A Word upon a Death by Suicide

By Derek Penwell

D___ N___ died two days ago, and the world—our worlds—will never be the same.  How does one begin to capture the complexity and richness of a single life in the course of a short homily?  How do we say what needs to be said about the life of such and interesting and lovely human being?  I wish had more answers than questions, but I don't.  I'm just as confused and saddened and angry about this as most of you.  

I suppose that all I can offer are some words about how D___ affected me—about what kind of person I thought he had every right to claim to be—and about what I think are the questions that arise in the wake of his death.  I wish he were here to set me straight where I get it wrong.

When I first met D___, it came in the context of church.  He started coming to First Christian back about 12 years ago or so.  D___ struck me as intelligent and committed, a wry sense of humor.  He eventually became an elder and a Sunday School teacher.  If there were something to be done and you asked D___ to do it, he'd say yes if he could and no if he couldn't—which doesn't sound remarkable until you stop to realize that most people are reluctant to speak frankly for fear of causing discomfort; they'd rather be kind than honest.  

D___ N___, on the other hand, believed that honesty is the greatest kindness—that there is no peace in the absence of truth.  In all the people I've worked with over the course of my career in the church, D___ is one of my top two or three favorite people.  If I were putting together a team to start a church to change the world, D___ N___ would be a first round draft-pick.  

And while he wasn't perfect—a fact which he would be the first to rush to the front of the line to tell you before anyone else could—he embodied that rare blend of integrity and mercy that stands at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Because while he viewed himself most critically, he had an amazing capacity to offer to others the benefit of the doubt—which, although it's not listed in First Corinthians—seems to me to be a spiritual gift (and a rather rare one at that).  He had an amazing capacity to forgive those who had brought him harm; unfortunately, he never perfected the art of offering that same forgiveness to himself—who probably deserved it more than most.

D___ loved his family.  He loved being a father, a brother, an uncle, a friend.  (In fact, he was that rare big brother who made room for his kid brother to tag along.)  He loved watching E___ play football, loved taking the boys to watch football, loved football—period.  He played wide-out on the 1974 state runner-up team.  Indeed, he caught the winning touchdown in the semi-final game—a fact that, as his brother K___ pointed out—he regularly shrugged off when it was mentioned . . . in pure D___ fashion.  

But that was D___; he could put more meaning into one shake of the head than most people can put into a short novel.  I remember asking K___ one time what D___ thought about something—politics, or religion, or the state of the mullet as a postmodern ironic fashion statement—I don't remember.  But I do remember what K___ said, which was: "D___ N___ is inscrutable."  He played his cards close to the vest, which meant that if you had something confidential you needed to unburden yourself of—D___ was the man.  He was, in short, trustworthy.  He was a good man—a fact we ought not lose sight of in the cataclysmic and evil nature of his death.

In times like these we seek refuge—if refuge is to be found—in words.  Unfortunately, I find words difficult to come by just now—as, I suspect, do you.  We've experienced in the death of D___ N___ the clutching hand of death; and we find it hard to know what to do now—what to say next.  Our first inclination is to turn our eyes to the heavens with that soul-crushing word on our lips, “Why?”  

Why, D___?  Why, God?  Why now?   Why this way?  Why?

What answers are there to be found in such a time as this?  Certain things we'll never know.  We won’t know what led D___ to walk down this path.  We won’t know what thoughts prompted D___ to decide he could no longer walk upright under the weight of his burdens.  We may never know what it was that acted as the final straw he felt could no longer bear.  D___ fought on battlefields that, thankfully, none of us will ever have to fight on.  He died in a rearguard action in his own private civil war.  The sadness of this death outstrips my efforts to find words to speak about it.

And yet, we’re gathered here to find some words to offer up in the face of our sadness.  Unfortunately, no words exist that we can employ as an incantation to make the sorrow disappear, no reassuring bromides that will dispel the darkness.  

The only word I have to offer is the Word that was in the beginning, that became flesh and dwelt among us.  That Word walked before us into the darkness and absorbed the power of the evil that confronts us all in a world where a beautiful man can die such a heartbreaking death.  For the death that that Word died destroyed the claim of death upon us—and that includes death’s claim on D___ N___.

The tendency for those of us who loved D___ is to ask, “Should I have seen this coming?”  We’re prone to believe that “if I’d only done, or said, or not done, or not said ____________, then maybe none of this would have happened.”  

And though we might not ever say it out loud, some of us are thinking, “If he truly loved me, he wouldn’t have done this to me.  He would have found a way to hang on.”  We must be honest about the fact that one of the first things to strike us when someone dies by suicide is not only sadness, but anger.  It’s like springing a leak in a water pipe, going down to the bank, withdrawing all your money, and trying to shove it in the hole to stop the leak.  You may fix the leak, but at what cost?  Inevitably, you create exponentially more problems than you solve.  

And the problems that are created by this death are ones that will have to be cleaned up by others—and unfortunately, often by those with the fewest resources to do so.  Anger comes easily in a situation like this.

Let me just say, anger is understandable.  D___ took something from us he can never give back.  However, let me suggest that of all the things D___ N___ might have been, self-absorbed wasn’t among them.  Whatever pain he bore that he finally found too great to bear, I am convinced he believed he was sparing not just himself, but you from it.  

He was wrong.  He should have trusted you more, trusted himself more.  

But in the end, D___ was a man who felt like he was on fire.  That he chose the worst possible way to put out the fire should not distract us from the truth that, twisted as it might sound, he thought he was sparing you from being consumed by that which was consuming him.  I expect that there were many times in D___’s life that E___, M___, D___, K___, J___, J___—you were the only thing that gave him the strength to hang on a bit longer.  So your anger is appropriate—just don’t let it define your understanding of who he was.

After the sadness and the anger, I suspect that many of us feel the creeping edges of fear blurring the periphery of our thoughts.  Most obviously, we’re afraid of a world without D___ N___.  He provided such a calming presence—a sense that if D___ were around, things could never get so out of hand that they couldn’t be fixed with a quick raise of his eyebrows and a shake of his head.  He seemed so in control that the thought of his absence makes the world seem a less gentle, a less safe place.   

But perhaps as pressing for some are the fearful questions about whether God’s love is sure enough to chase D___ down the black hole into which he's fallen.  Can the grace of God overcome this evil?  Has D___, by his suicide, moved beyond the reach of the outstretched arms of God?  To this question, let me defer to Paul.  I take Paul at this word when he says that nothing can separate from the love of Christ— neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  I firmly believe with Paul that there is no power so great that it can separate Christ from his own—not even the power of suicide.  Because D___was one of Christ’s own.

We're good at avoiding it, but we know, don’t we?  Death is the enemy from which there is no escape.  It’s always been that way.  Isaiah knew it.  He writes in chapter 24, “Terror, and the pit, and the snare are upon you, O inhabitant of the earth!  Whoever flees at the sound of the terror shall fall into the pit; and whoever climbs out of the pit shall be caught in the snare” (Isa. 24:17-18a).  

That’s the way the world works.  You come to terms with it, or you don’t — but that’s how it goes.  You’re born, you live a little, then you die.  A pretty dim vision we’re left with: Funerals, in the final analysis, await us all.  

The Church, by and large, has been guilty of avoiding this topic.  Death makes us squeamish.  Somehow it doesn’t seem polite.  No, we, like the rest of the world, have almost successfully avoided ever speaking seriously about the fact that we are going to die.  

“Terror, and the pit, and the snare are upon you, O inhabitant of the earth!” is how Isaiah says it.  In our Old Testament lesson for today (25:6-9), Isaiah sees a world that's covered by a burial shroud: “the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations.”  

“In the midst of life, we are in death,” is how The Book of Common Prayer says it.  We are, you and I, on a collision course with the grim reaper.

The bottom line, of course, is that walls have been erected that are too high to climb over, and too thick to topple.  Death has mastered us, and the tears we shed, we shed as much because we know there is no escape in the end for any of us, as because we shed them for the sadness of the occasion and the losses we suffer.  “Terror, and the pit, and the snare are upon you, O inhabitant of the earth!” Isaiah says, cutting to the heart of the matter.

But, Isaiah seems to think there’s more to the story.  We've had a vision of reality that includes the clutching, grasping, irresistible pursuit of death.  But Isaiah sees more.  Isaiah envisions a world where God reigns on a holy mountain.  And on this mountain death will not have the last word.  

In the flat lands hunger and thirst gather at the gates screaming with the voices of children who die in the cold darkness.  But on this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines.  

In the flat lands funerals mark the end of the string of days, piled one on top of the other without meaning or moment, wrapped in the clothes of death.  But on this mountain God will destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations.

In the flat lands death has ravaged us like a wild animal.  But on this mountain, the Lord will swallow up death forever.

In the flat lands our tears inched down our faces and evaporated in the dust.  But on this mountain the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth.

In the flat lands funerals are the final destination.  But on this mountain they are the first step toward the throne of God.

In the flat lands a man is beaten, mocked, spit upon and nailed to a tree.  But on this mountain the bloody cross becomes the tree of life.

“It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.  This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.  For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain.”

And because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can say with some certainty that the hand of the Lord rests today on D___ N___.  Thanks be to God.  Thanks be to God.

-Amen.