Who Was Jim: Guest Blog by Nancy Eigel-Miller

Ty: Sharing your story, in my estimation, is essential to the grieving process.

For those who lose a  loved one to suicide, sharing your story with someone who has felt and lived the same pain is life-giving.

I’m thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to share my story with and listen to the story of Nancy Eigel-Miller.

1N5 LogoSometime last year, I was searching for local resources to give to students and families that I speak with who are hoping to learn more about mental health, when I stumbled across 1N5. To my surprise, I discovered that the organization was founded and headquartered right here in Cincinnati, and the founder also happened to be a fellow Miami alum. On a whim, I sent a message to Nancy Miller to let her know how impressed I was with the work her organization was doing, and asked if she’d be interested in grabbing a coffee.

Over a dark roast at the Mariemont Starbucks, Nancy and I got to know one another. As you can imagine, she talked about 1N5, and I talked about Seeya Bub; but more than that, Nancy talked about her husband, Jim, and I talked about my Father, Scott. Our work in suicide prevention may have been what brought us together for coffee, but it was our mutual loss of a loved one to suicide that brought us to the arena to battle against a mutual enemy—and I’m thankful for Nancy’s graciousness, kindness, and mostly, her bravery.

I invited Nancy to share her story of her husband, Jim, here at Seeya Bub, and I’m honored that she agreed. Jim’s story, like my Dad’s, is one that is heartfelt, raw, and important for anyone who is suffering or grieving.


 Nancy: Jim had a big personality. He was loud and goofy, and he could fill a room with his energy. If you think of personalities like Robin Williams or John Belushi, that was Jim. He entertained people. But as we now know from those folks, that personality was likely a defense mechanism.

Nancy and Jim MilerHe was a great father, mentor, and friend. He was a soccer coach, a member of the pool board, and the Director of the Gallagher Center at Xavier University, where he worked for 23 years here in Cincinnati. Kids were drawn to him. He understood them and could always help them through whatever they were dealing with. He was a mentor to more students than I could count. At Xavier, he was in charge of the Student Government, ran the Student Activities Council, and was on the Disciplinary Board. He was always good at working with kids and just knowing when there was something wrong. Whenever a student got in trouble, he would reach out to try to get them back on track. I think it helped him to be able to help these kids. Jim was an amazing dad, too. By the time the girls were in about first grade, Jim started coaching soccer. He was great at it. He would get on their level and get really involved. He was a really hands-on parent, too. He was constantly dreaming up activities that the girls loved, like camping in the backyard, catching frogs, watching their favorite shows and laughing along with them. And he was always that parent who came into class all the time. He was just really close with the girls.

He also had a lot of hobbies. He was a big collector. He had this enormous Pez collection, and he had these acrylic display cases to show them all. The walls in our room were lined with these display cases, and he even had a Pez hospital down in the basement where he would fix broken Pez dispensers. He would take the girls to Pezomania conventions, and Elizabeth now has the acrylic display cases in storage so that she can display in her house someday. Once, when she was little, she was downstairs and got ahold of a rare Pez that somehow got broken. She came running upstairs and said, “Dad, the space man fell apart.” And Jim just fixed it up. He was also fascinated by Mail Pouch Tobacco Barns. We would drive around to find these barns, and he would get out and take pictures for hours, just leaving me in the car to wait. And he was so organized with his collections. All the photos had the dates and locations of when and where they were taken. He took pride in them.

When Jim was 10 years old, his father died of a heart attack. He had two older brothers, ages 14 and 18. Jim’s brothers and his mom took his dad’s death really hard. They struggled with depression, but everyone always said Jim was just different. But he was just a kid, so of course he was going to process it differently. He didn’t get a lot of support from home, so people in the community started to take him under their wing and help him out. Later on, in high school, he became an avid runner. He ran the mile and won the state title. He’s in the Mariemont Hall of Fame. He ran all through his adult life, too. He ran 5k’s, organized a group of Mariemont runners to compete in the Little Miami Triathlon, and even ran a marathon once. He would run 8-10 miles a day until, a few years before he passed, both of his knees started giving him problems. He couldn’t run the way he used to, and that really discouraged him. He would say, “My spirit can’t soar anymore.” I’m not a runner, and I never really knew what he meant by that, but looking back now, I’m sure that was one thing that really impacted his mental health. Running was always his saving grace, and when he lost it, I think he lost part of himself.

On July 28, 2008, Jim didn’t come home from work. Every day, he would always get home around 5:30 PM. Both of the girls were out that night. Elizabeth, who was 17 at the time, got back home around 7 p.m., and I told her Dad wasn’t home and wasn’t answering his phone. We got in the car, drove to Xavier, and kept trying to call. Around 9 PM, I called my parents and they came over for the night. Kate, who was 15, got home a little later. We called the police, but they wouldn’t do anything until he had been missing for 48 hours. We were all so worried, so it was a sleepless night. The next morning, we called the Xavier Chief of Police, who happened to be a friend of Jim’s. He told us to come over to Xavier. The Xavier police asked us so many questions all morning until about 11:30 a.m. Then they left for about an hour and a half. At about 1 p.m., they came back and asked me to come with them. They had found out what happened to Jim, and they told me first. He had driven to Chillicothe the night before—that’s where his parents are from—and stayed at a hotel. When they told me what happened, I couldn’t even process it. How could this happen? Jim never spoke of being depressed. He never even talked about being sad. I made the decision to tell the girls right away. Telling them was the hardest thing I have ever done. We clung to each other and asked to go home.

The Xavier folks drove us home. The car ride was silent, broken only by the sound of sobs. Right away, you start questioning how something like this could happen. You start questioning every conversation from the past few months. You try to make sense of it. Jim didn’t leave any kind of note to explain his decision. It was hard not to blame myself. How could I not have seen something was wrong? Did I do something? Did something happen before this? Something at work? Was he sick? Was there something else we didn’t know? But then, it became clear from somewhere outside myself that we were going to be very transparent. We were going to talk about what happened. That decision changed everything for us. We hoped that we could help someone else. The same year that Jim passed, seven other parents of students in Elizabeth’s senior class passed away. The school would always send out notes and ask for prayers for the families, but they didn’t do anything for us because Jim died by suicide. It made me so angry that I went to the school, and they wound up changing that policy. I didn’t want another family to have to go through that experience.

The next few days were a total blur. People filled the house, and there were so many decisions that needed to be made. But I just felt sort of numb. Kate was supposed to babysit that night, and she called that family to tell them she couldn’t come. This random family that I didn’t know very well…they were the first to know what happened. They were the first to come by. And then my mom started making phone calls. People started showing up, bringing food and flowers. The girls and I were sort of in a daze, just sitting in the living room as people filtered in and out. We were adamant, though, to tell funny stories about Jim so that it didn’t feel so heavy all the time. We asked people to write stories about him, and I still have binders full of stories from families, friends, coworkers, students who all knew and loved Jim.

Even with the love and support of family and friends, grief is hard. But I was very clear on what we had to do as a family. We had to have open conversation. Nothing was off limits. We went to counseling, we counted on each other, we had to go down to the depths of our pain in order to move forward. We had to process everything—all the feelings of guilt, anger, fear, frustration, grief—so they wouldn’t resurface later in life. I decided that we were going to walk through the fire. It was the only way we could come out healthy on the other side. I pushed the girls to confront their emotions at the time. We decided we would let our feelings show, so we spent a lot of time crying. But we were always there for each other.

About two weeks after Jim passed, my dad sat me down and said to me, “This is the deal, you’ve had a great life. You had a great marriage. You have great kids and a great support system. You are going to hold your head high and fight through this. We are here to support you, but let’s go.” My dad golfed with a man whose wife was a psychologist. He connected the two of us, and she spent hours with me, educating me on mental health and what I had missed with Jim. She helped me realize that mental health starts at a young age and that Jim, in all likelihood, knew early on that he suffered from depression. He created that big personality as a sort of mask. He entertained everyone else and had to engage at a very high level to boost his own serotonin. He was also very compassionate, which is another common trait in those living with depression. With this knowledge, I decided that I had the ability to help others, and I wasn’t afraid to talk about my experience.

That October, we held the first Jim Miller Memorial Mile, which was more of a celebration rather than a fundraiser. A group of 12 guys that Jim knew put it together, led by a close friend of his. The first year, about 800 people came. The second year, only about 400 came. After the second year, the girls said, “This is going to go away, and we will have done nothing.” We decided we needed to do more, so we started the Warrior Run, a 5K fundraiser. I knew I wanted to help kids because that was Jim’s passion. I also knew mental health issues start early on, yet no one was really doing anything to educate youth on mental health or mental illness. I did a lot of research and discovered the Surviving the Teens program at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. When I met Dr. Sorter, the Medical Director of Psychiatry at CCHMC, I knew I’d met a kindred soul. We donated the funds from the Warrior Run to that program, and we as 1N5 continue to support it at an increasing level. Now, Surviving the Teens has transformed into Adapting for Life, and the program is being implemented in 70 greater Cincinnati schools.

We continued with the Warrior Run for a few years until Memorial Day, 2014 when Brogan Dulle and Santa Ono changed my life. Brogan, a University of Cincinnati student, was missing for eight days leading up to Memorial Day. Thousands of people joined the search, and he was found the night before Memorial Day. He had died by suicide. The next morning, I woke up, went to work, and wrote a note to Santa Ono, then President of UC. We needed to do something. Our children were suffering in silence. Santa invited me to his office and shared his own story with me. He had attempted suicide twice in his life, once at age 14 and once at age 29, and was diagnosed with depression. He had never shared his story publicly, but he believed in our mission to promote youth mental health education and stigma reduction. So that’s how 1N5 began. I decided to quit my job and work on the organization full time. Two years later, Santa told his story at the first 1N5 fundraising event in April of 2016.

1N5 has come a long way since then. We started out working with just a few schools, but the more you talk to people, the more you learn that the need is high. We also realized that the youth voice is extremely important in the conversation about mental health. So we started creating #iAM1N5 videos. Through the videos, we were able to create a connection by being real and being open. Suddenly, people realized they were not alone. We wanted to break down barriers to allow people to talk about their mental health. It’s been a building process since then. I realized that with an organization like this, you have to meet people where they are. Different organizations, different schools, different demographics all have different needs. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. And I never like to say no. I’ve made it a priority to meet with anyone who wants to meet with me, and we’ve made a lot of incredible connections that way. As an organization, we’ve already made huge strides in the Cincinnati area, but the goal is to take it even further. We are currently working with 65 local schools and all 5 major universities in Greater Cincinnati, but we’re constantly pushing forward, constantly asking, “How can we do this better?” My hope for 1N5 is to be in every school in Greater Cincinnati and, ideally, figure out how to take our model and spread it to other cities. Our vision is a community of youth with optimal mental health so that they can grow into their best selves.

My journey has taught me that life is a roller coaster. We are here to learn lessons. Before July of 2008, my life was sailing along until it took a dramatic turn. In that moment, I had to decide how I would handle what life had thrown at me. The choices I made defined both where and who I am today. I put my trust in the universe and the connections that show up. Going through that journey has taught me to live and cherish every moment. Love fully, laugh often, speak your truth, be honest to a fault, guide yourself with a strong moral compass, and believe in the power of the universe. Be open—you never know where someone will take you. Find the good in every situation. I know that I am very fortunate to have a clear head. I do not personally live with mental illness, but continuing to grow as an individual and educating others on mental health is very important to me. Since Jim passed, I have experienced many amazing things. I would never wish this tragedy on anyone, but because of the path that it’s led me down, I am in a much better place and am so thankful.


Ty: Bravery. When I read Nancy’s story, that’s the word that keeps coming to mind for me. From the moment she lost Jim, Nancy dug deep inside and found the bravery to always talk openly with her daughters, family, and friends about Jim’s death. In her grief, Nancy found the bravery to start an organization that is saving lives day by day.

Nancy’s story is a case study in bravery for anyone who is grieving, and a reminder that we can take our pain and turn it into a purpose. 1N5 is transforming the way we talk about mental illness in our schools and with our adolescents who are at such a vulnerable and formative age. Years from now, Nancy and those who serve and support 1N5 will see the fruits of their labors as individuals who were susceptible to suicide no longer follow that path.

But perhaps most importantly, Nancy’s bravery in sharing her story is helping those who are suffering from mental illness to talk openly and avoid falling prey to the stigma that stole her husband and my father. Watch a video published by 1N5 or follow them on Instagram and you’ll find people—openly and willingly—talking about their pain, their struggles, their fears, and their hope for the future. It’s the type of conversation that is freeing and soul-quenching because it helps us remove the masks that we all wear. It’s normalizing the way we talk about mental illness—and ultimately, it will save lives.

Although I never met Jim, I see so many similarities between him and my Dad. They loved life, they loved fun, and they loved their families. When you lose someone who loves that much, it can be hard to bounce back. My heart breaks for Nancy and her entire family because Jim was such a force for good in the world around him—but his memory is living on thanks to the courage he instilled in Nancy and his daughters. And that, in the end, is the hope that all of us who have lost a loved one to suicide share. We hope that, as time wears on, those we loved will never be forgotten. And thanks to Nancy, Jim never will be.

Dad and Lucy in Pool with SB LogoDad, I wish you had been able to feel free of shame. I wish you had been able to talk openly about your mental illness, especially during the times when you likely felt so alone. I wish that individuals like you and Jim could have known, deep down, just how much you were loved and how much you would be missed. But, from a distance, I hope you’re able to see how much you were loved by the work being done in your memory. Dad, you were so loved by so many, and I know that you knew that in the depths of your soul—I only wish that the stigma associated with mental illness had not been there to help you remember that in each and every moment. But, for as long as I live, I’ll continue to honor your memory and work to make sure that everyone who listens learns from your life. I’m thankful and grateful that there is a community of individuals, like Nancy, who are in this same fight. Dad, I can’t wait to tell you how important you are to me and so many other people. I look forward to the day when I can embrace you again and let you know how much you mean to me. Until that day, seeya Bub.

1N5 Logo

To learn more about the amazing and important work being done by 1N5 to stop the stigma surrounding mental illness, and to donate to help their efforts reach even more students, please visit www.1N5.org.

Nancy Eigel-MillerAuthor Bio: Nancy Eigel-Miller, Founder & Director, 1N5

Nancy Eigel-Miller, Founder and Executive Director of 1N5, created the James W. Miller Memorial Fund in 2010 after losing her husband to suicide. Prior to founding 1N5, Nancy worked in the marketing/market research field for over 20 years where she spent much of her career at Gardner Business Media. Nancy’s fierce passion and dedication to STOP the STIGMA that surrounds mental health and raise awareness by bringing mental health education to greater Cincinnati schools has resulted in reaching over 87,000 students and raising over $1M for mental health programming. Nancy recently received the regional Jefferson Award for Public Service for her efforts in destigmatizing mental health. Nancy then attended the Jefferson Awards Foundation’s National Ceremony, along with 75 other regional award recipients, where she won one of five Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Awards for Outstanding Public Serve Benefitting Local Communities. Nancy holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Miami University. Nancy is on the board of MindPeace and the Cincinnati Children’s Convalescent Home.

“Selfish”

As I was driving into work this morning (I began writing this post on June 8), I received an alert from my phone from CNN. Just a day prior, I had received a similar alert regarding the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) recent study release, which found that suicide rates have increased by 25% over the past two decades in the United States.[1] It hit home in ways I never predicted it would.

On that next morning, I looked down at my phone, and I really couldn’t believe what I saw. Television star Anthony Bourdain was dead at the age of 61 from an apparent suicide. Just earlier in the week, fashion designer Kate Spade also died from an apparent suicide.

Before I write any further, I want to first say a few things about my context in regards to these two situations. During his life, I don’t want to claim I was a fan of Bourdain’s work. I never watched his shows (not out of hostility, more just a lack of interest). In the same vein, I don’t want to portend that I was a huge fan of Kate Spade either. I’ve never carried a Kate Spade bag…or any bag for that matter. I don’t want to posthumously conflate any feelings I had towards these two individuals while they were alive. I also don’t claim to know much about their lives (other than the few things I’ve seen in the news), and I don’t claim to know all of the things they were dealing with in their lives. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about either of their lives, other than the sad, untimely ways in which they ended.

Nonetheless, it doesn’t lessen the sadness I feel when I read about these two talented individuals who are gone too soon and unnecessarily. Just because Bourdain and Spade were celebrities doesn’t make their death any more tragic than anyone else who dies from suicide. It also doesn’t make it less tragic. Behind the celebrity façade are family members, friends, colleagues, and neighbors that are left behind with questions—questions they will have for their entire lives.

What I’m writing about, however, is not Bourdain’s death, but a reaction to it. An unfortunate reaction that I think pervades most of our society when issues related to suicide arise. A reaction that is all too common. And a reaction that we must discourage in order to remove the stigma behind mental illness and suicide. Let me tell you the story.

A local radio personality in Cincinnati who I follow on Facebook (and won’t name here) reacted to the news. This individual posted the news of Bourdain’s death along with a short comment:

“So sad. Such a talent. We all have our demons. #anthonybourdain”

Shortly thereafter, a woman I’ll call Jean responded:

“I agree, but I am also ragingly ANGRY. He leaves a daughter. HOW SELFISH can someone be?!? I hope she [his daughter] is shielded from the publicity…”

And, the radio personality wrote back:

“I can’t disagree.”

He can, and he should. He should disagree. Dear friends, we need to talk about this type of reaction because it’s ill-informed, harmful, and ignorant.

First, let me say this. Although social media has many wonderful benefits, I largely despise it for what it has created in our lives. It creates an unbelievable sense of competition because it falsely projects the image that “everyone but me is living the perfect life.” In fact, I have no doubt that the increase in suicide rates in our country is largely influenced by the prevalence of social media in our lives. In many cases, I think social media disconnects people more than it actually connects them.

Along those same lines, I don’t often see the value of litigating every single comment made on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or any other network. I sure hope that every single comment I ever made on Facebook isn’t brought back to vilify me years after I wrote it. I’m not writing this post to vilify the radio host or Jean (neither of whom I’ve ever met) or anyone else. I’m writing this post as a contemplation on the larger societal attitudes towards suicide as a “selfish” act.

However, I do think it’s important to recognize that this type of attitude and speech surrounding suicide is common. I hear it often—mostly from people who don’t yet know that my own life has been darkly wounded by suicide.

Search the web for “suicide is selfish” and you’ll find any host of authors or commentators who agree with this sentiment. You’ll find articles written by people like Lesly Salazar that read “I still think suicide is selfish and no, I’m not ignorant for believing so.”

Again, my goal is not to vilify these individuals. I vehemently disagree with them. I disagree with everything they believe about suicide and mental illness. I think their positions and their statements are ill-founded, ill-conceived, hurtful, damaging, and dangerous. I think that, had their lives been touched by suicide like mine was (and I’m glad theirs hasn’t been), they might think differently and more compassionately. I write this not to tear them down as human beings. I write this to hopefully educate them. I write this post to hopefully share with them a different understanding of suicide—from an individual who lives with the pain it creates each and every day.

Suicide is not selfish, because mental illness is not selfish. It’s as simple as that.

Those of us who have lived with and loved individuals who suffer from mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or any other host of illnesses know that those individuals do not consciously choose their illness. People do not choose to be depressed. People do not choose to be anxious. People do not choose to hear voices in their head that tell them they aren’t enough and never will be. People do not choose to be mentally ill.

We know that we don’t choose to be mentally ill because we can’t explain why we feel the way we do in regards to mental illnesses. And although we don’t have an extremely thorough understanding of the physical factors and mechanisms behind mental illness, we do know that there are often biological mechanisms at play. We know that there are regulating chemicals within our brain that can change over time, and the incorrect balance of those neurochemicals and transmitters can create or prolong a mental illness. And if we know that mental illnesses can have a biological root, why in God’s name would we ever, ever accuse someone of being selfish if they die as a result of their illness?

If you’ve ever had a family member die from cancer, would you ever call that person’s death “selfish”? If you’ve ever had a friend die from heart failure, would you ever call them “selfish” for their weak heart? If you have ever had anyone in your life die from an inexplicable physical illness, would you ever dare insult that person’s memory by calling their death “selfish”?

No, you wouldn’t.

And no, we shouldn’t.

I can already anticipate the retort from individuals who disagree with me: “But if we don’t say that suicide is a selfish act, it will encourage other people to do it. There will be no penalty against it. The belief that suicide is selfish actually keeps people from attempting suicide.”

Tell that to the CDC. If that’s the case, why hasn’t the stigma worked up to this point? If most of society thinks this way (and I believe they do), why have suicide rates risen by 25% in just two decades? The belief that suicide is selfish doesn’t discourage people from attempting suicide; it actually exacerbates their feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and unworthiness.

Dad and Grandma Bradshaw
My Dad with my Great-Grandma Lucille Bradshaw.

My Dad’s story is the perfect example. My father was the most selfless man who ever walked the planet. He did nothing for personal gain, notoriety, or ambition. My Dad was a giver. My Dad was the man who would take an entire Saturday to help someone build a porch on their back deck. When my Grandfather had a stroke that left him largely immobile, my Dad was the man who spent weeks completely redesigning his home bathroom so my Grandpa could easily navigate his wheelchair into the shower. My Dad drove a truck, and I can’t even begin to count the multitude of times that people would need my Dad’s truck to haul something. And every single time, they got the truck—and they got my Dad to help. He gave money to those in his life who needed it, even when prudence likely told him he would never see a dime of that money again. But more than anything, my Dad gave of his most precious resource—time. There was no such thing as a conversation going too long. My Dad could (and did) talk with anyone he came in contact with. His conversations were never about him, but making others around him feel loved.

Dad Mom and I After All Star GameAnd my Dad was a completely selfless Father. As a child, he spent every minute he had making sure I was entertained and happy in life, even on days when he was likely tired and exhausted from work. When I was in high school, my Mom and Dad took an entire weekend to redo my bedroom to make it more appropriate for a young man in adolescence (the motif went from childhood baseball to vintage baseball—and I loved it!). If my truck broke down in high school (which was a semi-regular occurrence), my Dad was the first person there to help me. And although I’m sure there were many other exciting places he would have rather been, he was always in the stands anytime I announced a basketball or baseball game.

He was selfless. Not selfish. And the mechanism of his death doesn’t change this.

It wouldn’t make sense for someone who has lived their entire life with a code of honor that embodies selflessness to all of a sudden abandon that. My Dad’s death was out of character because, on that morning, he was not himself. His depression had so deeply overtaken his mind that his proper thought processes were disabled. I was there that morning. I saw my Dad before he died. And I can tell you, he wasn’t acting selfish. He was acting hurt, and scared, and completely debilitated.

And here’s the key. As crazy as this may sound, the truth is that it was actually my Dad’s misguided selflessness, not selfishness, that ended his life.

Let me be clear: None of this makes my Dad’s death right, acceptable, or just. None of it. It also doesn’t make it selfish.

My Dad was such a giver that he couldn’t imagine letting those around him down. He couldn’t imagine admitting failure to those he loved and took care of. He couldn’t imagine not being able to help himself after his entire life had been dedicated to helping others. Again, none of this is an excuse. None of this justifies his death. None of this makes his death right because his death isn’t right. It was unnecessary, and premature, and unwanted.

But it wasn’t selfish.

I don’t place the blame at my Dad’s feet—nor should anyone else. Are there things I would do differently? Yes. Are there things I wish my Dad had done differently? Absolutely. Do I wish my Dad’s story wouldn’t have ended on that fateful July morning? I pray this every single night.

But his death wasn’t selfish. And no one has the right to condemn his character (or anyone else’s) with such unjustifiable certainty. They do damage to that person’s legacy; but they also do significant damage to all of those left behind.

It’s not just the person who dies from suicide that is disgraced and discouraged by a “suicide is selfish” attitude—it’s the survivors left behind to grapple with their grief that are just as negatively impacted by this type of attitude.

I want you to imagine this scenario as you read and feel the intensity of the moment I’m describing. Your Father, the man you loved with every fiber of your being, has just died. From suicide. A vibrant, enthusiastic life has just been ripped away without warning. One minute, you’re hugging the broad shoulders that have carried the burdens of your entire family for a generation, and the next you’re standing next to his casket. You look down at that casket and the hundreds of people who have gathered to say goodbye, and you wish more than anything that your Dad would just get up—but he won’t. He’ll never come home again. You’ve cried more tears in a few days than you ever have in your entire life combined, and your pain and grief are inexplicable and inescapable. You’ve had many sleepless nights, and you’ll continue to have them for as long as you live. Just when you think life is establishing a new normal, you’ll wake up in the middle of the night screaming in terror as the horror of those moments replays over and over and over again. All of this is ahead of you as you stand at that funeral, and the weight is crushing.

And then, someone comes up to the casket. They shake your hand, express their condolences, and then say this:

“What a selfish act.”

How do you feel? Did it help?

No, it doesn’t—and it never will.

I’m thankful that this type of reaction never happened to me directly, but reading comments filled with a self-righteous fervor that accuse a suicide victim of being selfish from people I don’t even know is just as hurtful. I’ll return to Jean’s comment and ask you this: If she was so concerned with the well-being of Anthony Bourdain’s daughter, why would she immediately castigate his memory by completely minimizing his suffering? If Jean was so concerned about Anthony Bourdain’s daughter, why would she make a comment that will do absolutely nothing to help this young woman grieve? I have no doubt that Anthony Bourdain’s daughter, like me, loved her Father. By calling his unfortunate death “selfish,” Jean’s comment doesn’t help the grieving—it hurts and wounds them.

I go to bed every single night wishing that my Dad was still around. If people, like Jean, think that somehow letting me know that my Dad’s death was selfish will heal me from my grief, I’m here to tell them it won’t.

Suicide is not selfish, but that doesn’t automatically make it selfless either. An act can be neither selfless or selfish, and we shouldn’t be tricked into the fallacy of outright-certainty in an area as delicate as this.

But suicide is devastating. And it’s life-altering. Suicide is debilitating. It’s irreversible. It’s awful. And terrible. And it’s never, ever okay.

But it’s not selfish. And it’s not selfless. It’s just awful.

I don’t believe individuals who die from suicide are selfish at their core. They are suffering. Suffering from a disease that is awful and confusing. A disease we don’t understand.

So, when we don’t understand the complexities of this life, we shouldn’t self-righteously claim that we do.

I don’t know Jean’s story, but based on her attitude, I highly doubt that her life has ever been touched by suicide. And guess what? I’m really, really thankful for that. I don’t want anyone to ever have to live through the pain my family has endured after losing my Dad. But because we’ve lived through it, and because we knew the man my Dad was, we don’t talk about suicide like she does. We don’t say my Dad’s death was selfish because it wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong—we pray and wish every single day that it hadn’t happened. But it wasn’t selfish.

I’ve written this before, but I’ll say it again: Your words matter. The words you choose each and every day have tremendous power—power to heal pain, but also to inflict it. But words are more than just words. They reveal an attitude. They reveal beliefs. They reveal core values. When self-righteous individuals scream with certainty that suicide is selfish, it causes the survivors of suicide to question everything about our loved ones. Did they really love us? Did they really mean it when they said they cared? Were they selfish?

Survivors of suicide have enough to deal with when it comes to grief. We don’t need the haughty judgement of individuals who claim to have all the answers to explain why our loved ones are no longer here. We feel that pain every single day, and it’s actually selfish for others to minimize our loved ones’ suffering.

My faith in Jesus Christ teaches me that I’m not meant to have all the answers in this life. I shouldn’t claim to be all-knowing, because when I do, I’m claiming to be God. I don’t know why suicide happens. I don’t know why God allows mental illness to persist. So, I don’t claim to have all the answers. Corrie ten Boom said it best: “A religion that is small enough for our understanding would not be big enough for our needs.” 

So, unlike all the people shouting about the selfishness of suicide, I won’t stand on the mountaintop and claim to completely understand the suffering in the world around me. Instead, I’ll attempt to be compassionate. Instead, I’ll try and realize that individuals—selfless individuals—are hurting without being able to explain why.

And as hard as it might be, I won’t give up on people like Jean. Or anyone who currently believes that suicide is selfish. Even though their words cut through my heart like a knife, I’ll still believe that they can learn and grow. Because as hard as it is for me to admit, there was probably a time in my life before my Dad died from suicide where I thought just like they did. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve changed and I’ve grown—and they can, too. I’ll still believe that Jesus is not quite done with them yet, just as he’s not yet done with me. I’ll still believe that they will someday realize that suicide isn’t a willing act, but one that occurs when the body and mind are in a frenetic, uncontrollable, irrational state. Because I’m still a work in progress, I’ll believe they are too.

But more than anything, I’ll just keep loving my Dad because he selflessly loved me.

Dad and I on Scrambler at Kings Island with SB LogoDad, It hurts my heart tremendously when I think that there are people out there who think your death is selfish. It pains me when I hear individuals say that death from suicide is selfish because they didn’t understand your pain. They didn’t see the despair in your eyes on that last day. They didn’t see the years that you suffered. They didn’t see how badly you wanted to be healthy. They didn’t live with the unnecessary shame that you lived with for so long. Dad, none of this makes your death and absence any easier. None of this makes the pain of losing you any less real. And yes, I wish things had gone differently on the morning of July 24, 2013—for you, for me, and for all of us. But you suffered from a disease that you didn’t understand. A disease that not even medical professionals completely understand. You died because this disease took over your brain, and I hope you know that I understand this. It doesn’t make your death right, and more than anything I wish you were still here, living the life you always lived to the fullest. But I’ve never been angry with you for your death. I’ve never loved you any less—and I never will. Dad, you are not defined by your death, but by the tremendously selfless life you led. I’m so sorry if you ever felt like you weren’t enough for us, Dad. You were always enough. You lived a completely selfless life, and I wish I was able to remind you of that. Until that day, I’ll keep fighting for your legacy. I’ll keep fighting, alongside God, to redeem the pain of losing you in an effort to try and prevent this pain in the lives of others. And until that day when I can tell you just how selfless you were, seeya Bub.

“Those who think they know something still have a lot to learn.” 1 Corinthians 8:2 (GW)

[1]https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/suicide/

The Church Must Speak (Part 2): Stigmas

This is Part 2 in a special three-part series on the Christian church and mental illness. Please make sure you check out Part 1: Silence.

Unspoken prayer requests are unspoken for a reason.

I know that not every unspoken prayer request is related to mental illness; but I do think that a large majority of those who suffer from mental illness are afraid to make it known.

And the last place they should be afraid is the Christian church.

But they are.

When I started this series, the easy part was realizing that the Christian church largely stays silent on the topic of mental illness. The difficult part was understanding why. Why would a caring, loving church stay silent on a topic that affects so many parishioners who sit in the pews week in and week out? Why would the church choose to stay silent when people are broken and hurting? When lives are being lost? When families are being torn apart?

There’s a reason why those unspoken requests continue to remain unspoken.

The stigmas that surround mental illness, although mostly untrue, are just as pervasive in the church as they are in any other institution in our society. And these stigmas are preventing people from finding the peace they deserve—and the love that Christ wants them to experience.


So what are these stigmas? What are these faulty thoughts surrounding mental illness and suicide? Why are they still alive in the modern church? How foolish are they? And what can we do to counter them? I have my ideas.

To prevent these stigmas from spreading, we’ve got to understand just how faulty they actually are. So, for the rest of this post, I’m going to ask you to engage in a bit of a metaphor with me.

I want you to imagine that a man comes to your church with a broken leg. He hobbles in on crutches. A huge, fiberglass cast holds his shattered bones into place. After some uncomfortable shuffling, he eventually finds a pew near the back of the church in an attempt to avoid the eyes of his fellow worshipers.

Now, imagine that you notice this man. And imagine that you immediately judge him negatively because of his broken leg. Or you question his walk with God. Or worse…you completely ignore him and his pain.

Crazy, right?

If someone has a broken leg in the church, we don’t ask any questions about why their leg is broken, but we offer to help. In any way we can.

If someone in the church has a brain function or thought process that is broken, however, our reaction is very, very different. And this differentiation is at the heart of the stigmas that prevent the Christian church, largely, from serving the mentally ill.

That, my friends, is the heart of my argument. Although the response and treatment for an injured leg and an injured brain are vastly different, our Christian response to each of those injuries should operate from the same exact place of love and compassion, not judgement. We must counter the stigmas; but to counter them, we have to call them out, one by one. Although there are many stigmas about mental illness that run rampant in both the church and everyday American society, I believe these three are the most particularly dangerous and damaging.

STIGMA 1: If you suffer from mental illness, your spirit is weak, your faith is low, or you are distant from God. Situate this stigma in the context of the conversation we had just a moment ago. Imagine if I had the audacity to question the physical or spiritual fortitude of the man with the broken leg. “Man, you must have some pretty weak bones there fella,” I would say to him. Or “That’s what you get for not drinking enough milk!” Or worse, imagine if I said, “Wow, what did you do to make God so mad that he broke your leg?!” If I ever responded to anyone with a broken leg with an attitude like that, everyone in the church would immediately call me a hypocrite. They would call out my lack of compassion—rightly so!

But there are believers in the Christian church each and every day who make those same judgments about their brothers and sisters who suffer from mental illness. They secretly call them crazy. They avoid interaction with these people. They question whether or not they actually believe in God at all.

This type of thinking is completely unacceptable.

I can’t speak to the root of each and every person’s own individual struggle with mental illness. I can’t say with 100% certainty that all cases of mental illness have nothing to do with a larger spiritual battle. But I can say that believing every case of mental illness stems from a person’s personal walk with Christ is foolish.

And I can also say I’ve encountered this stigma.

No, I’ve never interacted with someone after my Dad’s death who comes right out and says, “Your Father must have been mad at or distant from God,” but they don’t have to come right out and say it. I can see it in their eyes. I can tell that they don’t want to engage because they think of my Father as someone who must have had little faith in God.

But I can tell you that my Dad believed in God. He believed in the power of the Cross. He loved Jesus—and more importantly lived his life in a way that showed people how much he loved Jesus. But my Father’s mind was highjacked by a horrible, complex, and devastating disease. Just like someone who loses a family member to cancer or heart disease, I lost my Father to suicide. Suicide, a debilitating disease that clouds the mind and warps the senses stole my Father. In fact, I think my Father’s faith is probably the thing that allowed him to fight as successfully as he did for so long.

I think one of the most Christ-like things we can do is admit that sometimes, we just don’t know why certain things happen. And I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always understand depression and mental illness. It could be spiritual, for some. It could be neurochemical and physiological for others. It could be brought on by dire circumstances or a whole host of other influences. But, like Jesus, I want to listen to people who are hurting. I want to listen to people who are suffering, hear their stories, and help them find comfort in the arms of Christ. And if I automatically assume that every battle with depression is entirely spiritual in nature, I’m missing the point of Jesus’ ministry—and so is His church.

STIGMA 2: Suicide is the unforgivable sin, and if you’ve ever entertained it or had suicidal ideations, you’ll never be forgiven. As a Christian, you should just know this isn’t an option. Somehow, we’ve come to believe in the church that suicide is a sin that is elevated above any other—and, unfortunately, we lump mental illness into this bucket of “unforgivable sins” that don’t actually exist.

Go back to the poor man I described in the previous section with a bum leg. Put yourself in his shoes (and cast). Imagine if someone told you that your struggle to stay healthy must be a punishment from God for some sin you had committed. Would it make you want to serve Him? Or would it scare you?

I don’t know about you, but I serve a loving God. I serve a compassionate, forgiving God. And I serve a God who says I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you” (Isaiah 44:22, NIV).

Unfortunately, there are a whole host of people in the larger Christian church who, whether consciously or underneath the surface, believe that there is something unforgivable about mental illness and suicide. I don’t understand this, and I never will.

Charles Stanley is one of the most knowledgeable Christian speakers and scholars of our time, and I remember being given a copy of his book Emotions by my pastor, Harville, after my Dad’s death. I tore through page after page because I loved Stanley’s approach to dealing with our emotions (more on Stanley’s book in the Library section), but then my heart froze when I got to page 243 in a chapter entitled “Despair.” My eyes fixed on the word “suicide”, and I began to panic. My palms began to sweat because I was afraid of what might come next. Stanley is a Baptist minister who started his career behind the pulpit in the 1970’s, and I made assumptions about his beliefs on suicide. I worried that a man like Stanley—a studied and learned man—was going to tell me something about my Father’s eternity that my heart couldn’t bear to hear.

And then, with the tenderness I needed in just that moment, Stanley penned the words that my broken heart needed to hear. He wrote:

“Now, before we move on, let me clear up a misconception I frequently hear repeated. If you or someone you love has attempted suicide, please be assured that it is not the unpardonable sin. Some believe it is because the person does not have the opportunity to repent, but nothing in God’s Word suggests suicide will not be forgiven” (p. 246).

I put down the book, and I began crying. God knows my heart, and He knows I’m a natural skeptic, and he knew that I would need the perspective of a Biblical scholar like Charles Stanley to convince me that my Dad’s heart—and his Eternity—belonged to the Lord and Savior he served.

And it’s not just Stanley. After reading his book, I sought out more and more perspectives. And everywhere I looked I found the same thing from Christian scholars I knew I could trust—mental illness and suicide are not the unpardonable sin.

But the words of men shouldn’t be enough to convince us. Those of us in the Church should let everything we do be dictated by the Word of God, and nowhere in the Bible am I able to find evidence that those who suffer from mental illness or suicidal ideations are not welcome at the foot of the Cross.

In fact, I find example after example of broken, hurting people finding comfort in the arms of Jesus Christ.

Don’t miss what I’m saying—I don’t want to minimize the devastating impact of suicide. It’s horrible and it’s irreversible. It leaves a chaotic imprint on the hearts and minds of those who are left behind to deal with the trauma, anguish, and confusion. My Dad’s death has put questions on my heart that I know I’ll never have answers to on this side of Eternity. This one isn’t easy. We have to find a way to talk about mental illness and suicide in the Church without encouraging emotionally vulnerable and hurting people to do something they might regret. We have to let them know that even though all of our sins are forgiven, it doesn’t erase the collateral damage that a suicide might inflict. In showing God’s love, the suffering and potentially suicidal person will hopefully see the love of a fellow Christian that will encourage them to find help.

But in order to even bring those people into the conversation, we have to make them feel loved. And sending them the signal that their pain is unforgivable will immediately close off their path to the Cross.

STIGMA 3: I want to help you, but I don’t know how. In the Lifeway study that I shared last week, a large number of pastors who said they don’t regularly talk about the topic of mental health in their churches brought up a common reason for avoiding the subject: they said they aren’t prepared to help those people who are suffering. They worried that they didn’t have the knowledge or academic background or expertise to aid the mentally ill and potentially suicidal, so they avoided the topic all together.

Guess what? You’re more equipped than you think you are. We all are.

Let’s jump back to my metaphor once more. Imagine going up to the person with the broken leg in your church and saying “I would love to help you, but I’m not a doctor and I don’t know anything about how to mend bones. So best of luck!” It’s ludicrous, but it’s also what we are doing with mental health.

Pastors and church leaders, you are right. I don’t expect you to have the same knowledge as a trained clinical professional in the field of psychology. I also don’t expect you to have the medical knowledge of a physician, but I do expect you to talk about dealing with tragic illnesses. I don’t expect you to have the training and knowledge of a financial planner, but I do expect you to talk to Christians about their finances and God’s perspective on money and wealth. I don’t expect you to have the scientific background of Einstein, but I do expect you to talk about how Christians should treat the gift of God’s Creation.

So yes, I expect you to talk about mental illness, even if you don’t have all the answers.

You may not have the academic training or credentials, but you do have the wherewithal and perspective on the power of the Holy Spirit to direct hurting and broken people to the resources they need. No, you may not be able to fix the problem yourself—but isn’t that the point? Isn’t the true message of following Christ a desire to let the Holy Spirit work in our lives to pick us up when we can stand no longer? Isn’t the point of the Church to bring together people with different talents and functions and backgrounds to serve God and serve one another? You might not be able to solve the problem for that person, but you can pray for a solution. You can pray over their problem with them and pray for answers from above. Those answers may come in the form of a Christian counselor, a medical physician, or a clinical psychologist or therapist who can help that suffering person find the treatment they deserve.

I’ll say it as clearly as I know how: A lack of knowledge is not an excuse for a lack of empathy.

And that help is exactly why I write. I don’t point out the faults of the Christian church’s approach to mental illness purely as a critic. I come to the table desperately seeking solutions. I come to this conversation with a positive and optimistic belief that, together, God’s people can unite as a strong army in the fight against mental illness, depression, and suicide. I believe that we can counter these stigmas head on in our congregations and communities, and I believe we can change the world, just like our Father calls us to do.

I recognize the silence. I know there are stigmas.

What do we to counter all of this?

I’ll offer those solutions in next week’s conclusion.

Dad, I’m ashamed to say that it took your struggle and your death for me to realize just how hard the struggle to overcome mental illness really is. And it took losing you to soften my heart for other people who are hurting. It took watching you suffer to realize that mental illness is complex and hard to understand. It took your hurt for me to understand that mental illness is unpredictable and so very difficult to counter. It took losing you for me to understand how the judgement of mental illness weighs on an already heavy heart. It took losing you for me to realize that there are simple ways to help hurting people that might make all the difference. Dad, I think about you each and every day, and I think what more I could have done as a son and as a fellow follower of Jesus Christ to help you find the comfort and peace that you deserved. But I know, deep down, you’ve found an abundant and everlasting peace in Heaven. I would do anything I could to have you back here with me, but for now I’ll fight to help others who, like you, are hurting and fearful that they will never find acceptance. I love you, Dad, and I miss you dearly. Until my fight is complete, seeya Bub.

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18 (NIV)