When “why?” is not the right question

In light of the tragic and high-profile suicide of Matthew Warren (Pastor Rick Warren’s son) this past weekend, I want to re-visit some thoughts I wrote down in a post last year about how God spoke to me in the months following my sister-in-law’s suicide in August 2010.  I hope that these words help, in some little way, anyone who has been affected by suicide (which, unfortunately, is most of us).

I also hope that you join me in prayer for the Warren family during this incredibly difficult season – that they have a peace and calm through it that can only come from our heavenly Father.

So here are my unedited thoughts, originally posted on the Providence blog on September 30, 2011:


SusanneOften people ask “Why?” when bad things happen in life, to them or to others.  And that question certainly permeates conversations when a family member or friend commits suicide.  Suicide is something that I never experienced “close-up” until last year, when my extremely talented and beautiful sister-in-law took her own life in her home while her husband and children were sleeping.  I’ll never forget the moment I heard the news or the weeks following her death when our family was searching to figure out why. Why would she have killed herself?  Why she couldn’t recognize her incredible God-given talents? Why she just couldn’t receive and believe compliments when others praised her work?  Why did God let this happen?  Why?  Why?  Why?

While asking “Why?” is a very common response to tragedy, and is a very natural part of the grieving process to help us try to understand and bring emotional closure, I have come to see over the past 13 months or so that it just might be the wrong question to ask.  Especially in relation to why a particular person committed suicide.  Not only because we likely will never know just why our loved one chose to take his or her own life, but because it often causes bitterness and anger, and, consequently, keeps us from asking the more important question: “To what end?”

Dungy with sonIn Tony Dungy’s (former coach of the Indianapolis Colts) book, Quiet Strength, Dungy recounts the most difficult experience he ever had in his life when his son took his own life at the age of 18.  In so doing, Dungy discusses the need to ask “What?,” not “Why?”:

“Why do bad things happen?  I don’t know.  Why did Jamie die?  I don’t know. But I do know that God has the answers, I know He loves me, and I know He has a plan – whether it makes sense to me or not.  Rather than asking why, I’m asking what.  What can I learn from this?  What can I do for God’s glory and to help others?”

Quiet StrengthThe book goes on to chronicle how Dungy’s life answered those questions with some very life-giving stories and conversations.  Here is but one such story that Dungy shares in his book:

“One worried father asked me to call his son, who he thought might be contemplating taking his life.  We spoke several times over the next few weeks.  ‘Why are you taking the time to call me?’  the son finally asked.  ‘Because if someone had been able to help my son with a phone call, I hope they would have taken the time,’ [Dungy responded.] His dad called me later to thank me for helping his son get through that time.  I was happy to know that our experience, as unbearable as it was, had actually helped another family.”

God’s plan in all of this may never make sense to us and we may never know why my sister-in-law committed suicide.  And there still is a whole lot of mourning and healing going on, and likely will continue in some ways for the rest of our lives.   But, fortunately, as part of the healing process, I have seen first-hand over the past 13 months how asking the question, “To what end?,” has resulted in some pretty awesome things.

Though we’ve always been pretty close, our family has bonded and supported each other in ways that I have not seen before.

One of my sister-in-laws, Brea, has championed the cause of American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (afsp.org), which fights against these tragedies through research, training, education, and legislative reform on issues surrounding mood disorders, depression, and suicide.

And my mother-in-law has also taken up the cause by starting her own grass roots campaign, “Survivors of Suicidors – it’s OK to talk.”  Through the campaign, she is encouraging survivors to talk through their pain and loss, and to start asking the “What?” questions.

So, while we will all miss Susanne dearly for the rest of our lives, we can rest in the fact that God is using her tragic death to bring glory to Him and to help others in amazing ways, seen and unseen.  We just need to keep asking the two questions that guided Dungy through the valley he found himself in after his son’s death.


What are your thoughts?  What have you learned and/or how have you seen God work in the wake of a loved one’s suicide?

  • http://www.facebook.com/shawnpsousa Shawn Sousa

    Thanks for sharing Phil. We’ve had several close calls with suicide attempts in loved ones around us. It takes a huge emotional toll. I’m grateful about being reminded that we can be a part of God’s healing work instead if remaining in the pain.