“He’s shot himself…He didn’t make it…” said the voice on the other end of the phone. It was December 17, 2007. One week before Christmas. The call came from the New Wife. She’d been married to my ex-husband for about 18 months. He and I had been married for 20 years. He was the father of our two sons. And now he was dead. First words out of my mouth:
“What am I going to tell the kids?”
Within the hour of hearing this news, our sons, ages 17 and 13 at the time, asked the question that is unique to suicide. The question that had been pinging around in my head like a steel ball in a pinball machine. The question that doesn’t seem to get asked with any other kind of death.
“Is he in heaven?”
I scrambled in my head for some scripture. Nothing.
I looked for some previous experience that I could tap into. “When I was a little girl…” Nothing.
I should have something wonderful to say here. Something godly. After all, I am a Christian. I am friends with Jesus. I should know this answer. I don’t really have time to google it. Or call the office. I work at a church for crying out loud.
But I didn’t call the office. Because I was afraid of what the answer would be – either way.
“Be honest,” was one of the pings in my head. Those were the words from the professional counselor I had called right away knowing that as soon as my kids came home from school, I’d need to tell them the news. So my initial reply to their question was…well, honest.
“I don’t know,” I answered. Certainly my most brilliant parenting moment.
The next few hours, days and months were brutal. We all had so many questions. We were angry. Hurt. Confused. Angry. Devastated. Heart broken. Angry. I think I said that already.
We had many questions for New Wife. We knew their short marriage was ending. But what had happened the night before? My sons and I replayed our last conversations. We were asking questions like, “Did we have any indication this is where things were headed?” “Was there something we could have done to prevent this? Or warned someone?” “Could we have said anything different to him?” “What would we tell people?” and “Where did he get the gun?”
New Wife had a few of those answers. But most of our questions would not be answered – even with the long, long suicide note he’d left.
For most of us left behind in the wake of a suicide, we can sort of wrestle with many of these questions. But the unique problem with suicide is that we want to know where they are spending eternity. This question seems to stump us.
For me, the answer was quite complicated.
Like that steel ball inside that pinball machine, the question continued to bounce around in my head. Every time the question hit a bumper, it didn’t seem right. So, it bounced around in there from bumper to bumper for the next several weeks.
You see, if I settled on the fact that he was now in eternity with Jesus… well, that just didn’t seem fair. I mean, once again – I’m getting the short end of the stick. He’s with Jesus. And he’s left me with two grieving sons, my own broken heart and a huge mess. I was mad. Which I think I may have mentioned earlier. Since I work at a church, I move things to help people find Jesus. It’s what I do 8 hours a day/40 hours a week. And yet, picturing this particular soul heaven bound was just too much for me.
But the alternative didn’t seem to fit either. The fact that anyone – ANYONE – would spend eternity in any place other than heaven was too much to bear. As mad as I was at him. As much hurt and resentment as I was carrying around, this was not where I wished him to be. I had loved this man since I was 16 years old. He was the father of my two sons. And although he had hurt me tremendously, I didn’t wish that on him at all.
But still…he’d left a pretty big mess.
A few months earlier, my 17 year old son had lost a friend to teen suicide. I never once questioned where this young man would spend eternity. I never even gave it a thought. I looked at this kid with great compassion, knowing that his brain wasn’t fully developed. So many teenagers make bad decisions. I knew he was safe in the arms of Jesus. I ached for his parents.
But when it’s an adult. For some reason, that threw me off.
Over the next few weeks, God softened my heart toward a few things:
- There’s a reason they use the word, “victim” when referring to suicide. Circumstances from life send them down a narrow spiral staircase called despair. And they cannot find their way up. They become victims.
- “He’s still breathing.” Those words from New Wife as she raced to the hospital. I envisioned that he was still alive making peace with God. Who knows if he was. Or even that he needed to. But in those first few weeks, this brought me comfort.
- His original, young commitment to Jesus Christ. He, at the age of 19, wrote this in my college year book: “Your love for me and for my soul has changed my life forever. You have shown me how to reach out and touch the God that I so much need to have as my guide.” Even though he’d wandered so far from that and gotten really lost, God reminded me that this was very much a part of his story.
- He’d remembered God. A few weeks before while dropping off the kids, he’d said this to me: “Pray for me. Because I don’t think he’s listening to me right now.”
- I myself will die with un-confessed sins. I read an article in Christianity Today that reminded me that I will go to my death with many un-repented, un-confessed sins because of my stubbornness or ignorance. There’s no way that I won’t. Either way, it’s junk left on the table.
- It’s clearly sin. Murder, no less. Why, in my mind, was this so un-forgiveable? Maybe because in the wake of this sin is so much chaos. There’s hurt and anger (I know, I said anger again…) and it’s so stinkin’ permanent. One of my sons said it was a “permanent solution to a temporary problem.” But… but, I was reminded that God doesn’t judge sin based on the chaos it causes.
So, maybe the problem with suicide was really me.
It was clear that I needed to forgive him. I write that out in one sentence as if it was easy and a one-shot deal. It wasn’t. It isn’t. But once I got to that place of forgiveness, it felt better – more right – to picture him in heaven.
Lastly, I needed to recognize my doubts in the crazy amazing grace of God. Apparently, I wasn’t sure that this stuff called “God’s grace” and “Jesus’ sacrifice” had enough power to forgive that. It was as if I was saying, “I doubt it’s that good.”
But it really really is that good. Of this I am sure.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life…nor any powers…nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God … Romans 8:38-39