A sad good-bye becomes a teachable moment by Alan Johnson


“...then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
And your healing shall spring up quickly...”Isa. 58:8

written by Alan Johnson

The obituary said the young man had lived with bipolar disorder and had ended his life.  It was clear, honest and direct. It was published in the local newspaper for all the world to see.  That was a couple years ago now.

In the obituary, the family suggested that any donations in memory of their son be sent to our church’s Mental Health Ministry, even though they had only attended our church once, when we had Pete Earley, a well-known author and mental health advocate, as a guest speaker. From that single event, the parents knew our church would not be judgmental, but rather would be responsive and supportive in their time of need. Even though I am retired, I was asked to officiate because my brother had ended his life eight years ago. They knew I’d walked the path that led them to our door.

At the memorial service, the father asked the 200-plus people in the church for 18 minutes of their attention as he talked about his son’s 10-year journey with mental illness, what people can do to overcome stigma and how to become educated on mental illness.

I was blown away by the father’s bravery, the power of his message and his willingness to turn his son’s tragic death into a teachable moment. In that time, there was light and healing  within us; the flower of awareness was present.

When my own brother died, there was no mention of suicide or mental illness in his obituary or at his memorial service. Some members of my family are still reluctant to acknowledge my brother ended his life himself.

Has the world changed so much in eight years that it is now safe to talk about suicide and mental illness in public when it wasn’t before? Or does it still take remarkable courage to ignore our society’s taboo on talking about suicide and mental illness, to reject the aura of shame that surrounds these topics? To name it openly. To stare it in the face without blinking.

I salute the family who came to us in their pain and grief and thank them for their courage. May we all be so brave. May we each do our part to make the world a better place for people with mental illnesses and their families. May we each testify to the support we can offer to each other out of our own grief.  

More recently, I learned of the death by suicide of the 27 year old son of a colleague.  That happened two days before this op-ed piece in our local paper was published, “A message of hope from a survivor.”  In that piece, the author, having become a suicide survivor, speaks out about how so important it is to “talk about depression and the importance of getting help.”

There IS help available.  Everyone ought to have this telephone number on them so a situation may indicate there may be a thought about suicide.  1-800-273-8255 (TALK).  Awareness may be the first step toward salvation, someone once wrote.  We need to be aware and not to deny or avoid this up-to-now taboo subject.  

The op-ed piece continues, “We need to embrace people who are struggling and those who have lost loved ones to that struggle.”  It took me some inner search to find a bit more than “I am deeply sorry for the death of your son by suicide,” I wrote to my colleague.  And as the author put it, “There is always another way out of the darkness.”  That is my affirmation, too, although perhaps one of the lights in that darkness might be just being present, acknowledging the loss, and sit with the anguish as I reach to embrace my colleague.  
Alan Johnson is a mental health advocate who served on the national United Church Board of Homeland Ministries, 1979-1995, retired as chaplain at The Children’s Hospital, Denver, and serves as chair of the UCC Mental Health Network board of directors.