Suicide & the Code of Silence

“Nobody commits suicide because they want to die –

They just want to stop the pain.”


The tow-headed toddler running down the church aisle tripped and fell over onto his tummy. He paused a moment before getting up, looking around to see if anyone was going to come to his aide, or perhaps he was checking to see if anyone would scold him for behaving so childlike. Although many eyes were on him, no one moved.

“Uh-oh, boo-boo,” he said. Then he stood up and brushed the knees of his jeans and took off running again.

Why couldn’t his aunt have done the same thing? I wondered.

Instead, the 14-year-old lay dead inside the prettiest of lavender-and-chrome caskets at the front of the First Baptist Church that had loved and prayed for her since birth. Since before birth.

She took her own life earlier in the week.

The grandfather who raised her, Charles Dunham, the man of God I wrote about in Where’s Your Jesus Now? — sat in the front row, wrapped in the arms of Sarah Dunham’s older sister, both of them quietly weeping.

I know it isn’t true but there are times when it certainly feels like there’s a curse upon families. As the pastor at First Baptist so soberly noted, Sarah was the third-generation of one family whose funeral he had presided over.

There was Eric Shannon, her biological father.

There was Shirley Dunham, Charles’s wife, who fought so desperately to care for all her grandchildren after her son was killed in a gun battle with police. It was Shirley’s faith that captured me. She was a fierce woman, not easily dissuaded in her devotion to God or her children, or grandchildren.

Shirley had warned the Department of Human Services that there would be hell to pay if they took Eric Shannon’s children from him, and she was right.

There was.

But it seems that the children were the ones left owing the debt, not DHS.

Robin Hocker (Dimick) was pregnant with Sarah the night Eric was killed.

I attended every court proceeding that followed and watched as the orange jumpsuit pulled tighter and tighter against the growing mound of a baby unaware of the chaos that led to Eric’s death and Robin’s conviction.

A year after that night of terror, I went back to Charles and Shirley’s home and pieced together the events that led to the shoot-out that killed the father of seven.

Sarah was a cherub of a toddler. Blonde and chunky in that completely well-cared for way. She would run between the laps of Charles and Shirley, climbing up and down, into the arms of her grandparents, the only father and mother she would ever really know.

And even that too briefly, since Shirley died not long after that, a victim to breast cancer.

The last time I visited the Dunham home in 2008, Sarah drew me a picture, told me she wanted to be a writer one day. She loved to read and was a good student. I’d hoped the book would do well enough to put both Sarah and her sister through college. Writers can be naive that way. Christian bookstores wouldn’t carry the book because of the very topic it addressed — fear. They were afraid their conservative audience would balk at the notion that it’s wrong to live in fear if you are a person of faith. Fear, as it turns out, is a great selling point among evangelicals. That’s how the Left Behind books became international bestsellers. If you want to be a commercial success in the evangelical marketplace, it helps to have a gimmick. Snake oil, it seems, remains a sure thing.

People in the Evangelical community don’t know how to speak about suicide. The word was never used during the entire service.

We speak code. We say things like, “It’s hard.” Or, “We don’t know why God took him/her.” Or, what I consider the most onerous of all remarks, “We know they are in a better place.”

Which always leaves me wondering why we don’t all just up and take our own lives if Heaven is such a terrific alternative.

I have several good friends who have lost a child to suicide. I have walked this journey beside them. I have seen first hand how we Christians tend to tip-toe around the death of someone who takes their own life. We mean well, but, honestly, isn’t it about high time we fessed up to our own failures? Instead of talking about how much better off that person is in heaven, now that they have hung themselves, or pulled the trigger, or swallowed a handful of pills, shouldn’t we be taking a hard look at the ways in which we continually fail these children?

I don’t happen to believe that everyone can do what Sarah’s nephew did — fall down and get back up. Not everyone can pull themselves up by their boot straps. Sometimes they use those boot straps to hang themselves because they feel so completely hopeless.

I stood at the bedside of a best friend hours after she was found unconscious on a beach. The black residue of charcoal streaked her cheeks. Nobody had bothered to wash her face after the medical staff forced her to throw up. Placing my hands on her, I prayed fervently for God to restore her to good health. He answered that prayer.

On Monday, as Sarah contemplated taking her life, my girlfriend and I hiked through a leafy trail and spoke about the darkness that had compelled her suicide attempt. Everything was just so black, she said. Despair grabbed her like a midnight intruder intent on killing.

There is so much we don’t understand about mental health. So much we don’t know about the sort of darkness that leads another to take their own life.

Suicide remains one of the most verboten topics in the church today. We placate our discomfort by telling ourselves that the suicide victim is in a much better place, when what we really need to be asking is how we might have imparted to them a little bit of heaven, some sort of hope, here on earth.

We may never know all the answers to why Sarah took her own life, but we can’t even begin to help other children like her if we don’t at least ponder the question of what more ought we be doing on behalf of those stumbling around in such darkness.


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  • Dear Karen,

    I’ve commented here before, and again I was drawn to do so once again. Almost three weeks ago, my 28 year old sister was found dead. I believe it was an accidental overdose, but we won’t know for sure until we get the toxicology report back. The thing is, my sister struggled with depression, and this post brings out my feelings many Christians hold regarding mental illness… which can lead to tragedy.

    I pray that Sarah rests in peace and that God comforts her family. I’ve written about my loss of Joscelyne here: and here:

  • Sharon O

    sad stories.

  • Worthless Beast

    Wow, found this post in a roundabout way, tag-clicking. I usually don’t read stuff on the Evangelical channel here (I frequent the Progressive Christian channel), but I’m commenting because your line about bootstraps reminded me of a line I used in a short story I once wrote:

    The line featuring a person who’s survived an apparent end of the world, is the last person left, is scavenging an abandoned shoe store and playing with a kitten she found:

    Ring followed Sola to a shoe store. Sola felt lucky to find the front door open, though she found the chiming of the little bell mounted on the door’s corner eerie. The soles of her old runners were getting thin. She tried on a pair of dark leather work-boots, though she removed the straps. She sat on one of the chairs in the store’s front dangling a bootstrap in front of Ring, smiling at the kitten’s frantic antics.

    “You know, Ring?” she said, “I once had the thought to gather a whole bunch of these – bootstraps, I mean – and weave them into a noose to hang myself with. People all over the place tell you to ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ you know? It was going to be my answer to that.”

    As you may have guessed, said story is not the product of a sound mind. I’m bipolar and one of the ways I deal with it is by writing mind-screwy fiction, though I’m not yet paid to do so and don’t expect the novel I just put up on Kindle to be a success (link can be found on my main site there). It’s kind of sad that the first words off my typing fingers to online friends about that was “Okay, I’ve got something out in the ether, maybe I’ve fulfilled my life’s purpose and can finally die.”

    I struggle with thoughts of it all the time. I know part of it is brain-chemistry. Sometimes, when I get “triggered” I can only think of myself as a scar on Time, a worthless existence spinning its wheels, an evolutionary dead-end. Stupid for even *wanting* to believe that there might be a God out there – other things I talk about with the therapist I’ve newly gained (who is sometimes a little too New-Agey for me) and who’s not been present this Holiday season due in part to Northeast weather. Thankfully, I live with someone who loves me no matter what. (I have a line in the fantasy novel that’s currently Kindled about how “love is someone picking you up from a mental institution.” You know, as opposed to leaving you because you had to go to one for a while. My own blood family made me get a taxi home from the hospital after my first and only half-assed suicide attempt. It happened years ago, but I’m still angry about it. This is another thing: I have enough *spite* to keep me going sometimes. (Don’t poo-poo the power of hate. It can be a good thing). The flipside to the depression with me is usually anger, but anger can be a good thing.

    If you’re born with a bad brain, you have to find ways to get around it to survive. For me, it seems like it’s a combination of being too pissed off at the world to let it win half the time, finding the the right people for support, and creating stuff.

    I feel like I’ve said too much, but, hey, you spouted a line that was almost the same as something I put into one of my little freebie creative projects.