I wrote this story two years ago, and since then another suicide has occurred and been mourned, in a neighbouring community. That man I did know. To remember both of these men who left behind wives, children, even grandchildren, today I publish it. Let’s learn how to handle mental illness in the church in a way that embraces rather than isolates.
It is with a heavy heart that I write today, and even now I debated sharing this. I do so because I believe that the story I am about to share is one with a lesson that we, the Mennonite church, need to learn.
A number of months ago, in a small rural Mennonite community, a man committed suicide. He left behind him a wife and ten children. I was told the children sobbed at his funeral. This thought alone made me cry.
I could tell you his name, and where he is from, but those are not the parts of this story that needs to be told, and I refuse to exploit the story more than it has been already. The purpose of this story is to look at the impact suicide and mental illness have in small communities.
I did not know this man personally, but there is something I do understand about the community he was a part of. In this community, if this man wasn’t your relative, he was your relative’s relative. In tight-knit communities, something like death, particularly suicide, affects everyone. Every person will be impacted because the people they love are impacted. My relatives are impacted. As Mennonites, we should be able to understand what tight-knit means. Many people who didn’t know this man, and many who did, have been affected by his death.
It is well known that this man suffered will mental illness severely for many years. It was in a valley of illness that this man decided to end his life, leaving behind a large family and an even larger community.
It is also known that the Mennonite church, at least the different Mennonite churches I have encountered, has historically not responded well to those who daily battle mental illnesses. I have seen many occasions in which the church has rejected a person and essentially shunned this person, intentionally or otherwise, on the basis of the person’s mental illness. Exclusion and judgment are devastating.
I have watched people with mental illness experience this exclusion and judgment. I have seen them leave the church, and at times their relationship with God. I wish I had the permission to reveal the stories of several people I know, and how they have felt severely hurt, but it is not my place to do so. All I can say is that the church has some growing to do. The church Christ taught me about was healing and inclusive, not harmful.
A niece of the man who died commented that she hopes the Mennonite community will now begin to take mental illnesses seriously. She saw first-hand that mental illness is a very real thing and that it has “been too often shoved aside or ignored” or “left in silence.”
I dream of the church growing into a community that breaks the silence surrounding mental illness and seeks rather to understand. I hope that the church can become a community that supports and combats mental illness alongside those who do so first-hand. I hope the church can forget about instinctive habits of judgment and learn to embrace love as a first response, before alienation occurs.
Can any good come from this man’s death? It is hard to imagine that it could, but perhaps we will learn from it. Perhaps we can take the time to look at mental illness in our own communities and work to change how the church responds to mental illnesses. Maybe, just maybe, with the grace of God, we can grow and prevent something like this in the future.
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It is very sad to read this story and to learn that a lot of the Mennonite thinking is to shun people with a mental illness. No doubt this man is further shunned (and by extension, his family and friends) due to the stigma of suicide - perceived either as a crime or, I would posit in this case, the sin of taking one's life. Having lost someone close to me after 30 years (in 2021), I not only understand, but I KNOW the immense grief associated with suicide:
- the shame and guilt
- the feelings of abandonment and not being loved by the one who died
- the reality of being alone
- the endless nights of insomnia that is starting to make me ill
- the feelings of total isolation from others around me
- the need to defend the person
- the stigma that they CHOSE TO DIE (there is no choice)
- the lack of love that I know Christ would have offered were he alive today
- the judgments placed on God when he is perceived as a disinterested Father (God cares - note Gen.6:6 where it is noted that God can "grieve in his heart.")
- people telling how I should feel or where I am in my grief
- being told that my faith should enough (Well it isn't always true and that needs to be acknowledged)
I could go on but I think readers will get the point that I am trying to make.
As Mennonites believe that we have each been created in the image of God and therefore that life is precious, they sometimes exclude those who are outside the fold. In doing so, they deny the reality of the loss for these people as well (leading to disenfranchised grief).
May people learn from the man's death that no life is worth the price of shunning or excluding them. A life lost early to suicide is a life worth saving.
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