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Rebuilding Life in the Aftermath of Grief

Last April Matthew Warren, the 27-year-old son of the best-selling author and evangelical pastor Rick Warren, committed suicide. In a letter written to his church, Warren said his son died after years of mental illness resulting in deep depression and suicidal thoughts.

“In spite of America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided. Today [April 5], after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life,” Warren wrote.

This past weekend Warren and his wife Kay addressed their congregation for the first time since their son’s suicide. According to this report in Time:

The Warrens spoke honestly about their spiritual struggles with Matthew’s mental illness. “For 27 years, I prayed every day of my life for God to heal my son’s mental illness. It was the number one prayer of my life,” Rick preached. “It just didn’t make sense why this prayer was not being answered.” Kay spoke of how she couldn’t even read certain Scripture passages about hope for months after Matthew’s death.

“Can it be any profit to the gods to heap upon us mortal men beside our other woes this further grief for children lost, a grief surpassing all?” Euripides asks in Medea.

“A grief surpassing all” is what the Warren family is now enduring. But rather than turn on the gods, or on God, they are determined to see that something good arises from their ruin. In speaking to his congregation:

Rick [Warren] then made a promise: Saddleback’s next big ministry push will be to remove the stigma associated with mental illness in the church. “Your illness is not your identity, your chemistry is not your character,” he told people struggling with mental illness. To their families, he said, “We are here for you, and we are in this together.”  There is hope for the future: “God wants to take your greatest loss and turn it into your greatest life message.” … A larger program to address the specifics of mental illness has yet to be revealed, but it will be similar, Rick said, to the way their church has helped to tackle the HIV crisis.

Removing this stigma would be a wonderful achievement. If you have ever witnessed people who have tried (often unsuccessfully) to move heaven and earth to cure a person suffering from a mental disorder, you’ll know why.

Mental illness was once viewed as everything from a sign of demonic possession to personal weakness. What we now know is that the etiology of mental illnesses is extremely complicated and difficult to pin down, cast as they are in mist and shadows. But depending on what the particular illness is–schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, autism, et cetera–genetic and biological factors, including chemical imbalances, often play a crucial role. A study earlier this year in the medical journal the Lancet, for example, found that a wide variety of psychiatric illnesses “share several genetic glitches that can nudge the brain along a path to mental illness.” And so a child raised by loving and attentive parents, having been given every opportunity in life, can still suffer from debilitating mental illness. We know, too, that the stigmas associated with mental illness have created feelings of shame, self-doubt, and isolation. Any effort to impart discernment in an area characterized by ignorance is all to the good.

The grief Rick and Kay Warren and their two other children, Amy and Josh, are experiencing is impossible for most of us to sympathize with. A few of their closest friends and family members will walk this journey with them; the rest of us can admire them for the path they have chosen to follow. And if they find it within themselves to offer aid and comfort and understanding to others, then they will have found some element of redemption even in so great a loss. And remarkably, they have found some element of renewed hope as well. 

Matthew’s body was buried in brokenness, Kay Warren said at Saturday night’s service, but will be raised in strength. And according to Time, “As the service closed, Rick joined the worship team in singing a favorite evangelical hymn, ‘Blessed Be Your Name.’ He lifted his Bible high above his head and declared boldly to the God he serves: ‘You give and take away, my heart will choose to say, Lord blessed be your name.’” 

The Warren family would undoubtedly exchange whatever blessings their new endeavors bring to others simply to be able to turn the clock back, to have their son back. But they know that loss cannot be undone; their choice is either to be consumed by grief and bitterness or to move forward, through tears, in faith. They are living somewhere else than they ever expected to be. And so to watch them, and to watch others like them, begin to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives–to struggle with doubt and still believe that a morning star will one day rise in their heart–is a beautiful and inspiring thing to behold.


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