Thoughts about Suicide

Like One Set Loose Among the Dead*

I just hope you're not so sad,
You're gonna go down suicide.
from Tear Stained Letter
by Richard Thompson



John Berryman experienced four broken homes. When Berryman was a boy, his father, John Allyn Smith, an unemployed banker, who, though still living with the family was going through a divorce with his wife, "very early in the morning, rose with his gun and went outdoors by my window and did what was needed" - killed himself. A devoted altar boy, Berryman lost his faith: "my father's suicide when I was twelve blew out my most bright candle faith." Berryman's mother married another John whose last name was Berryman from whom John Berryman received his last name. That marriage eventually ended in divorce. John Berryman, the poet, was married three times and twice divorced.

Berryman was an intellectual, scholar, academic, and Pulitzer Prize winning poet. He also was idiosyncratic, a depressive, an alcoholic hospitalized numerous times, an adulterer, a difficult person. In 1970 he experienced a religious re-conversion: "I fell back in love with you, Father," and described himself as "Under new management, Your Majesty: Thine." But he continued to struggle with both depression and alcohol abuse. On the morning of January 7, 1972, he jumped to his death in the Mississippi River from a bridge in Minneapolis.

Well, you may be thinking, this is simple: John Berryman was obviously never a true Christian. It is not surprising, then, that he died as his father before him died. 

But let me tell you about another man.

He was also a great poet, a friend of John Newton, an evangelical Christian who led his brother to a profession of evangelical faith when his brother was dying. Though his poetry ranged widely, many of this poet's poems were religious in nature, and quite a few of those are still sung where Christians still sing hymns. He wrote, "There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel's veins, and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains...The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day, and there may I, though vile as he, wash all my sins away." His name was William Cowper. 

Bet let me tell you some other things about him your minister or "worship leader" probably has not told you. Cowper was also was a depressive, spent time in an insane asylum, and attempted suicide four times. He knew what it was like to go to church and get nothing out of it: "Thy saints are comforted I know and love thy house of pray'r; I therefore go where others go, but find no comfort there." Though he continued to hold an evangelical faith and believed others were saved, he became convinced that he was "damned beneath Judas." After a dream that confirmed to him his reprobate condition in 1793, Cowper never attended church or said a prayer (we know about). Though John Newton did not doubt Cowper's salvation, he died in 1800 convinced hell was his destiny. Cowper's story is not the stuff of evangelical experimental testimony.

Now, let me tell you about another person. The title of this Blog post, Thoughts about Suicide, is a double entendre. I have thoughts about suicide I want to share, but I also have thoughts about suicide - or suicidal thoughts as they are called. 

Twice my suicidal thinking has resulted in hospitalization. Once 8 years ago and most recently 5 weeks ago. I have wrestled with whether to write this, and even as I write, am wrestling with whether to publish it. My suicidal thoughts involve not just me but my family. Should my wife and sons and their families who, of course, know about these things, have to deal with their friends and extended families knowing this about me?

Then hardly anyone beyond the immediate family knows this about me. Over the years people have said some nice things about my ministry, not just my preaching and teaching, but even my personal concern for them and pastoral care of them. Will this disillusion and disappoint them? Possibly - probably? Will I lose friends because of this? I could. God forbid that any should question the faith I have preached because of it. I also have friends and relatives who do not hold the historic Christian faith, some having never believed it, some having left it. Again, God forbid that my confession should confirm them in disbelief. Also, I have been living in a new area for less than a year, and people among whom I live know nothing of this. What effect will that have on relationships if new friends and acquaintances read this? I may spend the rest of my life here. Would I be happier if they do not know?

But here is the truth. I have been a depressive most of my life. I remember being depressed and doubting my relationship with God as a child. Why? I don't know. Childhood experiences? Maybe. Biology? Perhaps. Spiritual issues? No doubt. I have recently been told by a professional who deals with medications that my depression seems little helped by medications, though with her recommendation I continue to take some. Certainly my depression has been caused by and accompanied by sins that often are concomitant with depression. Even as I write this, I wonder about my motives and if this is simply an exercise in ego. 

Why then write? For these reasons, I think:

1. Though I have deliberately barely touched on the connections between depression and sin and deliberately focused only on thoughts about suicide  so that this is not a tell-all confessional, I think there is some value in being honest about, rather than hiding the reality of, one's experience. That is, is it best to be who you are or to be someone else?

2. I hope that this may help some Christians, who have experienced or may yet have experiences when "darkness is my only friend" (Psalm 88:18), know that they are not alone. That feeling that you are "the only one" or "the only one whose case is so bad as yours" is torture. 

What does it feel like to be so depressed you have suicidal thoughts? Well, it feels like, "I can't go on like this," or, "I don't think I can/don't want to go on like this." If the person is really serious, he/she will probably have some kind of plan. One of the thoughts that might (but not necessarily) restrain someone who believes the Bible is, "Hell is worse, and that could be my destiny, and it is forever." 

Then there is the temptation to projected self-pity - to think of oneself as dead, and feeling like Ralphie in Christmas Story who got pleasure from imagining  himself as a blind adult and his family both feeling extremely sorry for him and engaging in self-recriminations because they helped cause his condition. 

There is also another thought - that some problems would be solved and others' lives would be better off if you were not around. 

Then just about all sinful and negative feelings are present or close to hand: isolation, anger, abandonment, resentment, self-pity, and always despair and hopelessness. Moreover, if others are around, the things you say and do may make it difficult for them to help or even to want to.

If that is your experience, your experience will have its unique aspects, but it is not unique to you. I do not have solutions to offer, but sometimes it helps - a little - to know that others understand almost exactly what you feel, because what you probably think is that no one understands.

And, if you receive mercy from God and others in your circumstances, resolve to be a person who shows mercy to others in the future. It is so easy for us to be like the servant who, forgiven the debt of a fortune, grabbed a fellow servant by the throat because he owed him a small debt.

3. I want to say some things to those who may have to put up with people who have suicidal thoughts. You need to know that, much as you might want to help, sometimes neither you nor any other human can. If you've been there, you will not feel it strange that I say also that it is hard not to feel angry with despairing people. And you may well doubt whether the person is serious who tells you he/she does not want to live. You want to say, "Get over yourself," or, "It's late and time for the pity party to be over," or, "There are people who have died who would have loved to live, and look at you." There may be well-meaning Christians who will want to quote Bible verses, offer an extended prayer**, or recommend a book or CD. Others, even professionals, may say what the person needs is some really tough love that allows him/her to be miserable - "to sit with" what has brought him/her to this place.  

The most important thing you can do is to be there. And that may be the one thing the person who needs you may not allow. In addition you may find that you do not want to be around the person in such a condition. Try to remember that the person has given up on him/herself. Your being there says, "But I haven't." The person feels abandoned. Your presence says, "But you're not. I'm here." The person feels, "I can't go on." Your being there may communicate, "Let's do it together."

There are no simple, easy, or guaranteed to work answers. Do what you can. When you have, put it in God's hands. And always remember, if the worst happens, it's not your fault. There are things you can't stop from happening. The person "who goes down suicide" makes a choice. To him/her it may seem the only choice; nevertheless, it is his/her choice.

4. I want someone to tell the medical establishment that it needs to think about the way it responds to people with suicidal thoughts. I may be wrong, but here is what I think: If a person goes to or is taken to a hospital, the hospital will have two priorities: a. Prevent the person from harming him/herself or anyone else. b. Keep the hospital or health professional from getting sued. There will be little concern about what the person is feeling, or why, or how to help. In fact, the patient's needs are at best secondary to the needs of the medical industry. 

In Mississippi there is a 72 hour "hold" put on suicidal patients. That means you will be held against your will for 72 hours. Let me tell you from my most recent experience some things a patient may experience: No legal rights. You can fight the "hold,"  but you will lose, and the judge may commit you to the state hospital. So it's better to go ahead and go to "X Facility." There you may experience an environment that reminds you of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. You may be subjected to such things as: deeply humiliating "procedures," playing a game of hitting balloons with rubber sticks, sitting around a table where you are the healthiest, most sentient, and sanest person. Spending your nights with a baby sitter. Being denied books in your room (I was able to persuade them to let me keep my Prayer Book.). When I finally met the psychiatrist, it was when the "team" met to decide what to do with me. His personality made a dish towel just used to dry the supper dishes seem both interesting and empathetic. When he asked about health conditions, he told me that it is not possible to have together two health conditions that I do have. About the only thing he said was that they would like me to stay a few more days. I declined. 

If you say, "Well, it's your own fault; you didn't have to go through any of that," I agree. Still my conclusion for myself (I do not recommend it to others) was: "If you are having suicidal thoughts, do not go to a hospital or tell a medical professional. If you weren't really suicidal before, you may become so by the 'treatment' you receive." I don't know what can be done, but something needs to be done about the way hospitals and medical professionals deal with people who have "suicidal ideation." 

5. Churches and denominations of churches need to realize that attendees, members, and ministers may be, to quote James Taylor, "moving in silent desperation." Some are living in the shadows because they cannot risk transparency. Their experience does not match the Christian experience they hear about in sermons and testimonies, the experience they themselves think they should be having, or the experience it seems everyone else is having. Yes, there are people who go to churches who are chronic whiners, people whose greatest joy is to complain, people who want to talk constantly about their favorite subject - themselves. Even those folks need the ministry of the church, because the church includes all sorts of folks. 

But somehow the church needs to communicate to real sufferers that it's OK to be honest about who you are - your struggles, your sins, your despairing moments - and that the church will not promise to pray for you, then forget you, look down on you, hope you'll find another church. In other words, the church needs to be the church - a fellowship of fellow pilgrims and strugglers. The church should be the first place the despairing person can turn and know he/she will be accepted, even held onto tightly. That person needs the Communion of the Lord and the communion of the saints.

I have a special word about ministers, and that is to say how thankful I am to be in the Reformed Episcopal Church. I have concerns about the theological/liturgical direction of my church, but I have found that my church is pastoral toward pastors. My Bishop and the minister from whom I receive spiritual counsel, know not only about my depression and experiences of suicidal thoughts but also about my sins. Yet I am still a minister of Word and Sacrament and am still welcome at the Lord's Table. My pastoral counselor asked me to watch a YouTube video. It was about an hour and a half long, so I watched in two parts. When we met, he asked me what I thought he wanted me to get out of the video. I said, "When I watched the first half, I thought you wanted me to conclude that I am no Christian at all." He responded, "That never crossed my mind." That is one of the most encouraging things anyone has ever said to me. My Bishop has held me accountable, including giving admonishment and warning, but he has been kind, patient, and supportive throughout. My experience of my church has been that it looks on people as did Jesus,"who had compassion on them" (Matthew 9:36).

I think there is also a place for what today is called "talk therapy." The practice of psychoanalysis is no more (save for a few places), thank God. The emphasis today is, "Where are we now? Where do we go from here? How do we get there?" I think there is value in talking with someone in an unguarded, even earthy, fashion whose goal is to understand and help you practically.

Lately I have got help from a book some of my Reformed friends may disapprove, Night Driving: Thoughts of a Prodigal Soul. My story here is somewhat like the title of that book.  I am better now, else I could not write this. But this is not a "victory in Jesus" story. It is a story of someone God has apparently chosen to hold onto despite himself. Its testimony is only, "Hitherto hath the Lord helped us."  It is a story in progress not a story with all the loose ends brought together in a satisfying conclusion. In that sense it is like Psalm 88, a Psalm that leaves us uneasy because at the end the Psalmist has it no more together than he did at the beginning. The one hopeful note in the Psalm is...

    But I, O Lord, cry to you;

        in the morning my prayer comes before you.

                                                                   Psalm 88:13


*Psalm 88:5

** I like this prayer for "Those in Mental Darkness" from The Book of Common Prayer: "O Heavenly Father, we beseech thee to have mercy upon all thy children who are living in mental darkness. Restore them to strength of mind and cheerfulness of spirit, and give them health and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."


  1. Brother William, thank you for the brutal honesty. I would love to have a time of fellowship with you and I know that will happen sooner or later in glory. I am surprised by this confession, after reading so many of your essays I thought you had it all together, and now I know you have afflictions as all of the Lord’s children do. I encourage you to keep writing, I am selfish, I do greatly profit from your wisdom, and therefore I need you to keep doing what you do.
    Charles Dauphinais
    Ruling Elder
    Knox Presbyterian Church
    Harrison Township Michigan

  2. I find these words more encouraging than you may know FR. Bill. To know I'm not alone in the struggle with depression and that there are Christians who understand the same pain as I. God's peace be with you.

  3. I wrote a review for 'Night Driving' in the latest edition of Modern Reformation. If you read it, you may pick up on some clues that when I wrote it, I was about where you were. Or have been. I am also Reformed and thoroughly endorse the book. It was a brilliant and cathartic book that I recommend to anyone who feels they have done too much to too many people and deserve the isolation they feel.

    So I can assure you that not all Reformed folk disapprove of that book. I read it precisely because I was in a place where I felt abandoned and alone. Those days still come and go but I wanted to recommend the book to anyone to whom darkness has been or does feel to be their only consistent companion.

    Thank you for sharing.

  4. Bill,

    I did not know about your struggle with this issue. Thank-you for being transparent. No doubt writing this was not an easy thing to do. I first read this over the weekend but haven't had time to respond until now.

    Since our paths crossed in Pittsburgh Presbytery back in the mid-90s, I have always looked up to you. Over the years I observed you at General Assembly and saw someone I wanted to emulate as far as being a faithful presbyter is concerned.

    I have greatly benefited from your blog posts and your perspective as one who was there when the PCA formed warts and all. Like you, I am no longer in the PCA. That said, I think we both have an affection for it but also are concerned about it.

    I don't know how much retirement might be affecting you (e.g. feeling like your best days are behind you). I hope that is not the case. You have always had good things to say and you have always been a champion of doing that which is right. Again, these are things I admire about you. I pray that the Lord will continue to use you and give you a platform to teach younger generations of God's people.

    You are loved and appreciated by many - your family especially, but also all sorts of people like me, whom you have touched over the years. I pray that God will give you many more years of fruitful service. You will be in my prayers.


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