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Jan14ThuI lost my son to suicide, but the story isn't over. January 14, 2016 by Ken Debney
There are a few truly defining moments in our lives—getting married, losing a loved one, coming to faith. In 2014, I shared my story in Salvationist of becoming a Christian at a Salvation Army men's camp. It was published shortly before that year's camp and I hoped it would encourage others to attend, and perhaps even meet Christ.
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On August 21, 15 days before the camp, I experienced another defining moment, one that has changed who I am. That night, I arrived home after working a late shift. My wife was home and my daughter was visiting, doing laundry.
At 10:15 p.m., our world crashed down on us. My daughter answered the phone and started screaming, falling part way down the stairs. My wife grabbed the phone and then fell to her knees. I picked up the phone to hear a police officer on the other end. I asked two simple questions. “Is he gone? Are you sure?” The answer to both questions was yes.
My son, Gordon, was gone. He had suffered the terrible burden of depression in silence, until it was too much to bear and he took his own life.
That morning, we'd been planning a 30th birthday party for him. The next morning, we planned his funeral.
Light and Dark
Nothing can take the pain of that night away, not even faith. Faith can't fix everything. But in the hours, days and months that followed, in the times when I faltered, God sustained me.
Some have said this is a test of faith, but I think it has been a depth finder. The journey I have been on is one of sharp contrasts—the dark cloud of grief and the bright light of faith, showing me a way forward. In my darkest moments, faith has sustained me. In the brighter moments, it has shone through me to others.
Someone asked me, “Do you believe what you believe?” I said yes. He asked again. After a moment of reflection, I said yes again. “If you really believe what you believe, and you trust in God, then you can face anything,” he replied.
The night my son died, in the midst of grief, I somehow knew that I would be OK—that although this would be the most painful experience I would ever endure, if I trusted God, I would come through it.
After Gordon's death, I expected the pain that came, but I didn't expect the immense blessings that came with it. Our church family, Cambridge Citadel in Ontario, embraced us with compassion, hurting with us.
But it wasn't only friends who shone a light of encouragement. Complete strangers also did what they could to ease our burden: the manager of the photo store who made sure we had a slideshow in time for the funeral; the server who made sure we had privacy in a busy restaurant; and many other acts of compassion.
The Salvation Army is known for funerals that are a celebration of life. We wanted to say goodbye to our son in a meaningful way. Gordon was a fanatical Toronto Maple Leafs follower, so we chose to honour him with a Leafs theme and encouraged friends and family to wear their colours. We weren't prepared for 300 people to show up, most in Leafs jerseys.
We also went ahead with a birthday party for Gordon, inviting friends and family to a celebration and fundraising night, with proceeds going to The Salvation Army Hope Line, a suicide-prevention ministry based in Hamilton, Ont.
Gordon's death has been a dark and painful time, but I have learned so much about my faith and about what matters. Our friends and family struggled to find ways to comfort us, feeling that words were inadequate. They weren't. I read every single message of condolence. In the days after Gordon's passing, I kept my iPad on the night stand and read all the new messages in the morning. It gave me the encouragement I needed to get up and face the day.
The next time you struggle to console someone, remember it's not the exact words or actions that matter, it's the love that counts—and it does make a difference.
It's an often-repeated cliché that the best gift you can give is time. It's true. Time isn't infinite, and you can't get it back once it's gone. Spending time with family and friends is the most important thing you can do.
In the past year, my work life has been far busier than usual, but you will often find me at a café with friends on Fridays, watching our favourite TV shows together as a family on Sundays, and sharing lazy mornings with my wife when we can.
Love matters. Time matters. I matter to Christ. I've known this since becoming a Christian, but it was an abstract idea. Now it is a profound truth. There have been times when my spirit was broken and I was beyond the reach of friends and family.
More than once, I left for work and then found myself on the side of the road, overcome with grief, ready to turn back. How could I lead my staff when I wasn't able to push through the dark cloud enveloping me? Then I would feel a physical presence, a lifting of the burden and a sense that Jesus was saying, “I'll take it from here.” With that, I could carry on and face the day.
Gordon was an all-around great guy, good-natured, with lots of friends, a job and a future. He had no addiction problems. But he was living two lives. In public, he seemed happy and well-adjusted. In private, he was in anguish.
He was diagnosed with depression and started treatment the month before he died. When he told us of the diagnosis, he shared that he had been suffering for most of his adult life. His struggles intensified in the year before his death, with loneliness after a relationship ended and intense pressure at work. He was suffering in silence, hiding a terminal disease, one that is still not socially acceptable to talk about.
I keep coming back to the thought that it wasn't suicide that took my son, or even mental illness. It was stigma that prevented him from seeking help until it was too late. So now I speak openly about his illness, to let people know that mental illness is no different than any other disease. I owe it to him and to the many others who are suffering.
I bear a simple tattoo in his memory, a semicolon on my wrist. Project Semicolon began in 2013 after founder Amy Bleuel lost her father to suicide. The semicolon is used when a sentence could have ended, but didn't—a symbol that the story isn't over. For me, the tattoo is a physical reminder that Gordon's story isn't over. His life mattered and still does.
We are carrying on his story by committing to annual fundraising for the Hope Line. To date, we have raised $11,000 in his honour. It's too late to save Gordon's life, but it's not too late to help others who are struggling.
My story isn't over, either. The loss of a son has brought many challenges—irrational guilt that I must have missed something, that I could have or should have been able stop this. But I'm not alone on this journey. I have faith in the midst of the storm.
Ken Debney is the corps treasurer and serves on the mission board at Cambridge Citadel in Ontario.
For more information about The Salvation Army Hope Line, or to make a donation, please contact Major Bradley Donais, executive director of community and family services in Hamilton/Wentworth, at email@example.com.