A few Sundays ago, we spoke openly about suicide and overdose at church. Our community lost someone to each in that week. I’m thankful we spoke openly about the pain instead of avoiding the spiritual practice of lament, but one word was voiced twice, once by our campus pastor and once by our senior pastor.
I think we choose (pun intended) this word because it makes us feel comfortable. We don’t like to admit that mental illness is real and can be fatal. If someone can succumb to depression like someone succumbs to leukemia, then life feels scary. Anyone can get sick like that, we realize, and that reality is just a little too real for us. And we’re afraid if we call suicide the fatal outcome of depression for some, then we might give permission to those on the brink of life and death to choose the latter.
So we minimize the fear by calling it the choice of the deceased.
But I don’t think that’s fair or accurate. I know when I attempted suicide a couple decades ago, I didn’t see choices. I just saw darkness. I just saw pain. I just wanted to stop feeling so much. I wanted a choice. Genuinely, I did. But the only option I could see was the blade against my skin. Suicide isn’t chosen; it’s the result of when a person’s pain exceeds the resources available for coping with pain.
Obviously, I’m still here. I didn’t die that day. I consider that God’s grace, but I don’t understand it because one of the best friends I’ve ever had did die from depression almost a year and a half ago. How can I call my living grace when she died after having survived previous suicidal episodes?
I don’t know.
What I do know is that Melinda and I were texting earlier that week about the dark place in which she had found herself. We had talked about it the week before over coffee and donuts. Her doctors knew. Her husband knew. Her sons knew. Her mom and sister knew. We were all standing with her, holding her up, cheering for her. She was fighting and seeking help and taking meds and making all the choices you make if you want to live.
Until she didn’t see choices anymore.
Three Sundays ago was the first time I let myself cry at our new church. I hate crying in public. I think it’s fine if someone else does it, but it feels like weakness when I do. (Yes, I’m working on being kinder to myself.) But after talking about the two young men who were no longer living, we sang the hymn It Is Well. We sang that song at Melinda’s funeral too.
Well, some people sang it then. As for me, I leaned over to Lee and whispered, “I refuse to sing this. It. Is. Not. Fucking. Well. With. My. Soul.”
(I don’t think I’ve ever cussed on the blog, but here we are. Someday I’ll write a post about why I think most of the passages in scripture about profane language are more concerned with the sort of vile remarks Trump makes than with certain four letter words we’ve deemed unspeakable. For now, I’ll simply say that in some moments – like this one and like when I replied with the same f word to my friend Lisa’s text a few months later that her four year old son had died – polite language fails us. Or it does me, at least. I'm a work in progress, after all)
I don’t think I chose suicide the day I attempted it. I don’t think Melinda chose it the days she tried or the day she died. I don’t think the two young men in our church community chose overdose or suicide.
I do think, though, that we all make choices every day that move us toward life or death. When Jesus says that he came that we might live life abundantly, I don’t think the takeaway is that life will always feel good. I do think, though, that we can choose life and keep choosing it. We can show up, even when it’s hard. We can defy death and despair by doing the next loving thing. We can look for lovelies even on dreary days. We can sit in the ashes of life and still find beauty. We can hold out support for others when their pain is exceeding their resources, and we can let others extend it to us when we’re in that imbalanced place. We can believe we are enough - even when we don't feel that way - because we were created by One who is more than enough. We can choose joy and bravery and light, and we can encourage others to join us in that choice.
And we can do so without painting those who succumb to depression as ones who rejected joy or weren’t brave or chose the shadows. That’s not the truth. None of us – even those who die from mental illness – are defined by what we’ve done in our darkest moments.
Suicide is a lot of things: A tragedy. A million papercuts on the hearts of those still living. A crushing end to the battle against depression. An anguish-driven explosion, sending shrapnel in more directions than anyone could predict beforehand. A painful reminder that this sin-soaked world isn’t right or just or perfect and that happy endings aren’t promised.
But suicide is not a choice. And I think we need to stop saying it is.