Reflections on a son’s suicide
They kept ringing the door bell, insistently. And I was having such a nice sleep. (Something that would now elude me for months.)
It was 5:45 a.m., October 6, 2008. Two Winnipeg police officers had come to tell us that our son Brad was dead. All they knew or were willing to say was that it involved a train near Providence College and that he was the only one hurt.
Four hours later, the RCMP told us the train engineer saw Brad put his head on the tracks, and though the engineer hit the brakes and blew the horn non-stop, Brad did not move. And, Brad had written a letter.
Brad Toews (1987 – 2008) was a third year student a Providence College, Otterburne, Man.
My first thought was, how can we hide the fact this was suicide? But immediately I knew that if we tried, we would never heal. We would have to face this as openly and honestly as possible. Even as I write this, there is a temptation to somehow explain the circumstances in enough detail so you believe we were good parents and our son was a wonderful young man. But early on, we instinctively decided we would be better off putting our energies into things that would bring healing than into trying to manage our image.
The next days are a blur in my memory: family and friends surrounding us, preparing the funeral, meeting with Providence students to read them Brad’s letter, people coming with food, hundreds of cards, the pain so raw I could not eat or sleep, the darkness that became our constant companion. I had no idea life could hurt so much.
Shortly after the funeral, we attended a service at our church on depression, mental illness, and suicide. Throughout the evening I struggled with the thought, “Brad wasn’t depressed, he wasn’t mentally ill… but, mentally healthy people don’t take their own lives.”
As we began to re-examine Brad’s life, we saw signs of faulty thinking and depression that had been part of his life for a long time – so much a part of who he was, no one recognized them for what they were.
The worst of this for me is what I call “the darkness” – a mixture of pain, confusion, dread, hopelessness, despair, and loneliness, which came at us in waves that felt as if they would crush us. The week before Brad’s death, I had been working on a Thanksgiving sermon. The point of the sermon was that God has given us a strategy to deal with the opposition of the unseen world. That strategy was to give thanks to God, particularly in the most hopeless situations.
The darkness tested if I really believed the sermon I had intended to preach. In those early days, the way Sharon and I managed when the darkness washed upon us in unbear-able waves was to stop and begin to thank God for his presence in our lives. We would experience instant relief.
Those early days brought the “why” questions. Why did this happen? Why Brad? Why us? They forced me to ask myself, “Russ, are you sure there is a God, and if there is, are you sure he is good?”
I came to understand that these questions served two purposes for me. On the one hand, they were an attempt to regain some control. Life was so out of control, but maybe if I understood “why” I could get some back.
The other purpose was to judge God.
The why questions were asking God to lay out the information he used to make his decisions regarding my son. Once I knew that, I could decide if God made good or bad decisions – though I was pretty sure I already knew the answer.
How God responds
I also needed to face the way the church has traditionally viewed suicide. For most of the last 2,000 years, the church has taught that suicide is a ticket to hell. Some 20 years ago I had conducted a funeral for a member of our church who had taken her own life. I had explained we do not earn salvation by our good works, nor do we lose it simply by leaving a sin unconfessed. God is a gracious God, I had said, who understands the torment that would lead a person to take such a drastic step.
But now the questions around suicide involved my son and there was a new urgency to discover if I was on solid ground theologically.
I discovered that Augustine was the first to talk about suicide as unforgivable. Christians had been under persecution for their faith. Some women had chosen to drown themselves rather than face rape as part of the persecution and the church declared them to be saints. Although it was not exactly suicide, many Christians were now throwing themselves upon the Romans in order to be martyrs.
In that context, Augustine wrote that suicide was self-murder and therefore unforgivable, since the person would have no time to repent. This became the position of the church. Many years later, Thomas Aquinas strengthened the church’s position on suicide by arguments drawn not from the Bible but from Aristotle.
When the Protestant church broke from the Catholic church, it seems no one questioned this position until Dietrich Bonhoeffer witnessed prisoners of war choosing to end their lives. Bonhoeffer argued that suicide was a sin – the sin of lack of faith. And who of us has not been guilty of lack of faith? It is sin, yes, but forgivable. These explanations reassured me about my understanding of how God responds to suicide.
A turning point for me came two months into this ordeal. It was just two days before Brad’s 21st birthday and I was having a particularly hard time. The darkness would not let up.
I was shovelling my driveway after a heavy snowfall. I recognized that I was thankful for all the things I was learning. Sharon and I had become so close and we were learning so much.
As I was thanking God, it was as if he said to me, “You would not have learned these things without the pain. Can you thank me for the pain?” I took this to mean, can you thank me for your son’s death?
I struggled with this, snow flying, tears flowing. It came down to a choice. I could sit as judge over God for the way he was allowing my life to unfold or I could be thankful. As I began to thank him even for the pain, the darkness left and has not come back. Sharon had come to the same conclusion on her own a month earlier. We still experience times of sadness, but the darkness is gone.
Four months after Brad’s death, I took an evening to go for a long walk in order to ask God a question. My question was: “What is your perspective on Brad’s death?” I was gone several hours, but when I came home my heart was overflowing with what I heard. This is a summary.
God is sovereign.
Nothing happens that is outside his control or that he does not allow.
I find when I talk this way, particularly in light of my son’s death, many people become uncomfortable. They quickly point out that God is not the author of illness, death, or bad things. I’m not arguing with their point, but you may be surprised to hear I don’t find comfort in the thought that God did not cause my son’s death.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying God caused Brad’s death, but I find it interesting how we rush to declare God does not cause evil, as if our faith is on the edge and in danger of slipping if we wonder about God’s role when bad things happen.
I do find comfort in knowing that someone is in control, that life is not just a series of random events, some good, some bad. I find comfort in knowing that even though bad things happen, there is someone who has seen ahead everything that will happen and allows it. Brad’s death did not catch God by surprise, as it did us.
God is in control. He could have arranged events in such a way that any number of people could have intervened to save my son’s life. But he didn’t.
God is good.
Regardless of what may appear evidence to the contrary, God is good. We are never outside the limits of God’s love.
I know this from two perspectives: from my previous experiences with God’s goodness and love, and from logic. If God were not good, the world would be in a much worse state.
If God is sovereign and God is good, I can trust him.
I do not expect to ever understand the answers to why. But if God is sovereign and God is good, I do not need the answers to trust. I can trust God precisely because he is sovereign and good.
That is enough.
—Russ Toews is Mission and Church Extension director for the MB Church of Manitoba. He and Sharon live in Winnipeg.