A few months ago, a preacher at our church included suicide in his sermon. Philippians 1 was the text, where the Apostle Paul sets out his dilemma between preferring life or death. “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you,” Paul writes.
The preacher spoke of the horrendous prison conditions under which Paul was living, so terrible that prisoners did choose to end their lives. With that information, I understood Paul’s remarks in a new light. In Paul’s context, suicide was an up-close reality. His choice to live because of his love for the people of the community is inspiring.
As a part of his remarks, the preacher included information about where people could go to receive help if they or someone they knew was struggling with mental health or suicidal thoughts. It was a courageous, sensitive pastoral act, drawing from the biblical text to address our current context with compassionate guidance. I give thanks for the many preachers who regularly address “the difficult questions” of our day.
Can we talk about suicide? Some days I think it is one of the hardest things to talk about, nearly impossible. Yet I know that what we cannot speak about holds a great power over us. If we are unable to speak of the crushing struggle that compels someone to end his or her life, we give it even more power.
Speaking personally, in the bleakest season of my life, I was reluctant to speak of the grey weight I carried. As I dragged through the days and nights, I felt life was not worth living. I did not imagine taking steps toward suicide, but I did dwell too frequently in desolation. “It doesn’t matter if I die,” lurked in the back of my thinking. If I parse my reluctance to speak, it may be because of the strong taboo around such thoughts. It may be doubt that a listener could help. It may be a kind of misplaced pride in bearing burdens stoically. It may be the insidious allure of death itself.
I knew that carrying such feelings alone was harmful, so I made myself reach out to a few people, primarily those who were spiritual guides, people who asked about and reflected on my “God walk,” and rested with me prayerfully in that bleak landscape. Those individuals and the grace of God carried me through.
Gentle Reader, I encourage you in your difficult conversations about suicide and about other topics. Be a person who takes risks in placing your truth before others, in asking keen questions and in listening oh-so-carefully to the answers, tending both the words that are spoken and the messages underneath the words. Build communities that are open, grace-filled and firmly sustained by the unbounded love of Jesus.
From reader response, I am hearing appreciation for—and critique of—these columns on difficult conversations. I welcome such responses, and urge all of us to engage, bringing our voices and perspectives to the discernment. Difficult conversations need contributions from professionals, pastors and family members who are living out the realities.
Last spring, our church hosted an adult Sunday school series on mental health. On some Sundays we learned from the professionals. On others, we heard stories from people willing to speak of their experiences with mental illness, including suicidal thinking. I was overcome by the beauty and bravery of the individuals who spoke. I was awed by the presence of the Spirit visibly healing and knitting together the body of Christ. In difficult conversations we meet God.
Melissa Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org) has a passion for helping people develop healthy, vibrant relationships with God, self and others.