Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Suicide: A Pastor's voice

"I have cried every single day since Matthew died…"

September 17, 2013. In an emotional interview with Piers Morgan, Pastor Rick Warren and his wife, Kay responded to questions about their son’s suicide in April 2013.

Because he is a well-known Evangelical Pastor, I expect Rick Warren to turn to God for support. But I also expect him to be real. To show his emotions. To be one of us. And he was. And so was Kay. And it was clear that Kay and Rick supported each other.

In my previous post I wrote about attributions. Ironically, I referred to people with a purpose having no clue the author of The Purpose Driven Life would offer a powerful story a week later. And not surprisingly, I found a mix of attributions as Rick and Kay spoke about the tragic suicide of their son. I also found evidence of another powerful explanatory theory, coping theory. KennethPargament explains coping theory so well in The Psychology of Religion and Coping.

“Everything that happens in the world God allows, he permits, 
because it couldn't happen without his permission.” 
Rick sets the context for causes of events. Whatever happens, God is there. But in his view, the proximal causes are natural. “My son took his own life. It was his choice.” Such actions are not predetermined. In this view of human nature, people are causal agents. They have choices. And there is another cause. When asked about guns, The Warrens were thankful California had tight gun laws because those laws interfered with access to a lethal weapon. So laws can be a natural factor too.
And there was the gun seller: “One of the hard things was forgiving the person who sold him the gun... Because I didn't want to forgive him.” So here too we see another causal agent—the seller. And this seller appeared to be a responsible agent for he is identified as one Rick struggled to forgive. In the clips I saw, no other person was identified as a person who needed to be forgiven. Forgiveness is a powerful way to cope with loss.

“I never questioned my faith in God. I questioned God's plan.”
How do Christian beliefs help people cope? A few quotes are helpful here.
“Grief is a good thing. It's the way we get through the transitions of life."
“I know God is a good God.”
“But we live in a world where there are free choices, so if I choose to do wrong, I can't blame God for that. So God isn't to blame for my son's death.
And there is a blessed hope. Kay quoted 1 Corinthians 15:43 Clearly, in addition to prayer and support from many, they turned to the Bible and found encouragement in the hope of Christians for ultimate healing, the resurrection.

As they retold the sequence of events leading up to the realization that Matthew had died, Kay and Rick shared the tension and the horrible feeling of being out of control. What more can loving parents do? Laws protect the privacy of our mental health records and our freedom from being held against our will. And Matthew set a boundary trap- a threat- if his parents called the police.

Parents like Rick and Kay love their children. Yet even love is not enough strong enough. “If love could have kept my child alive, he'd be alive today, because he was incredibly loved.”

As long as the Warrens continue to live out their faith in such a public and authentic way, they will help so many find ways to cope with death and other life tragedies. As well as that horrible feeling of being out of control. Resuming life following powerful losses tests the limits of so many. Although most turn to their faith, others turn away from God. Leaders like Rick and Kay offer models to the faithful. Models of effective coping.  And ways to find a path to God’s sustenance. Some Christians do not share the same beliefs. Other people find solace in other religious practices and words of comfort. More comments on how people responded to the Warrens can be tracked on twitter at #WarrensOnCNN

Mental Illness
In this interview, not a lot was said about mental illness. Apparently Matthew had a long history of mental illness and had sought professional help. But it wasn’t enough. Yet a timely and interesting poll by Lifeway Research found half of American Evangelicals expressed a powerful curative attribution for mental illness: Prayer and Bible Study alone can cure a serious mental illness. This is a topic for another post.

A reflection
When it comes to dealing with tragedy, it helps to have leaders show the way. We don’t expect our leaders to have all the answers but we search for meaning. And a way to lessen the pain of loss. It helps to know the tears go on and on. It’s comforting to think we might find some purpose. Some way to redeem a lost life. To do good in their name. And so the Warrens set up a foundation in Matthew’s name.

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What do you think of Rick and Kay’s story?
How does your faith help you cope with loss?
If you are an agnostic or atheist, what beliefs or practices help you cope with loss?
Constructive comments and corrections are welcome.

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