, and car maintenance extending well into the first year of their loss. The coordinated help came from church members as well as local professionals who donated legal advice and grief counseling. Several times Mrs. Gomez and her daughters received invitations to Sabbath lunch. Often her closest friends made sure to include the Gomez sisters in play dates with their own children.
This church is a healthy example of Jesus’ mandate to comfort one another. These church members overcame cultural myths about grief and stepped close to Mrs. Gomez and her daughters with tangible and useful comfort. Reaching out to the grieving family was sacred work. The comforters went beyond words, using thoughtful action; stepping on hallowed ground as they served.
“Comfort, comfort my people”7 is Jesus’ mandate for each of us who claim to be following Him.
Learn more about Karen’s ministry at www.comfortfortheday.com.
Karen Nicola, M.A., is a grief educator and coach who presents grief recovery workshops and seminars at churches throughout the United States.