The call about Bill’s death came as a surprise. A year or so after his wife died, Bill seemed to be doing well, publicly, at least. He talked a little about how quiet his house was and how much he missed his wife of more than 50 years, even though their last decade was mostly about his care for her through a series of illnesses that left her blind and nearly deaf. A model of faith and faithfulness, Bill was the Christian man we all wanted to become.
I first met him while I was a seminary student. Bill scheduled the preacher-boys to speak at the nearby nursing home. He was there every Sunday afternoon with his wife who handed out small treats she made while her eyesight lasted. He held aged hands and listened to familiar stories and always pointed people to Jesus. And he coached the seminarians through the experience of chapel in the dining room, a clattering mass of silverware and table setting and coughing and light snoring, as the brief service usually preceded supper. “If you can get their attention here, you can preach anywhere,” he would say each week.
Once you made it on Bill’s preacher list, you were on it until you graduated and moved away.
By the time of his wife’s death, I had returned to town and was Bill’s pastor. He was a gem, a beloved and supportive deacon, but he was sad. Bill’s daughter encouraged him to see a counselor. He seemed to be making progress.
Until he wasn’t.
“We found Dad in the bathroom,” she said on the phone. “Gunshot.” It was gruesome, and it was without explanation.
About two years earlier I’d had a similar phone call from someone who had found my mother dead in her apartment. “Pills,” the caller said. It was neater, but still gruesome. Hard to explain for a Christian and faithful ministry servant, her death came after a decades-long decline due to illness. As with Bill’s growing sense of isolation and medication that didn’t do what it was supposed to, she gave up.
In both cases, I found myself standing at their funerals, two years apart, struggling to respond. If they had just trusted, God would have seen them through, right?
I’m thinking of this now because a friend recently faced the similar funeral of a believing relative. I wondered how the preacher would handle it. Would he address the cause of death directly? Would he talk about mental illness? Would he reference a lifetime of faith that preceded a final, fatal choice?
Suicide is on the rise, up 30% in the U.S. between 2000 and 2020, so more pastors will have to bring a biblical word to such a time as this. For every 100,000 people, 13 commit suicide every year. Men outnumber women 3.5 to 1, with people in middle age most susceptible.
“You’ll preach a lot more funerals than weddings,” an experienced professor said, “so spend your time in my class working on funeral sermons; the mother of the bride will take care of the weddings.” But he didn’t tell us how to preach after suicide.
I’ve done it several times. I decided to treat it as I would any other challenging funeral—the death of a child, a horrible accident, a violent crime, or a debilitating illness. After watching the dear pastor who led my mother’s service bypass it completely, I decided I would always speak to the overwhelming issue on everyone’s mind, even if I couldn’t answer their questions.
“I don’t know why he felt so alone or made such a painful decision,” I’ve said several times, “but God can still be trusted with our lives and our souls. And God can be trusted with the confusion and the emotions we as mourners feel today.” I try to help those in attendance know it’s not their fault; anger at the deceased or blaming themselves for someone’s suicide will not help their own healing.
I don’t consign the deceased to hell: While some faith-groups may do so, ours still believes the one unpardonable sin is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. But I don’t promise them heaven either: While we hope a life lived in faith before this fateful choice was evidence of their salvation, blithe murmurings about “a better place” and “seeing them again” aren’t especially helpful at this point. It hurts too much to hear that.
I preach about the sanctity of human life. “Sanctity” is not only for the pre-born, it’s for all of us all along the way, from before the cradle ‘til after the grave. For the emotionally vulnerable, some verses about the value of living and letting God be in charge are bolstering, even if in that darkest moment their loved one did not value his or her own life. At the funeral, someone in the room has counted the pills or handled the gun. Someone in the room should be pulled back from the edge.
I point them to Jesus, obviously. More than once I’ve taken the grieving to Lazarus’s tomb. Though Jesus allowed his friend’s death to happen, he still wept. In the worst of situations, Jesus understands the loss; he feels just as we do.
And I end with hope. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” Even when we don’t especially feel it, he is with us.
Eric Reed is editor of Illinois Baptist media.