A Note About the Series: The month of September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and I believe many of us have been affected by suicide one way or another. Throughout my life, I have seen the detrimental effects of it on individuals, families, and whole communities. The church must continue to address the heartbreaking reality of suicide for the sake of all those in the pews who have either lost a family member, friend, or have contemplated the act themselves. This post below was originally published in 2019 as three separate pieces and was my attempt to start a conversation within the context in which I found myself. Fast forward a few years and more people may be talking about this topic, but it has not slowed the trend of people dying by suicide. This three-part series is specifically about suicide and the church. I hope that this will allow others to tell their story. The fact is too many wonderfully precious people have left this world much too soon. It’s time that we share our story so that those dwelling in darkness know that they are not alone. “Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Psalm 139:12).
Part 1: My Story
I can still remember how the knife felt in my hand that fateful night. Just a few moments earlier, I had pulled it out of the top left-hand drawer of my desk where I always kept it.
It was a souvenir that my mom got me at the mall a year earlier. On the side of it was a picture of a bald eagle with the American flag in the background; it couldn’t have been more than $10. I used to whittle sticks with it, cut rope, or whatever excuse a boy makes up to have a knife.
But that night I kept asking myself, “Am I really going to do this?” There was no going back. If I did it, I wouldn’t return. That night as a scared, confused, and angry fifth grader I was ready to kill myself.
It’s strange to think about that night now. It seems like a far-off dream, or someone else’s story altogether. I was an angry kid for no apparent reason. I was also constantly sad and had a temper, and I didn’t know how to express what I was feeling.
I didn’t lack love, and I sure didn’t lack a supportive family. But what I lacked at the time was a sense of identity and belonging.
Even as a fifth-grader I was an old soul, asking questions much bigger than my young mind could comprehend. “Who am I? Is there a God? Does He care about me? Do I even matter?”
But on top of all of those questions, I was a sensitive kid. Every emotion was felt at its most extreme in my case; there was no middle ground. When I was happy, no one was living life better than me. But when I was sad, the world was truly coming to an end.
And so that night, with the door of my room closed and my parents asleep, I contemplated my next move. I knew that I was angry, but I wasn’t exactly sure who or what I was angry at. I knew I was sad but didn’t know why I was sad. Confusion and anxiety flooded my already clouded mind.
Every so often I would gently touch the blade just to make sure that it was real -- that this moment was real.
But I also knew it was going to hurt. “Would the short blade of the knife reach deep enough to my heart? What if I survived? What would I say to my parents?”
I pressed the point of the blade to my chest, I just wanted to know what the tip of the knife felt like on my chest. I pushed it ever so slightly towards me. I poked myself, but not enough to draw blood. I quickly put the knife on the desk. I couldn’t go through with it, and for that, I felt like a failure and a coward.
Deep down I knew that I couldn’t go through with it, but it was that sense of being a coward that haunted me. I already didn’t feel “good enough” by my own standards, and now I had this insidious thought that I wasn’t even “brave enough” to deal with the physical pain.
The truth is, we all cry out for help in different ways. Looking back on it now, that moment was a cry for attention. It was a cry to be known and heard, but that meant I would have to start talking. It was my thoughts and insecurities that shut me off from those who loved me.
That moment wasn’t the last time that I thought of ending my own life. There were times down the road that it crossed my mind, and other times where I would whisper to myself, “I just want to die.”
That is a dark place to be....maybe you’ve been there too.
It is a lonely feeling. If you’ve been there, then you know that even if you are surrounded by loved ones, you can feel a world away from them.
Distant. Depressed. Isolated. Alone.
Maybe you have felt like Job and wished you had never been born.
“Let the day perish on which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man-child is conceived.’ Let that day be darkness! May God above not seek it, or light shine on it. Let gloom and deep darkness claim it. Let clouds settle upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it. That night—let thick darkness seize it! let it not rejoice among the days of the year; let it not come into the number of the months. Yes, let that night be barren; let no joyful cry be heard in it. Let those curse it who curse the Sea, those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan. Let the stars of its dawn be dark; let it hope for light, but have none; may it not see the eyelids of the morning— because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb, and hide trouble from my eyes. Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?” (Job 3:1-11)
Shockingly, these words are in the Bible, but I am convinced that the Bible has every human emotion represented in its pages. Don’t tell me Scripture is boring. Did you just read what came out of Job’s mouth? If anything, having Job’s words in the Bible validates this very human emotion. Feeling these emotions are, in fact, biblical. But those feelings aren’t the end of the story.
Thankfully for me, I got help. Not long after that incident, I began meeting with a counselor. I looked forward to those hour-long talks every week. It became an hour of self-discovery and healing. I learned a lot about myself, and ways that I could deal with the emotions I was experiencing.
It was coming out of that darkness that I began to write. A lot of it was journaling, but some of it was poetry and short stories. Like Job, I was able to take my roller coaster of emotions and put pen to paper.
I am grateful to say that my suicidal thoughts faded away in my early teenage years. But I doubt that would have happened if I wasn’t supported by my family and had the chance to talk to a trained professional.
Many years have passed by since that terrible night. A lot of things have changed. I have certainly grown since being an angry and sad preteen. The other night I walked into my office at home and opened the top left-hand drawer of my desk. There, sitting at the bottom of it, was the very same knife. I held it in my hand, closed my eyes, and whispered a short prayer, “I just want to live.”
I keep that knife as a reminder not of the tragic thing that could've been, but rather as a testament to who I am and who I’ve become since that moment.
Even in the darkness, there is hope and there is light. We are not alone. We are never alone. “Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Psalm 139:12).
Part 2: Her Story
I remember meeting Sarah, but to be honest we only had a handful of interactions. She was a shy sophomore in high school with bleach-blond hair. She normally stood off to the side, talking to one or two others. She seemed to be good friends with the senior pastor’s two daughters; I think they went to school together. When I talked to her, she rarely made eye contact, and she did the same with all the other adults who came up to her. It seemed to me that she didn’t feel very comfortable in her own skin.
I met her over the summer of 2014 while I was an intern at a church in Georgia. One of the first events where I got to talk to many of the teenagers, including Sarah, was at the summer pool party for the youth group.
The senior pastor hosted it at his house, and it ended up being a great event. We probably had 20 teenagers there, and I think every one of them had a smile on their face. Sarah was one of those kids who seemed to be grateful that school was over, and summer vacation had finally begun.
As the youth intern, my main job was to assist one of the pastors on staff who dealt with youth and family ministries. Over that summer, we put on movie nights, ice cream hangouts, and went on several mission trips and retreats. Though it seemed we had a different activity happening every week, the only one Sarah came to was that pool party in late May.
She was distant and not very involved in our youth program, but who was I to say she wasn’t an important part of that group? I was only there for a few months and saw a small glimpse of what life was like at that church.
But then something happened halfway through the summer. It was a tragedy. One night we got the news that Sarah had died, and it looked like it was a suicide.
I remember my heart sank when I heard the news. The question that kept coming to me that night was, “Why?” and I knew I wasn’t the only one asking that awful question.
A few days later I heard that her father was two hours away when he got the news. I can’t imagine what that drive back home was like. What could have been going through his mind as he drove back home knowing that his child was gone? It must have been the most heartbreaking, silent, and sorrow-filled car ride ever. My heart broke just thinking of him and his wife grieving.
It was a tragedy for the church as well. No one saw it coming, and it left everyone shocked, including those in our youth group who saw her just a month ago at the pool party.
Just like that, she was gone.
The senior pastor did a great job at her funeral a few days after her death. The church was full, and a number of her classmates showed up as well. I sat in the back of the church and just watched as he beautifully preached about hope amid this great tragedy.
But we didn’t talk about her or what happened after the funeral. At staff meetings we were silent about the subject, and so were our youth gatherings the following weeks.
I couldn’t understand why we didn’t address it with our youth group. She had been one of our own, and yet it seemed like we pushed this tragedy under the rug. It was evident that some of our teenagers were taking it really hard. You could see it in their eyes, some of them would even tear up at times when they walked into our youth room. Others seemed to shut down completely. Discussing the parables of Jesus wasn’t the main thing on their minds during Sunday school.
Sarah. Death. Suicide. Those were the things on their mind.
Everything that happened was done in private. Our kids mourned in private. The senior pastor counseled the family in private. And then we moved on as a church as if nothing happened.
I realize that it was a tragedy and much of that grieving needed to be done privately. But she was one of us. What about the church and the community grieving together?
I didn’t see any of that over my summer there, and it just seemed odd. I was a distant observer, so I didn’t see everything that happened, but it seemed pretty clear that after the funeral, we weren’t going to address it again; at least until someone else brought it up.
Finally, all of those emotions, questions, and tears came out on the last night of our mission trip in Atlanta with the senior high group. The senior pastor’s two daughters, who had sat next to Sarah just a month and a half before at the pool party, cried their eyes out. Others teared up, some grew quiet, but they were all asking, “Why?”
That night we finally talked about it, but I don’t think we would’ve done it if those kids hadn’t started talking about it first.
Suicide is not something that is usually discussed, especially in the church. I think we are silent on the topic because we are intimidated and confused. "Does this mean they are going to hell? Why would someone take their one, precious life? Didn’t they know that they were loved?"
Many of our questions about suicide are hard to ask, but they don’t always reflect a true understanding of the topic or the person. A lot of doubts and concerns about this could be clarified if we simply talked about it, and even brought in a trained professional to address these concerns and questions with our church members. And that is why it is so important that when we grieve, we do so as a community.
Undoubtedly, the funeral was powerful; it was a healing experience, but we can’t end there. The church must be willing to be a source of comfort and support not only to the family but to all its members in times of tragedy.
And sadly, this topic is not going away. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for those aged 10-24, and rates have increased by 52.2% between 2000-2021 (according to the CDC).
This affects everyone, including those in the church. We are not immune from having people in our pews who have suicidal thoughts, or who know of someone who has died from it. This is a topic that we must discuss, and wrestle with the questions that our parishioners are asking…including our teenagers.
Not surprisingly, the Gospel has an important place when it comes to something as awful as this. Even in the midst of death, there are pangs of resurrection deep within our souls.
“Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Psalm 139:12).
There is hope in the darkness.
Part 3: The Church’s Story
It was the fall semester of my senior year in seminary, and I still didn’t know where I was headed after graduation. I opened my computer on the dining room table in our small on-campus apartment in Alexandria, Virginia. For the past year, the dining room table had also become my work desk with piles of books and papers scattered over every inch of the tabletop. As you can imagine, my wife and I ate most of our dinners on the couch.
In my inbox was the weekly email from the Diocese of Tennessee, my home diocese. It had all the typical items in it: upcoming events, pictures of the bishop's recent visits, and other news around the diocese.
It had become my custom over that senior year to scroll past all of that and go straight to the bottom of the email which showed the latest job openings. That's where they announced clergy retirements and such. These job transitions typically aren’t thrilling news, but for me, it was a possible landing spot.
But something that morning stuck out to me. Rather than an announcement about someone retiring or moving, the top bullet point said, “Father Rob Courtney, priest at St. James the Less in Madison has died.”
I leaned back in my chair and stared at the wall. I knew Rob; I had met him ten years ago through a family friend, and our paths crossed a couple of times since I had gone to seminary. From my experience with Rob, it seemed he was a little quirky but a kind man who was easy to talk to. I was shocked by this news. I had known that he battled depression, but never thought it was that serious. Clearly, I was wrong because soon after that email I learned that Rob had died by suicide.
For the next few days, I wondered what would happen to Rob’s little church. I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to lose a priest, especially one who had been there for a decade. Rob had just started at St. James the Less when I first met him, and I remember talking to him about what it was like. He told me about the different people in that church and the opportunities for growth in the years ahead.
More time passed but my mind kept going back to that church. How were they coping? How do you move on after something like that?
About a month later I got a call from the diocese. They wanted to talk to me about being the priest at St. James the Less. I realized I had been thinking about them for a particular reason. After a few conversations with the bishop and then the parish it was evident that we were headed to Madison, Tennessee after graduation. I realized that this was not a job opportunity but a calling.
By the time I arrived in Madison, it had been seven months since Rob had passed. During that time a retired priest named Father Randy, who had been worshiping there, stepped in and did a wonderful job caring for the congregation. Randy was the right man for the job, and everyone knew that. He was able to be the caring, pastoral presence they needed at that time.
Pretty early on it felt like the parish wanted to move on from the subject of Rob. People just didn’t want to talk about what happened. I was the one who had to bring up Father Rob, and the moment I did, people’s faces usually changed. Some would get tears in their eyes, some would stare blankly at the floor, or have a glazed look in their eye as they replayed a memory in their mind. I knew then that the church still needed to process Rob’s death, and how this tragedy affected them. They had gone through a traumatic experience, but they didn’t want to talk about it.
I knew that everyone works through their grief in very different ways, but they almost always do it in private. I wanted to respect that fact, but this had also affected the whole congregation. I wanted there to be a space for us to talk about it together.
That point was proven at one of our early vestry meetings when I suddenly stopped our conversation about light bulbs and bluntly asked them how they thought the congregation was coping with Rob’s death.
I then asked them how they were coping, and we then spent the next 40 minutes hearing from each of them what Rob had meant to them, and how his death had affected them and their faith.
It was a holy moment, and a game-changer for me and the vestry. I felt like we grew closer from that experience, and I was starting to gain their trust. I had hoped to dedicate multiple weeks to a similar conversation during Sunday school, but for many reasons, I couldn’t get anyone on board. Every time I asked someone, they would say it wasn’t necessary. But then the vestry opened up in such a powerful way in this small group setting. It finally clicked in my mind that I would need to drop the large group discussion idea and focus on individuals and small groups.
Not long after that, I started to ask people if I could come by their home just to chat for a bit. While having a normal conversation in their living room I would find a way to ask them, “So, what was your relationship with Father Rob like?” That’s all I ever had to say.
During those conversations, there would be tears, questions, anger, and everything in between. If I wasn’t in their home, I’d try to casually ask them during a small group opportunity like Bible study or supper club. It was a holy experience every time it happened, and I came to realize it was exactly what they needed to feel heard. As their priest, it was the perfect way for me to know how they were coping.
I began to get a truer sense of how the parishioners were doing in a way that likely would've never happened in a large group discussion on Sundays.
Even with that said, I wanted to find something that we could do as a community to remember Rob. I had heard their stories individually, and it was time for them to share it with their fellow church members. Again, I would have to be a little creative.
So, a few weeks before the first anniversary of Rob’s death the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention hosted a walk not far from the church. I thought this would be a good way for our group to come together and talk about their shared grief as they walked.
We had about 20 people from our church that day walk in remembrance of Rob. During the walk, some of our members talked with one another and chatted with folks who were walking in honor of someone they’d lost. Our group heard their stories, and we shared ours. It was a powerful and healing time together.
When the first anniversary of Rob's death came around, we opened the church all day for prayer, and in the evening we hosted a service. I was surprised on a couple of levels. Only one person came by during the day to pray in the sanctuary, but she was so grateful for the opportunity. The service ended up having over 50 people there, including one lady whom we’d met at the walk.
After that, conversations continued to happen from time to time, but it seemed things had changed. We participated in the walk again the next year, but much to my surprise, only two people came compared to the large group we had the year before.
Honestly, I hoped the walk would become an annual tradition for our church. I was disappointed with the turnout until I talked to a friend of mine who was a retired Methodist pastor. He told me it may be a sign that the community had healed and was ready to take the next step. He said, "Maybe we’ve done our job well enough that this church is ready to accept what happened and not relive it again and again. They may be at a place of peace with what happened." What I had thought was a failure may, in fact, be a sign of healing.
During my interview at St. James the Less, I told the vestry members that I had a dream for the church. I asked them to imagine, “What if we were the church in Madison that was known for caring for those who lost someone they loved to suicide, or who had suicidal thoughts themselves? What if we didn’t run away from what happened to us, but rather embraced it? What if even from Rob’s traumatic death there could be a resurrection for this church?”
But this really is the call of every church. Jesus' death and resurrection remind us that more is going on in this world than meets the eye. Death does not have the final say over us, and when all seems lost, there are seedlings of hope scattered all around us. As the church we must point people to that ultimate hope that is rooted in the victory found in Jesus' resurrection. Through his death, our Lord plumbed the depths of the darkness and brought abundant life to a seemingly hopeless situation.
All things will be restored--in and through--God's well-beloved Son. Individuals and communities need to be reminded that death and the grave do not have the final word, but life in all of its fullness.
From the darkness of this one tragedy in Madison, light sprung up in new and life-giving ways. It happened to us, and it can happen to anyone who directs their attention to the Lord whose hands still have the nail marks in his hand.
“Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Psalm 139:12).
Endnote: A big thanks to my loving parents who journeyed with me during that difficult time. Thanks to Jeremy at Daystar Counseling Ministries in Nashville. After three years God called me away from St. James the Less. It was a difficult goodbye after walking with the parish through such a difficult time. As I told them on my final Sunday, "Because of this experience we will always be connected." I dearly miss their company and friendship. A great book to check out about this theme of darkness in life and the Bible is Barbara Brown Taylor’s, Learning to Walk in the Dark. Photo by Sasha Freemind and Victor Xok on Unsplash.