On the Suicide of a Preacher’s Son

Rick Warren
Rick Warren (Photo credit: kev/null)


By now we have all heard the news of the tragic suicide of the youngest son of Pastor Rick Warren, Matthew. He was just 27 years old. (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/04/06/son-of-pastor-rick-warren-commits-suicide/?hpt=hp_t2)


Suicide committed by anyone is tragic and sad …and unbelievably painful…but I imagine that when it’s the preacher’s kid, the pain for the family is even greater. People have expectations of preachers and their families that are too often unrealistic. The kids are under tremendous pressure, and their lives are often more scrutinized, with more criticism leveled at them with less empathy, sympathy and/or understanding that one might expect religious people to dole out.


It is a fact that preachers’ kids often feel more isolated, more alone …and many times, more angry than other kids. They are held to a higher standard, and they grow sensitive to what “the saints” say about them, to them, or say around them. They often, but by no means always, grow up with a bitter taste in their mouths about “church folk” and organized religion. Families of the preacher often tread in deep water with swift and unrelenting undercurrents …and nobody seems to care. One of the most powerful moments for me came several years ago when a member said to me that she wanted to embrace my children, that they had “lent” me out to people for years and nobody had really embraced them. That was the first and only time anyone had said anything like that to me. I appreciated it, and so did my children.


But that kind of sensitivity to preachers, their families and their children is only too rare. We can only imagine the pain of Rick and Kay Warren. Unfortunately, however, there are sure to be people who are whispering about the Warren family and their troubled son. Some will say that while Pastor Rick was ministering to people all over the world, he “couldn’t even” deal with his own son. That is the reality, too often, of church culture.


What people do not realize, or care to realize, is that the preacher is a human being, as are his/her children. The expectations on both are unrealistic, and people who are “with you” on one day are “against you” on yet another. There are only a very few who embrace the preacher and his/her family sincerely, with no agenda.


The attitude of people toward mental illness is poor in general; nobody wants to identify or share that he or she is mentally ill – and yet, so many of us are!  Ironically, the church, where it should be “safe” to talk about and share one’s struggles, including debilitating depression, multiple personalities, bi-polar disease, schizophrenia – has no monopoly for doling out kindness and/or legitimate help and compassion.


And if the one with the mental illness is the preacher’s son or daughter, chances are the compassion is even less.


Of course, I am not saying that that is or was the case with Matthew. Perhaps Saddleback Church was very compassionate and helpful and supportive, but churches in general are not known to be that way. Unfortunately, too many churches are known to be unkind, exclusive and judgmental, and the children of the preachers know that very well.


Add to the already painful situation that many individuals consider suicide to be cowardly. I had only one person in my congregation commit suicide while I was pastor, and I tried my best to draw the attention of people to her gifts, and to an acknowledgement of her pain. I suggested that she, who was one to express her love for God in praise and movement, was dancing in heaven, comforted by God. While some in attendance at her funeral received what I said, others were so angry that when I reached out to them to hug them, they turned away. People in general are not so forgiving and understanding when it comes to suicide.


I am praying that at Saddleback, the love will outweigh any criticism or judgment that may be there. I am praying that the suicide of the preacher’s son will be an opportunity for people to show the love of God for that family and for the young man who was so unhappy that he chose to be with God on his time, not God’s. I am sure God understands, but I’m not sure about the people.


A candid observation …






Suicide, Walking

Is suicide not as common in urban areas, most specifically amongst black and brown people, or do we just not hear about it?

I watched Blackboard Wars on OWN, and happened to hear Don Lemon of CNN have discussions about mental illness and suicide on the same evening. In Blackboard Wars, the prevalence of mental illness among urban high school kids in New Orleans McDonough High School, was brought to light. I wasn’t surprised, as I have long believed that many children in urban areas suffer not only from mental and physical ailments that are not diagnosed, or, if diagnosed, not treated because of economic constraints. If one adds to the presence of mental illness the many pressures from home these kids have, the often deplorable conditions of their schools, and their fear of street violence, and the fact that many of these kids are labeled “behavior problems”  by both their parents or guardians and their teachers, one has to come to the conclusion that many of these kids are depressed…yet we don’t hear of it. We know that many urban kids do not believe they will make it out of their 20s. We also know that urban kids, especially brown and black urban kids, are more often arrested by police even when they have done nothing wrong. They stand in courthouses and listen to police lie about what they have done, and they have nobody to advocate for them. (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/03/opinion/sunday/why-police-officers-lie-under-oath.html)

We hear of urban kids being shot and killed (and nobody seems to care), but we rarely hear of them shooting themselves or hanging themselves. Is that because it doesn’t happen or is it because our society doesn’t think it’s newsworthy to report it?

Studies show that the rate of suicide among black males rose about eight points from 1980 to 1993, and the rate of suicide amongst black females did not change much at all during that same time period. (http://www.faqs.org/health/topics/44/Suicide.html) But why not? Surely the conditions under which urban kids live could inspire anyone to take his or her own life.

Could it be that the suffering for urban youth is so deep and so emotionally brutal that they have cut themselves off from their feelings? Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, writes that the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust was so extreme that they able to withstand the brutality of their surroundings only by become immune to their own capacity to feel. What they endured is mind-boggling, yet they called upon inner resources to keep them going. Could it be that urban kids have done the same? Could it be that the rash of gun violence in urban areas is indicative of suicide by another name? the shootings happen with regularity because, I believe, the kids no longer see other kids – or adults, for that matter – as human beings. The only way they can kill so indiscriminately is for them to think of their victims as targets for their bullets, not as people with feelings. Yet, at the end of the day, they must still think that what they have done is wrong …or can they feel that way? Maybe their not acknowledging their feelings keep them afloat. Maybe their form of suicide is in what they do – killing other people, and in so doing, they kill a little more of themselves. They have no hope, many of them, no dreams. They don’t care if they live or die. So they become dead kids walking. They don’t care anymore, what happens to them or to anyone else.

. Urban kids hurt like everyone else. Hurting kids in the suburbs often kill themselves by hanging, or shooting themselves…Yet black and brown kids carry around the burden of racism and poverty, which makes racism that much more rancid.  . They see and feel all of the problems suburban kids do, only they see it through this dual prism of racism and poverty. They are bullied; they deal with issues of sexual orientation; they deal with parents who do not have time for them, but we don’t hear about them hanging or shooting themselves all the things that suburban kids do…

I don’t know what they do…but I know they do something. All living creatures do something when they are in pain because they want the pain to stop.  What if this nation looked upon the problem of urban kids killing each other as the opportunity to see into the psyches of tormented souls, souls that stopped hoping, dreaming, and believing that things will ever get better? Would that kind of insight and intuition help us deal with the issue of suicide in general?  What if we could look at suicide from the perspective of what we see in urban America? Would the suicide, or could the ongoing suicide, by way of senseless homicides, of urban kids be reduced? The kids are not hanging themselves. They are killing each other.

Now that I think about it, what do kids in Appalachia do? Native American kids? Kids who live with a steady stream of hopelessness? We hear sometimes about Native American kids being alcoholic. Is that their form of suicide- killing themselves bit by bit?

Feeling hopeless hurts.

And yes, I am saying that the homicide we seeing in urban America is a form of suicide.

A candid observation …

In Suicide, Does Religion Help?

The tragic suicide of the young nurse, Jacintha Saldanha, who was caught up in the phone hoax perpetrated by two Australian DJs, gaining access to information about Kate Middleton, reminded me of how difficult and distasteful the subject of suicide is.

When Kansas City Chiefs  linebacker Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend, and then committed suicide in front of his coach, I read some of the comments posted on a story about the unfortunate incident…and most of the comments were harsh, calling Jovan a coward.

I wonder what comments are circulating about Ms. Saldanha. I have no idea of what her religious affiliation is, but as a Christian, I know suicide is frowned upon.  One of my most glaring failures was a sermon I preached at the funeral of one of my members who had committed suicide. I preached that God surely could not be condemning her; that God knew her pain and God, being a loving deity, surely received her into heaven. I asked the people present to celebrate her life. She had been a brilliant scholar, and a woman who loved to dance. She would dance in the pews during Sunday service, her spirit seemingly taken up by and with the power of the music played and sung during worship.

So, I reminded people of those apparently brief spurts of joy in her life. I asked them to remember her moving. I asked them to remember some of the questions she had asked during Bible studies; they always stumped me.  She was a lesbian, trying to find peace and the presence of God in her life. Surely, I could not say at her funeral that this God had abandoned her and would not let her in His/Her presence because she had committed suicide

It didn’t go over well for many of the people in attendance.

She was tired of being in despair, my member, and I imagine that this nurse who committed suicide must have known despair by name as well. I suspect she was hard on herself, demanding perfection, and this being “taken” by a prank call affecting such important people must have soiled the cloth of perfection she demanded of herself. I can only imagine…but I would again say that this woman knew despair, just like my member did. I cannot believe suicide comes because of one bad moment. Suicide comes when there are too many bad moments, stacked upon each other, which becomes a burden too heavy to carry after a while. Heavy despair weighs the human soul down, sinking it like tires sink in mud. I believe the nurse, as well as my member, were sunk in mud.

Someone asked me, in the matter of my member, why she didn’t take her meds. I thought the question was out of line and invasive and didn’t answer; how could this person know that my member hadn’t taken her meds. The fact of the matter was, though, that she did take her meds and was always looking for the right medicine and the right dose of the medicine, to ease her spiritual and mental pain. Mental illness, mental despair, is still such a taboo that many of us who need to take medicine to make us well will not. We will not even go see someone who might be able to help us. To say that you are “mentally ill” is to put a yoke around your neck, and nobody does that on purpose…

And yet, to NOT admit disease and deep despair produces such horrific and sad results.

English: Kate Middleton at Prince William's Or...
English: Kate Middleton at Prince William’s Order of the Garter investiture (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am not sure what role religion plays in alleviating the despair of mental illness. I don’t think my member had much faith in religion, though she was working to change that. Religion had rejected her because she was a Lesbian. She had found little love and less acceptance. Paul Tillich wrote a sermon, entitled, “The Yoke of Religion,” in which he posits that religion is a burden. He cites Jesus saying, “Come unto me, all you who are weak and heavy laden…” and asks, “with what are people heavy?” What is burdening people? Tillich says it isn’t sin and guilt, and it isn’t the daily struggles of life. The burden of which Jesus wants to relieve us, writes Tillich, is the burden of religion. “It is the yoke of the law imposed on people of His time by the religious teachers…Those who are sighing are signing under the yoke of religious law.”

I don’t know if religion helped or hurt my member, Jovan Belcher or Jacintha Saldanha.  I find myself unable to call any of them cowards, however. I find myself praying that fewer and fewer people are burdened by despair, in spite of religion…

We need to do better than that.

A candid observation…


Girl Talk: Being Unafraid to Face our Spirits

I was looking for some information over the internet for a book I am writing when I somehow landed on an article about a young, 19-year-old Stanford University student who died after attempting suicide.

The article said that the parents were not saying what, exactly, caused her death, but the same article said that in a memorial statement, the family acknowledged that she had attempted suicide. The writer of the article said that even though it appeared the actual act of attempted suicide didn’t kill her, it appeared that after that attempt, from whatever injuries she sustained, the attempt ended up causing her to die.

I am not using her name, because she could be so many of us women, who are depressed but who will not face our depression, or talk about it, and because the communities that surround us really do not have patience for those of us who suffer from depression.

After my divorce, I realize now that I was depressed – for years. I could not and would not admit it, nor talk about it.  After all, I was a single mother; my children were small and I had to hold it together for them…and to add insult to injury, I was a new pastor. I figured that the congregation was probably already struggling to deal with the imperfect woman who could not and did not hold her marriage together; had I let on that I was depressed, I am not sure they would have kept me on as their pastor.

And so I suffered silently. I am sure I was not nearly as effective as I could have been – either as a mother or a pastor. I remember thinking that my own mother had told me that she had once suffered from a nervous breakdown. I didn’t know what that was exactly, but I wondered if it was hereditary.

My mother never talked about that time of her life, and she certainly never discussed it with me, except for one time when she got angry that I had put on an application that she had once suffered from the nervous breakdown. She was furious, and yelled at me for being so “stupid.” I didn’t know it was a sin to have a nervous breakdown, and a bigger sin to tell someone about it.

I did wonder, though, during my post-divorce years,what I was going to do, what a nervous breakdown felt like. I didn’t go to a doctor; I didn’t take medication. Only once I began to come out of the fog, years after the divorce, did I sit down a few times and talk to a counselor.

I call denying our emotional pain fear of facing our spirits. Our spirits really do a good job of telling us when something is wrong and when our spirits tell us that, it is a cry from within to do something before it’s too late, but there’s still such a stigma about mental illness, and still such a stigma about admitting that emotionally, we just don’t feel so good. I cannot understand why we are allowed to feel bad physically, to be ill, sometimes terminally, physically, but are expected to be on our jobs continually when it comes to our emotional and spiritual health.

I thought about this young Stanford student, who was apparently a good student and a well-respected athlete. She grew up in Santa Barbara, an amazingly beautiful place, so I assume she didn’t have much economic hardship to worry about. Her case reminded me of another Stanford student I read about some days ago who had never bounced back after her mother committed suicide. Within two years, this young woman was dead as well; she had taken some time off after her mother’s death to recuperate, and had recently returned to school, and was now…dead.

Ironically, this girl was a proponent for mental health education.

I guess all people need to face their spirits, but we as women are so good at ignoring ours while we try to take care of everyone else. We are good at dressing up and pretending we have it all together, when that’s not even close to being the truth. And in the end, we suffer, as do those around us who love and care for us.

Was I mentally ill post-divorce? I can say, now, that yes, I was. I am fortunate that there was something enough inside me (maybe my spirit working overtime to save me in spite of myself) so that I didn’t commit suicide. I never considered it, but that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t have considered it. Whenever someone is depressed, the capacity to go to a place that is scary and cold is there.

I hope that the family of both these Stanford students will recuperate well, but will also become unafraid to talk about this menace called mental illness, or, more specifically, depression. We are not required to have it together all of the time. If we would listen to our spirits, and do what we need to do to effect spiritual balance inside of us, perhaps there would be fewer suicides, and fewer people living lives of absolute hell.

A candid observation …

Don Cornelius and the Silent Killer

The only thing that makes the death of Don Cornelius more troubling than it is on its own is that he reportedly killed himself.

This brilliant, innovative visionary man, who forever changed lives of African American entertainers and the music world with an American experiment called “Soul Train,” apparently shot himself in the head at the age of 75.

The report made me weep.

Why? Because of all the illnesses we talk about in our society, mental illness is still taboo. Mental illness is rampant, just as are other diseases like heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease, and yet, we don’t want to talk about it. To admit that we do not feel good emotionally, that we are depressed and just cannot seem to “get it together” makes us feel like we are weak.

And so, to escape being called weak, people drown in depression or other mental illnesses on a daily basis. People are sick and are not getting treated, nor have many of them ever been treated.

I am quite sure that much of the dysfunction that is so much reported about the African-American community is because a lot of African-American children suffer from some sort of mental illness. The illnesses are written off by parents and teachers alike; sick children are labeled “bad,” are suspended or expelled, because nobody likes their behavior – behavior that comes as the result of being mentally ill.

Children of more affluent families at least have parents who recognize when something seems to be wrong with their children emotionally and some, not all, get help. But even in those families, it seems that there is a stigma to needing help to deal with one’s emotions or mental health.

But back to Don Cornelius: here was an African-American man who apparently walked with horrendous mental anguish and didn’t know how to deal with it. He carried it inside him, as so many people who are mentally ill do, until it drove him to the depth of desperation and despair that resulted in his committing suicide.

I cannot imagine how badly he hurt. What people don’t seem to realize, or don’t realize, is that mental illness really does hurt. It’s not like a headache or a sore elbow, or even a bacterial infection, where some pretty readily accessible medications can help the pain go away. The pain of mental illness is different; it is a cloud that forever hangs over one’s head. Some days are less cloudy than others, but that stupid cloud is always there.

When little children, especially poor children, are labeled “bad” in addition to already feeling emotionally bad, the illness of  self hatred is added to the broth already simmering within. When one hates oneself, one hates others as well, and that self-hatred, fueled by an illness that was never treated, leads, I am convinced, to much of the criminal behavior we see today.

Mental illness is no less an important issue than is hypertension, breast cancer, diabetes or heart disease.  It is no less a silent killer than is hypertension…and it is way past time that we take our heads out of the sands of shame and “man up” to the fact that way too many people are suffering silently, and are being driven to despair.

It is no more a sign of weakness to be mentally ill than it is to have any physical disease or ailment. In both cases, something physiologically and or biochemically is out of alignment, causing discomfort and pain.

As we work hard to heal physical illness, so should we be working as hard, or maybe even harder, to at least effectively treat mental illness, and move the stigma out of the picture.

Too many great people are living with mental illness, and too many have died way too soon from it…

Like Don Cornelius.

A candid observation …