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.