By Desiree Woodland
After my son Ryan died by suicide, my heart was too wounded and broken to remember what was good about living. And although God would eventually take those broken pieces and create something new, it was hard to completely give myself back to him. I pondered these words from C. S. Lewis, “We’re not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us, we’re wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.”
I had become a self-centered Christian whose prayers were more of a proclamation and presumption that I knew His will. Mistakenly, I thought His will was to always help me sidestep suffering. Being a believer since my youth, I experienced the Jesus Movement of the sixties as well as the Prosperity Gospel movement. I could never reconcile the suffering of others with my own life that seemed so blessed. I was far removed from the pain of others, and I had little personal humility — I prayed, God answered, and I said thank you.
When my son died, this entire paradigm fell to pieces beside my aching heart. I was in utter darkness without hope. How could suicide happen in a Christian family? Where was God, my deliverer? If He was there, why had He abandoned us? I had nowhere to rest until I could find God once again.
Ryan had been diagnosed with schizophrenia nine months before he died. Mental illness and suicide are often misunderstood in the church. I had stereotypical images of what someone with mental illness looked like. And those images were not my son. Ryan had been behaving strangely, but I attributed it to adolescence and thought he would outgrow it. And because of stigma I was unable to recognize mental illness in my son, so he continued to suffer, despite much prayer. He needed treatment as surely as if he’d had cancer.
There was no one in my faith community who I felt would understand because I didn’t understand myself. At church I had never heard anyone talking about mental illness. No one talked about it because of the shame of being perceived as weak or not having faith. So, people keep quiet and that only makes it worse. It is lonely to be in community and not know if it is a safe place to share your struggles — to be able to share that your child is struggling, has been to the psychiatric hospital, takes psychiatric meds, or goes to counseling. It is lonely to not know if it is safe to share the grief over a loved one that has taken their own life.
Until we learn to talk about suicide without judgement, we can’t do anything to help prevent it. Suicide is not the result of just one thing. Most often depression or anxiety are present combined with an environmental stressor like job loss, breakups, or any number of troubles that can happen in a broken world. To Ryan’s clouded thinking it was the final solution out of the many he had tried to end his pain — pain described as wretchedness and psych-ache, unbearable emotional pain.
Ryan died by suicide; he did not commit a crime. His suicide was not a permanent solution to a temporary problem. He suffered the anguish of an unrelenting illness that was not temporary and had not yet responded to treatment. We often dismiss the suffering of others who take their lives. Language matters.
I have become an advocate for more openness in our congregations for the sake of our families, friends, and church leaders. We need to break the shame of mental illness and suicide. Jesus is the hope for all of our needs and when Jesus healed the leper, the demon possessed, the broken-hearted, he never blamed them for their condition. Jesus is not a religious leader who condemns us if we seek help. He is the High Priest who understands our weaknesses. We don’t have to choose between scripture OR counseling and medication OR prayer. Jesus loves us as whole people: mentally, spiritually, and physically. To talk of a person’s mental illness like it was a result of a sin, curse, or demon possession is to further stigmatize, shame, and isolate those who are struggling.
One in four people will develop clinical depression, PTSD, anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, or some other mental illness in their lifetime. Mental illnesses are brain illnesses and may require medication just as a heart condition requires treatment. Mental illnesses — whether they are short duration or lifelong — are not character flaws but are the result of biology, genetics, and environmental stress.
Alongside books on mental illness and suicide, I continued to read C. S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain which chronicles his atheistic account of the universe being homogenous matter on the idiotic face of the universe, where we would all come to nothing, and even our stories would come to nothing. I had been adrift in this same reality and in the darkest place I had ever been — the dark night of the soul says St. John of the Cross.
Desperate for hope, I read of Lewis’s conversion to Christianity. He tells how he came to a revelation that there was a God, from a simple deduction that just thinking about God was a reasonable proof that God existed. Where had this thought come from, if not from outside himself? Coming to faith in God, and specifically Christian faith, was the most reasonable choice. If this man who had not believed in God came to faith, surely, I could reach out to find faith once again. Theologian Peter Kreeft says, “Any faith that can die, should die, because it is not faith, but platitude, soporific or wishful thinking. Real faith cannot be shaken because it is the result of being shaken.”
I have since made peace with my faith, but I am not the same. I see through another lens — one that includes Mystery. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12-13 (MSG), “We don’t yet see clearly. We’re squinting in a fog and peering through a mist. It won’t be long until the weather clears, and the sun shines bright. We’ll see it all then, see it as clearly as God sees us. But until then, until that consummation, we have three things to do. Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, and love extravagantly.”
On this journey toward healing, I have also made peace with the notion that I will never be completely healed on this side of heaven. How else could it be? A piece of my heart is missing. God never asks us to let go of our beloved.
Whether or not I find complete answers as to why Ryan took his life, I believe God was with him as he breathed his last breath. No judgment, no condemnation, but a “Welcome home, beloved child.” I cannot live without God. He didn’t change. I had to change. He did answer my prayers for healing, just not in the way I wanted. My son is no longer suffering, and I have found comfort in God and in learning to trust Him, even in this. Trust is the firm belief in the reliability, ability, or strength of someone. That Someone was with Ryan when he died and is with me as I continue my life’s journey. Ryan wrote in the journals he left behind that he would see us again. Yes Ryan, I still believe.
Desiree and her husband Gary, live in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They have two children, Michelle, and Ryan. Following Ryan’s suicide, she wrote a book called, I Still Believe. After 19 years, she retired from teaching to promote the use of a curriculum in NM schools called “Talking Mental Health,” a core program of Breaking the Silence NM which teaches students mental illness and suicide awareness. She is on the board of Breaking the Silence NM, as well as Survivors of Suicide in Albuquerque where she facilitates a mother’s survivor group. She is also part of an outreach program for newly bereaved survivors of suicide loss called Healing Conversations from American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She holds a master’s level certificate in Grief and Loss. Her writing has been published in Grief Digest, Just Between Us online magazine, The Oasis Anthology, The Mighty, Memoir Magazine, as well as local publications. Her focus is most often around the stigma of mental illness and suicide. She believes as we tell the stories, we break the stigma.
Discover more at www.desireewoodland.com.
Find her on Facebook under I Still Believe mental illness, suicide and faith.
Originally published in Gritty Faith Volume 15. Written by Desiree Woodland.