Last week one of our very dearest and oldest friends killed himself. And so we are going through all of the motions that such an event brings on. We’ve spent most nights in the kitchen weeping and talking. We’ve made gin and tonics. I’ve watched sad internet videos and cried more. We have prayed.

My favorite memory of our friend is from years ago. He was running an auction at my husband’s first church. And there were some very expensive pearls on the block. My husband, then boyfriend, was bidding against a parishioner, and our friend stopped the parishioner and said, “Let the young priest get the pearls for his girlfriend. You know he doesn’t make much money.”

He was a generous spirit. And we will miss him more than words can say.

good will hunting

But this isn’t a piece about him. And I have no intention of trying to shame, or call out, or even to dissuade people who commit suicide. Because, as much as we hate to admit it, I do not believe that works. No, this is a piece for those of us who are left behind.

Each time I hear of another suicide, whether in my life or in my ministry, questions about heaven and hell rise to the top. Normally, these questions are laden with a kind of judgment about how selfish it is to kill yourself. How could you just leave everyone behind with all these questions? Why is it up to you to say when your life ends? Of course, such judgment negates those notes that so often get left at the scene. Notes from the dead that sadly tell us, “You’ll be better off without me.” People who kill themselves are working under a distorted view of selflessness. They think the rest of us will be better off without them. Which just makes the pain of their loss all the more profound.

We are quick to forget that when people choose to kill themselves, they are entirely out of choices. We postulate about how someone could have remembered their family and the pain a suicide would cause. But these are vain (and often necessary) exercises. We do not know what it is like to be so haunted by the world that we can no longer live in it. And so we cannot guess what is happening in someone else’s head.

Over the years the church has offered little comfort to those left behind. At best, preachers have said nothing about suicide. At worst, they have made guesses about what the afterlife must hold for a person who is willing to take away the gift of life God has given them. I never found consolation for suicide in the church. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Some years ago, I heard this story about Martin Luther and it has forever brought me solace when suicide takes yet another precious life:

Luther broke all the rules. He insisted that the young man be buried in the church graveyard. In fact, Luther himself dug the young man’s grave. He did not blame the one who had taken his own life, he blamed the Devil himself. Because the goal of evil is always to tell us that we are unlovable to God. Luther called a thing, a thing. And in doing so, he offered comfort to the family left behind. I find the story incredibly comforting all these years later. It calls to mind that very old hymn:

My song is love unknown,
My Saviour’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.

When someone we love takes his or her own life we are left with an unquenchable sadness and unanswerable questions. But I trust God in this and not my own anxious heart. I trust that when people who find this world so undoable that they become undone by it, God does not abandon them. God does not leave His beloved out in the wilderness. Instead, I believe he tucks them so deeply into His heart that those who doubted His profound love for them would know it profoundly.