by Jane Schuchardt and Meredith Lovell Keseley—
“You got this,” she whispered to me throughout the day of my beloved son’s funeral and burial. Ryan died by suicide, ending his near 20-year struggle with bipolar disorder. While our family lived in Northern Virginia, Pastor Meredith was always there for me, modeling how to be loving and supportive as this talented, caring and generous young man struggled daily to find wellness. When we moved across the country, she and I kept in touch. When we asked Pastor Meredith to be part of Ryan’s funeral service, she and her husband, an organist, made the 1,300-mile trek to rural northeast Nebraska in October 2019. Together with family and friends, we gloriously celebrated Ryan’s life, setting ourselves on a lifelong journey to honor his memory and find meaning in our own lives without him.
Through honest conversation here in Gather magazine, we strive to increase understanding about the all-too- common struggle parents experience when adult children shun formalized religion. We also give voice to the ravages of mental illness. For these reasons, we are sharing the following heartfelt conversation.
JANE: Ryan was baptized, confirmed and active in youth choir. Both my husband and I, as lifelong Christians, modeled what we understood it meant to be people of faith. As a college student, Ryan went to worship services when home, though his association with formalized religion subsided. What did we do wrong?
PASTOR MEREDITH: Rest assured, this is a common scenario. I have this conversation regularly with parents whose children have been raised in the faith and—for whatever reason—choose not to practice that faith in adulthood.
The reason isn’t as important as these two things. First, you didn’t do anything wrong. You raised Ryan in the faith to the best of your abilities. As a church, we have a long way to go in helping our young adults transition from growing up in the church and making Sunday school crafts to being adults who are equipped with a faith to sustain them for a lifetime.
Second, God’s desire and ability to be in relationship with Ryan was never dependent on Ryan’s desire and ability to be in relationship in return. Just because Ryan didn’t exhibit an active relationship with God doesn’t mean that God wasn’t there every step of the way, reaching out, watching out and offering love.
JANE: Early in his 20s, Ryan’s struggle with mental illness reared its ugly head. Establishing a career was challenging. Medicines dulled his affect and limited his concentration and motivation. Without medication, he experienced severe suicidal ideations and the inability to manage the highs and lows that define this complex mental illness. He sought help from highly regarded mental health professionals, but with limited success. When asked about church, he reported frankly, “A loving God would not do this to me. The Lord’s Prayer says ‘thy will be done.’” Was it God’s will to bring this horrible burden on my son?
PASTOR MEREDITH: Mental illness, cancer and all the other human struggles are part of the brokenness of creation on this side of the kingdom of heaven. Ryan’s mental illness wasn’t God’s will for Ryan. It wasn’t a test that God was putting him—or you— through. We will never know why Ryan was ill. However, we can be certain that Ryan’s pain and suffering were not God’s will. We can also be equally certain that God was there in the midst of it every step of the way.
JANE: As years passed, the illness took an increasing hold. Ryan tried—he really tried—though difficulties with employment and social interaction worsened. The side effects of the prescription drug cocktail, like weight gain, lethargy, sleep deprivation, etc., were debilitating. Even though he sometimes rejected us, he knew he was truly loved by his family and friends.
Hospitalizations occurred about every four years, often associated with foiled suicide attempts. In spite of insistent prayer, there was no answer from God. I began to question my faith. If there really is a God, how could this be happening? He was high school valedictorian, graduated college with high honors, obtained a prestigious financial-analyst designation, studied and performed music and had so much potential. Where are you, God?
PASTOR MEREDITH: Get angry at God! Sometimes people are reluctant to do this, thinking it’s disrespectful or a sign of doubt. God can handle our anger and welcomes it. God created us to be in authentic relationships with
one another and with our God. I’ve never been in a relationship that mattered that didn’t involve some anger. Anger shows that we care what the other person does and that we are invested in that relationship enough to fight for it. When we get angry with God instead of just walking away, we communicate that our relationship
with God matters.
Keep asking that question, “Where are you, God?” Yell, scream, cry and demand answers. As you do, know that God isn’t going anywhere. Your anger will never be too much for God. It will never push God away; it will only draw God closer to you. God is there in the midst of your questioning just as God was with Ryan in every moment of his questioning, too.
JANE: Fast-forward a couple of decades. Now retired from employment in Washington, DC, my husband and I moved to the family farm in the heartland. Always doing everything we could to help our son, we suggested that he live in a second house on the farmstead. Mostly out of desperation, he agreed.
As with any young adult, Ryan wanted to blaze his own trail, be employed, find a girlfriend, maybe be a dad, enjoy life and be a contributing member of society. In addition to the ravages of the illness, each day he became more embarrassed that the successes enjoyed by others his age seemed beyond reach. My husband and I spent many hours with him, listening intently to his plans, few of which came to fruition.
Any relationship Ryan had with God was definitely strained and—though he never said so directly—maybe nonexistent. Then after a family weekend together, where he hugged and kissed us good night and said, “I love you. See you tomorrow,” I found him dead. The house was pristine with documents in order, including a heartfelt suicide note that read, in part: “Too much pain. Too much hopelessness. I’ll never get better. … You have done everything you could to help me. No one loved me more than you. … Please understand that this is something I had to do.” Did God reject him since he questioned Christianity?
PASTOR MEREDITH: Absolutely not! Let me say that again for good NO! God did not reject Ryan. God’s love for Ryan was never dependent on Ryan’s ability to love God in return. God loved Ryan just as much in his last breath as God loved him in his first.
God was there at every moment with Ryan, throughout his illness and in every one of his earthly moments, reaching out, trying to get through with the message that Ryan was beloved. God’s voice, however, wasn’t the loudest voice in Ryan’s head that day he died by suicide. The mental illness became the loudest— and probably the only—voice in Ryan’s head.
God welcomed Ryan into the kingdom of heaven with open arms and God cried alongside you with every tear you shed in grief and heartbreak. God is big enough to be able to do both simultaneously. God is the parent who wanted everything for Ryan that you wanted, who shares in the anger and grief over the mental illness that took Ryan’s life, and who was there with arms surrounding him in the last moments of his life. As a person and a mother, you are made in the image of God, which—to me—means that all the emotions you have experienced on this journey with Ryan are ones that God shared, too.
JANE: The next days were a flurry of shock, sadness, expressions of sympathy and funeral planning. Does God heal through death? Were a Christian funeral and burial appropriate?
PASTOR MEREDITH: God shows up in death—always! God has a track record of showing up in the midst
of the ashes of our lives to bring healing, hope and new life. Did God want Ryan to die? No. Can God bring healing and hope out of Ryan’s death? Absolutely! A Christian funeral and burial are appropriate for a baptized child of God. Ryan’s funeral offered us the chance to give thanks to God for giving Ryan to us to know and love. Through it, we celebrated who Ryan was on earth and who Ryan is in death—a beloved child of God, named and claimed in the waters of baptism and brought into eternal life through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Christian funerals and burials are about what God has done, not what we have done. A Christian funeral and burial were appropriate for Ryan and are appropriate for any baptized child of God whose family finds meaning and comfort through this ritual.
JANE: Now, more than a year since Ryan’s death, what assurance do we have that he is in heaven? Will we ever see him again?
PASTOR MEREDITH: At his baptism, God promised Ryan a place in the kingdom of heaven. There was
nothing Ryan could do here on earth to change that. There was no earthly power or bodily illness that could change that. Ryan is absolutely—without a doubt—in heaven. Like everyone, he isn’t there by his own doing, but by God’s doing. Jesus’ crucifixion and death were just as much for Ryan as for you and me and the whole world. God’s got this! God’s got Ryan! There is no need to worry for even a moment about that.
Amid grief that feels overwhelming and questions that some days seem endless, rest in this certainty: Ryan is in heaven. One day, you will be reunited with him. In the kingdom of heaven, there is no brokenness. All are made whole. You will know Ryan not as he was in his illness, but as he was in his most joyful moments. Cling tightly to this promise in the midst of your journey through grief.
To help: Please put the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) in your cell phone contacts list.
JANE SCHUCHARDT (p. 26) Jane Schuchardt and the Rev. Meredith Lovell Keseley worked as a writing team in this issue of Gather. Schuchardt engages in organic farming and freelance writing. She is a member of Immanuel Zion Lutheran Church in rural Albion, Nebraska. Keseley serves as senior pastor of Abiding Presence Lutheran Church, in Burke, Virginia. She and her husband, Ben, have two elementary-school-age daughters.