I lost my friend Charlie last Friday. He drove to a quiet street in Charlotte and took his own life. I don't get it. I cannot believe he is gone. And, I cannot fathom what was going through his head at the time he made that choice.
But, I have replayed every word of the last 100 conversations I had with him in my head. Do I feel the crushing weight of guilt and sadness? Yes. It washes over me in waves. Do I feel anger? Not yet. But I'm sure I'll get there. My heart just hurts. And, I wonder what I could've said or done to make a difference.
Charlie was a mentor, a friend, a role model, a brilliant physician, a musician, a statesman, and an innovator. I cannot tell you how many times in my 14 years of practice that he met me on the elevator with a smile or an encouraging word to let me know I was doing a great job and that he had my back. That in the last moments of his life he felt no one had his back is devastating. I have spent much of the week thinking about Charlie and thinking about suicide. I've wondered what I could have done to give him hope. I don't know much about Charlie's faith. He'd asked about my faith on multiple occasions, and I shared that the reason for my joy was my relationship with the Lord. He would smile and say, "I'm glad that works for you." Saturday night, we came home from a wonderful trip to the Virginia Creeper Trail for my kids' fall break. Honestly, I desperately needed to get away, so the timing was perfect. It was a sweet time of joy and pain (riding 34 miles on a bike to be exact) with my kids. And, yes, my tail is sore! We came home from the trip and decided to rent a movie. I thought a sweet love story would be soothing to my soul and my tailbone. We settled on Me Before You. Little did I know it was about euthanasia and assisted suicide. Not the best movie to watch after this week!
Just when I thought my emotions were starting to heal a little from Charlie, they all came rushing back watching this movie. I sobbed, somewhat because of the movie but mostly because of Charlie.
The gentleman in the movie was a quadriplegic from a freak accident. Two years after the event, despite meaningful relationships with family and caretakers, he decided that life is not worth living. He chose to end his life. (Yes, I just spoiled the movie for you... great movie, horrible ending.) I was raw again.
My friend's “celebration of life” was the next evening. It was the second "funeral" of a friend who committed suicide in the last four months. There was a huge difference, however, in the services. The first service addressed depression and suicide head on. The Rector named the demon of depression and tried to make sense of it through Biblical teachings. The second service was a beautiful remembrance of my friend. But, there was no mention of depression or suicide despite the fact that my friend’s choice to end his life weighed so heavy on my heart.
In trying to work through my grief over the last week, I found myself digging in the Scriptures looking for wisdom about suicide and depression. Suicide is not uncommon in the Scriptures: Abimelek (Judges 9:54), Samson (Judges 16:30), Saul and his armor bearer (1 Samuel 31:4-5), Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23), Zimri (1 Kings 16:8), and Judas (Matthew 27:5). Each individual chose to end his life in a moment of despair.
What I was more interested in understanding was what to say to someone who's contemplating that choice. What does my faith say to it? What could I and should I have said to my friend who died in May, to Charlie, to the guy in the movie.
First, I would say that no matter how bad things seem around you, God can get you through it. There is no pit out of which you cannot climb... with help. "He brought me out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay, And He set my feet upon a rock making my footsteps firm.” (Psalm 40:2) And, even when the pain feels unbearable, he can work through the pain for our good. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
Second, I would say there is always hope. But, hope is not based on circumstance, on our accomplishments (or failures), or on anything we can control. Hope is based on a God who is bigger than us. "Why my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God." (Psalm 43:5) Sometimes, it’s through the pain that we can find hope. “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character, and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4)
Third, I would say that even when we cannot see the future past our present pain, God does have a plan and a purpose for us. "’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.’" (Jeremiah 29:11) “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)
I'm a doctor. I treat depression and anxiety all the time. I understand the chemical imbalance in the brain that taints one's ability to have rational thoughts. But, one's rational thoughts are based on one's worldview. If life is only about what we experience, feel, see, taste and touch here, there is not much hope. My worldview is different.
I believe that life is precious. That we all have a purpose. And that God gifts us all uniquely and wants us to share our gifts with others here on this earth. Life is not easy. It's painful and it's broken, and I see it every day. But life is worth living. I have resolved to make sure the people in my life know they are valued, they are worthy, and they are loved. There’s a better world awaiting us: “For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come.” (Hebrews 13:14)
May I point others to their permanent home. I pray that I will see Charlie there.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline