When a pastor’s son takes his life

My first funeral to conduct as a young pastor was for the former pastor’s son who had taken his life.

_____________________________

Public figures like California Megachurch Pastor, Rick Warren, find it hard to suffer privately. When the Warren’s youngest son, Matthew (27) ended his suffering from mental illness by taking his life, countless news agencies and bloggers reported and analyzed their loss. Great outpourings of condolence were mixed with the opinions of those who were not as kind. The Warren’s responded with grace and gratitude.

Although I don’t know Rick Warren, like many others, I grieved at the heartbreaking news of his son’s death. As a pastor, I’ve often had a front row seat to the kind of depression that Pastor Warren described in his son’s life. Early in ministry, I was also given the responsibility to minister to a pastor who lost his son to suicide.

My first funeral as a young pastor was for the former pastor’s adult son who had taken his life. The Church I accepted a call to lead was a Mennonite congregation before I arrived. It dwindled down to 10 people when my wife and I accepted the invitation to help them transition to become an independent Bible Church (28 years ago).

The pastor of the Mennonite Church stayed with us for the first few years of transition and we had a great friendship. But tragedy struck his family during this time as his adult daughter took her life and was discovered by his grandchildren. One month later, his only other child, a son in his early forties, ended his life so that, in his words, “My troubles would be over like my sister.”

The son had suffered some kind of mental break while in pre-med school. He was a kind and gentle man but he never fully recovered from his mental break. On one occasion, I asked him about his faith in Christ and he clearly articulated his belief that Jesus Christ was his savior.

I couldn’t have faced a more challenging call than to conduct this man’s funeral. His father (a very dear and godly man) was a respected leader in the Mennonite community. But after the death of his wife to cancer (several years earlier) and the loss of his only two children to suicide, he plunged into a deep despair.

In preparing to lead the funeral, I learned that many Mennonites believed that suicide meant a loss of salvation. I did not believe this and it was my duty to make it clear to a room full of people at the funeral home. Suicide (among Mennonites) also meant that one was denied a funeral in the Church building.

There was standing room only at the funeral parlor and I faced some rather austere men and women dressed in the old black garb common to conservative Mennonites. I quietly asked God for courage and grace to speak His truth from Romans 8:38-39. The response was amazing!

I emphasized my personal conversation about faith with the pastor’s son and I talked about the special challenges he endured. I then suggested that the Apostle Paul’s emphasis on the security of God’s love in Christ would not be threatened by something as horrible as suicide.

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39, NIV).

After the funeral was over, I learned even  more about life and ministry as I walked with a man whose soul refused to be comforted. He was not angry toward God, but he was hurt, confused and truly lost in his grief. Although I lacked experience, I tried to be a faithful friend and gentle source of encouragement to this pastor. He was always so appreciative and gracious.

Almost thirty years later, I can say that I’ve lived long enough to know what it’s like to battle feelings of depression. I’ve also walked beside many others who have battled waves of depression and despair far worse than me.

It is good to remember that great servants of God like Job (Job 3:10-13, 16); Moses (Numbers 11:13-15); Elijah (I Kings 19:1-4), and Jonah (Jonah 4:1-10), reached extreme low points where they wanted to die. Although none of them to our knowledge attempted suicide and, each one saw it as God’s prerogative to end life, each also felt that life was no longer worth living. God graciously restored his servants through a variety of methods.

In the funeral service, I gently reminded people that most of those who commit suicide are not in a healthy state of mind. Some suffer from serious neurological deficiencies and others just lose perspective and see no way out of their sadness. But I also emphasized how important it is for us to respect God’s prerogative over life and death — enough to refuse to take even our own lives into our hands.

I encouraged them to turn to the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort when they faced despair (II Corinthians 1:3-4). And I emphasized the wisdom of seeking help from others.

Yet many are too embarrassed by their discouraged state of mind to ask for help. Some even feel guilty for being depressed when they know they have so much to be thankful for. This is where the Church must be more honest about how common it is to struggle with challenging emotions. Churches are called to be distinguished as communities of mutual encouragement (1 Thessalonians 4:18; 5:11; Hebrews 3:13; 10:25).

A word of caution 

Biologically based depression cannot be treated exactly the same way as intense normal sadness. Church people are sometimes well-intentioned but hurtful when they approach all discouragement as a matter of simple obedience to the Lord. Sometimes words of encouragement and even admonishments are needed and helpful. But, in other cases, we risk doing more harm than good by approaching despair as solely volitional.

The following one-liners are often thoughtlessly spoken to discouraged people:

  • “Just cheer up!”
  • “Don’t be so negative!”
  • “You have a lot to be thankful for!”
  • “Complaining is a sin!”
  • “Do you think God owes you a better life?”

The key to helping someone who is battling despair is to patiently ask caring questions about their struggles. Seek to understand the full picture before handing out advice. We Christians can be too hasty to launch advice at people in ways that are not helpful and perhaps serve our egos more than those in need.

Please remember that the brain is perhaps the most complex human organ. The Vice Chair of my board is a neurophysiologist and, more than once, I’ve consulted with him about the neurological challenges people experience. He fully affirms that (like all other organs), the brain doesn’t always function in health producing ways. Relatively recent discoveries in the field of neuroscience have provided hope for those who suffer.

I am grateful for the medicines available to assist those who struggle with neurologically based challenges like depression. And those who benefit from depression medications must never be made to feel embarrassed about it. They are no different from those who take medications for deficiencies in other bodily organs. Our bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made, but woefully and tragically fallen.

Those who battle prolonged and debilitating depression that negatively affects their daily lives and relationships should be directed to seek medical counsel. They should also be encouraged to be open to the possibility of medicinal aid.

Yet medicinal aid must never be understood as the total solution to depression. We are more than bodies with physical needs. The other dimensions of our being (spiritual, emotional, social) must receive thoughtful attention in our battle for health. A holistic approach respects all the dimensions of personhood created by God.

With prayer for the Warren family and all others who suffer,

Steve Cornell

See also: The anatomy of normal sadness

About Wisdomforlife

Just another worker in God's field.
This entry was posted in Death, Depression, Despair, Rick Warren invocation, Suffering, Suicide. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to When a pastor’s son takes his life

  1. DM says:

    We just returned from a week of one on one intense personal counseling, where my wife was diagnosed with PTSD (she’s suffered depression and anxiety since a teenager/ and is now in her early 50’s) Even during those times when she too was hospitalized post traumatic stress was never talked about as far as she knew. As a Christian, she has had to wrestle with the role of medicine in her battle for wholeness. I really appreciate the tone of your post here…you definitely “get it” DM

  2. hugobutts says:

    I suffer from depression and psychosis for which I am medicated and have received many years of counselling as well. I live as a disciple and that gives me hope and to a degree tempers my symptons, God always provides a way forward. My sister who also suffered from depression but who was far more successful than I have ever been but had lost her faith committed suicide. God I believe always provides a way forward and does not test us beyond our means.

  3. Bruce Parker says:

    Steve

    Thanks for your words of wisdom and compassion regarding the death of Matt Warren. I believe this post will be words of encouragement and comfort to many who struggle with depression. You “spoke the truth in love” while addressing the sin in all it’s complicated forms. Thanks.

    In fact, I would like your permission to use this post in our May newsletter for First Baptist Church in Hood River, OR. We send it to about 75 families and make it able to attenders.

    Have a blessed weekend!

    Bruce Parker Pastor First Baptist Church Hood River, OR

  4. rachelmccleary says:

    When I went into a dark depression several years ago, I’ll never forget someone who I trusted as a good friend saying to me when I tried to describe how I was feeling, “Are you having your quiet time every day? That’s probably the problem.” She might as well have slapped me in the face. Saying something like that says that 1. it’s your fault, and 2. you’re far from God and this is his punishment on you. Looking back, I can see how God was nearer to me in that time of life than at any time before, and that for His own purposes He allowed me to go through those dark years. But He was WITH me through it. I know people mean well in saying things like that, but there’s almost nothing more hurtful or isolating that you can say to someone struggling with irrational feelings of despair.

  5. Angela says:

    Personally I have only struggled with seasonal depression and I know that there are things I can do to help that. I do have friends and many people I know who have had or still have depression. Is it possible to know when the depression is strictly caused by brain chemicals or when it is caused or made worse by someone’s choices? I really struggle with not knowing the answer to that. I don’t want to judge someone but in many cases of people I know, they have made a pattern of choices that made the depression worse. I would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks.

  6. Jim says:

    Hi,
    My name is Jim. I have known the Lord my entire life… I believe Jesus is my Lord and Savior. I believe in His death, burial and resurrection… I believe He died for my sins and the sins of the world… I know Christ is in my heart… now here’s the problem.
    I have been self employeed for almost 30 years. I’m coming to the end of my rope. I’m not sure if you are keeping up with this post, but none the less I found it.
    I could use your prayers. I am weak and tired. I am a builder and have been blessed to have work, but working and making money are two different things.
    I have had some depression in different “seasons” in my life… the last two times have been since 05… I lost my dad, my mother in law, uncle and wifes uncle in just under 2-1/2 year period. I also had sudden hearing loss in one ear. I saw a Dr. and she gave me some pills and eventually things evened out.
    Two years ago, We had a sewer back up followed up by a flood and two weeks later a tornado went through our yard… all this was months before our son’s wedding… then in the tail end of the year, someone did not pay me on a job finished… I had to see the Dr. again… Pressure…
    Now, 11 years ago I entered into an written agreement with a lawyer to build a detatched sun porch for him… a permit was never issued… we simply started the building… he knew we had no permit. he has a falling out with his neighbor, The neighbor called the village 10 years, 10 months later. The lawyer calls me and asks for help… I’m willing to help and asked for some money to start the process… he starts throwing his weight around demanding I help him for free. I’m really depressed… extreamly depressed. Please pray that the Lord will intervine and let this man be able to get his detached room passed by the village… I can’t imagine what my life will be like if this goes to court. I am not a fighter… I am a simple builder… a man without much… my insurance carrier won’t be able to help because no permit was pulled… Please pray that the Lord will intervine and let this man get this issue ironed out with the village… I did contact the village and admitted on being the builder. The village told me it’s the owners responsibility… well, this “weight” is a millstone hanging around my neck.
    Personally, I don’t think I can take another “blow” to my mental health.
    Please ask your brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for me so that this problem will be solved by the Lord…
    I know that there are more important issues in life to others, but somehow, things keep hitting me and depression runs deep in my heart and mind. I don’t know if I could take any more mental anguish. My wife misses my smile…
    Some people may laugh at this, but to me, this feels like a death sentence… I am feeling as if there is no hope in this life…. I’m sad and depressed. I can’t sleep, infact I am an insomniac and this is not helping matters. When I am awake, I have all night to think which rolls into the morning and I repeat this over and over… I have been unable to sleep for 10 years as well.
    Quite frankly, I could be in the middle of a party and feel all alone.
    Thanks.
    Jim,
    I would like to share my e-mail, but i am not sure if I should.

    • Angela says:

      Jim,
      I read your comments and I hear you. I thought of the message I heard in church today about the times of waiting in our lives. I think it would really bless you. Look up Harvest Bible Chapel online and listen to the sermon from this weekend. 8/18/13. It’s by James McDonald’s son. I hope that helps. Don’t give up.

    • Jim says:

      Hi,
      I’m Jim… I want to thank Angela for responding to me… If anyone is keeping current with this post, please pray… not only for me, but others with depression… Let’s be on our “knees” in prayer for each other.
      I know I will be praying… I hope you will as well.
      As you can see, I am reaching out for help. I’ll bet there are thousands that are reaching out for help as well. Are we paying attention to others needs?
      Real quick, I grew up in a Christian home… in the 60’s and 70’s it was not tollerated to have mental health issues… we were supposed to “pray” about it and the Lord would take the stress from us… Well, here we are in 2013, DEPRESSION is real. I am a Christian, and I’m really depressed. I am praying to the Lord to take this from me…
      Thanks
      Jim

      • Anonymous says:

        Thanks Angela for your reply. My body and mind is hurting. I’ve yet to look up that message you suggested. Lets pray for one another.
        Jim

      • Angela says:

        JIm, You need to take some steps forward no matter how badly you feel now. Listen to the message I told you about. Reach out to a trusted believer close to you. And keep reaching out until you can get a network of godly believers around you who can help you walk through this. Don’t give up. Not everyone knows how to help someone in your situation so continue to seek help until you find it. Then be willing to take the steps necessary to get spiritually and emotionally healthy again. You’ll be fine. Angela

  7. Jim says:

    Is anyone there? Is anyone reading this? I’m kind of depressed.
    Jim

  8. Jim says:

    It’s Jim,
    I’m sad and depressed about the above situation and my business… I accepted Christ in my heart years ago. I know that the love of Christ should be flowing from my heart… I feel my heart is dark. I know that the Lord is always with me. It’s a promise that He gave…
    I don’t know how to turn off this thing in my head/heart… my emotions are almost gone.
    Personally, I can’t wait for the Lord to return to take us home…
    If anyone is there, please respond.
    Jim

    • Natalie W says:

      Jim, I agree absolutely with Angela’s last post, and with Sara’s. I will pray for you today. It’s good that you are asking for help here; are you asking for help outside of the internet as well? There is no depression or exhaustion or numbness that is not made WORSE by insomnia and lack of rest! It makes everything else harder to bear. Are there counselors in your church who can recommend a trusted Christian doctor? Not every depression needs medication, but it is hard for us to judge for ourselves! I hated the idea of medication, but did take it for a few years, and it helped. Insomnia needs help, too. Jesus can help us with anything, but we need to see it; sometimes He helps us through friends, or counsel, and sometimes He helps us with vitamins and medicine. He is the Judge of all the Earth. He knows we are but dust. He has compassion on us. He will take us home in His good time. In the meantime, He has help nearby for you. It just may be somewhere you have not looked yet. Read the Psalms, and find a Christian doctor. We will pray from here.

  9. Jim says:

    Thanks Angela…your a friend in Christ… Thanks for your words and let’s keep praying for one another as well as others on this post… Depression is real and quite destructive.
    Jim

  10. Sara says:

    Hi Jim, I don’t know if you’re still keeping up with this post, but I prayed for you today. Your feelings sound so familiar to what I have experienced. Are you taking medication? I would encourage to accept that our brains can be ill. Do you know that our brains produce chemicals that can go awry? Those chemicals affect our functioning. I suffered with depression for many years and prayed my way through. However, depression kept returning. I also suffered from insomnia. I went to see a therapist and she referred me to a psychiatrist. I was prescribed Seroquel and I can hardly believe how a little pill has helped my life. Brother, I encourage you to get some medical help to see if you can feel better. We accept that the Lord gives us doctors to help with diabetes or high blood pressure. Likewise, see if medication can make you feel better. If it’s not an illness, why does medication help? I encourage you to check with your doctor. I pray you find relief!

  11. Anonymous says:

    I feel the same as Jim sometimes. Sinking lower and lower everyday. Can’t even attend church Anymore but sometimes live stream it. Had to give my grand babies up for adoption after having them almost form birth. They were taken from my son and his girlfriend. I had already retired. But I had them over 3 years and just could not physically do the day to day anymore. A young Christian couple who loves those kid to death is gladly adopting them. That’s not the issue. I feel extremely guilty about not being able to keep them. I cared for them all alone. I even had their younger sister who has Down syndrome but the couple gladly took custody of her first and is just wonderful with her. But I struggle with how my son will feel about me doing this because he is it happy about it. But I just can not care for 3 young children under the age of 3 ! I am so so despondent but no one really knows. I think about just ending it all and won’t have to be so anxiety and guilt ridden. I tried to keep them but at my age being up at 5:30 every morning to fix their breakfast, get them ready for school, or with both being asthmatic and giving their meds at certain times, helping with now pre school homework, teaching them on my own how to read, we go to the library, park, different cultural activities. Then baths at night, washing, cooking dinner, then my down grandbaby had therapy, different doc appts all the time. I tried for three and one half years but I can’t anymore. No one in my family even offered to help except my daughter and she has a child and works outside of her home but she tried. Other than that no. I guess because I’m not sickly and in good shape physically people did not think I was sinking into a hole. Well fortunately or not for me they will transition soon. I just don’t think I want to be here anymore. I have nothing. I don’t think my family, I only have four sisters living and a few cousins I have not seen in over 30 yeas living, would care too much. We don’t see each other at all. I just want to disappear and be at peace. I very very sad for anyone to know that I could not keep them. I am glad that they love this couple though. So once the ink is dry and I know they have a family, I think it will be time. I’m in my 60’s and my children are grown so it will be okay. Even typing this is saddening me but I feel good to get it out. Been sad my whole life, no family connections, no father in my life and my mother died when I was 20 so I have been mostly alone the whole time give or take my short lived marriage. But anyway thank you whoever reads this. God bless you for listening.

    • Dear Anonymous,
      Thank you so much for taking care of your grand babies when they needed you! It sounds like you did an enormous amount of very hard work. Having tiny children is hard, especially alone and especially when we are older or sicker or more tired for some other reason. I have two little children right now, but I have a husband too and it is hard enough. I read everywhere that taking care of tiny children is hard and isolating and that we can feel so alone; it is easy to slip into that and believe lies when we have no one else speaking truth to us. And it sounds like you did what they needed! Please don’t feel guilty!
      Please don’t leave. I’m glad your grand babies have a loving couple to take care of them, but I’m sure they would love to still have a grandparent for as long as God would let them. We don’t know how long God wants us to be here but he loves each of us.
      You said you aren’t able to go to church. I don’t know your story of course, but is there one you could call? Maybe one of the ones whose sermons you stream? Maybe one you used to attend?
      And there are people to talk to. Looking at this, http://suicideprevention.wikia.com/wiki/USA, I think maybe the first phone number might be most helpful to you. But there are many others. Also I used to volunteer at a prayer line for Guideposts; looking at it it looks like it isn’t a phone number any longer but a link. If you go here, https://www.guideposts.org/comfort-hope, there is a blue box on the right side that says “May we pray for you?”
      I hope you’re still around. I hope your grand babies get more time with you. I hope you can still pray, and I hope you can talk to someone. I only read this today, but I prayed for you.
      (Jesus was alone, too. He was deserted by all His family and friends, and the book of Hebrews says that he can sympathize with all our weakness. Talk to Him, too.)

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