Tearing Down the Stigma Behind Suicide: Bravely Talking About Mental Illness

By Pamela Henkelman

God's Brave Women - Pamela's Story


Four years ago, the kind funeral director hauled more chairs into the overflow area as the main room filled up quickly. We were gathered in rural South Dakota for my father’s funeral.


Bill was a simple farmer who spent his later years working construction.He wore bib overalls and hated his new dentures. We shared the same brown eyes, and he was irresistibly funny when he was in a good mood.


People kept streaming in. Two large doors were opened, so we could see into the overflow area, and I was overwhelmed it was full.


Though my dad and I’s relationship was strained, you could see he was loved. We spent years finding our way back to each other. We shared a love of Vikings football and enjoyed conversations about that.


We said our “sorry’s” and “I forgive you’s” and were feeling quite content as the familiar tension in our relationship was beginning to ease for the first time in decades.


I was surprised by the outpouring of people who came to pay their respects. The cynic in me thought, “Maybe people came because they’re nosy? People are like that in small towns.”


Suicide brings out the gawkers.


Maybe the truth is people came because they loved me and my brothers and wanted to show their support? I wanted to believe the latter.


A week earlier, my older brother, Brian found my dad’s body. Brian was incredibly brave and strong; he had the closest relationship with our father.


He spent his whole life trying to help my dad. It was like their roles were reversed. Brian was the father figure, and Bill was the kid.


Addiction and untreated depression, coupled with the loss of his third wife, likely led my dad to grab a gun and end his life. One gunshot to the head and his pain was over, but ours began.


 

"Addiction and untreated depression, coupled with the loss of his third wife, likely led my dad to grab a gun and end his life. One gunshot to the head and his pain was over, but ours began."

 

He left a note scribbled on a legal pad with some business information. He had tied his affairs up neatly. No “I love you” or “I’m sorry.”


I’m sure Bill believed suicide was the only way to end his pain. He could not find his way out of the darkness.


Honestly, though I was shocked to receive the call from my brother, I wasn’t completely surprised. Dad had threatened suicide since I was a child. He never seemed to be able to shake “the blues.”


In one of our last talks, I encouraged him to see a doctor. He wouldn’t have it. He was stubborn and emotionally stunted. There were seasons of sobriety for him, but they wouldn’t last.


Suicide is complicated. It’s ugly and raw, filled with shame and “if only.” Regret, unmet resolution, and deep pain accompanied us to the funeral home.


 

"Suicide is complicated. It’s ugly and raw, filled with shame and “if only.” Regret, unmet resolution, and deep pain accompanied us to the funeral home."

 

I was fed up. I didn’t want to hide anymore! I couldn’t bear the hushed whispers and judgment surrounding addiction and suicide, so I stepped boldly into the light.


It took courage to talk about mental illness at his funeral.


We live in a culture where anything goes and you can be whatever you want, yet there’s still a stigma with mental illness.


Why is there still a stigma about mental illness? Why?


I envision Jesus’ compassion towards the silent sufferer. He doesn’t judge them, He offers them love.


 

"Why is there still a stigma about mental illness? Why? I envision Jesus’ compassion towards the silent sufferer. He doesn’t judge them, He offers them love."

 

It would have been easy to hide and cower in shame. It would have been convenient to ignore the topic of mental health and sit amongst the whisperers and gawkers, except that a holy boldness began to rise in my heart. I could not be quiet. I decided to do everything to shatter the stigma that day!


As I stepped to the podium to speak, I felt calm and confident. God carried me as I told people about the darkness my father lived in for years. I communicated from a heart of compassion towards my father and for anyone else suffering in the silence of depression and addiction. As I poured out my heart to our guests, I encouraged anyone who was struggling with addiction or depression to seek help. To talk to someone. To see their doctor. To look to God.


My father’s death was preventable. I don’t want anyone to lose a family member to suicide or addiction. These are complex issues, but when we are brave enough to talk about them, we tear down the stigma.


 

"My father’s death was preventable. I don’t want anyone to lose a family member to suicide or addiction. These are complex issues, but when we are brave enough to talk about them, we tear down the stigma."

 

Sometimes the bravest thing you can do is share your honest truth, even when it’s messy, complicated, and shrouded in shame. There is a special grace for delicate topics, and bringing them into the light is powerful and healing.


 

"Sometimes the bravest thing you can do is share your honest truth, even when it’s messy, complicated, and shrouded in shame. There is a special grace for delicate topics, and bringing them into the light is powerful and healing."

 

This was not how we imagined our father’s funeral would go, but we saw it as an opportunity for a candid discussion about mental illness.


I was honest, Jesus was glorified and peace settled over my heart as I sat amongst the grieving.


Following the funeral, guests were gracious and kind as they offered their deepest sympathies and thanked us for speaking our truth. We were not met with judgment or criticism, merely overwhelming love.


Tears flowed freely, hugs abounded, and I knew we had honored our dad.


The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.” (John 1:5 NIV)


 

Brave Woman Manifesto


Make sure to check back next week as another courageous Sister shares her story!

And by the way...

You are Brave!


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About Pamela


Pamela is an enthusiastic encourager with a passion to speak, write, and coach. She believes all of life flows from our intimacy with God. She helps weary Christian women build a deep bond with God and understand His love.


Pamela’s favorite way to connect with her readers is through her monthly Be[Loved] Notes newsletter and her weekly blogs. If you’d like to receive some love in your inbox, hop on over to her website, pamelahenkelman.com and sign up for the good stuff. She also has a Library of Free Resources for her email friends, including her free 5-day devotional: Five Encouragements to Increase Your Intimacy With God.


Pamela lives in the midwest and is married to her Pastor. They have five adult children and two grandsons and celebrated 33 years of marriage in October.


You can follow her on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest, and become a member of her online Be [Loved] Community on Facebook.