My Mom Believed She Wasn’t a “Good Enough” Christian

Discussing mental illness in the church could save lives

Photo: Carmen Martínez Torrón/Moment/Getty Images

When I stepped inside the hospital to visit my mom, I wasn’t sure what I’d find. I didn’t really know what her mental condition would be like, nor how she would respond to seeing me. I wondered if she would be able to articulate her thoughts and fears or provide me with at least a glimpse inside her ever-tangled mind. In this moment, nothing made sense.

I looked around at the sterile room full of beeping monitors and little else. I sat down on the bed beside Mom and offered a feeble smile. How do you greet someone who has just tried ending her life? Especially when that someone is one of the most important people in your sphere. This is certainly not how I envisioned spending my 40th birthday — clutching my 69-year-old mother’s trembling hand as a stranger’s eyes remained fixated on us. But that’s how it had to be since Mom was on suicide watch. I squelched my desire to come at her with rapid-fire questioning as her body language suggested she wasn’t up for an interrogation.

Her face was pale and panicked, her lips cracked and raw from the tubes that had been shoved down her throat when they pumped her stomach. Her whole body shivered. But it was her puppy dog eyes that revealed the most — a mixture of sadness, fear, confusion, and agony.

I wanted to ask my mom, “Why did you swallow all those pills? What were you thinking?”

Instead, I waited for her to start the conversation. We sat in awkward silence. Then finally, she pursed her lips to form a word. I leaned forward in anticipation, but she uttered nothing.

“It’s OK, Mom,” I said gently. “You can talk to me.”

She nodded her head, swallowed hard, and said in a raspy voice, “I’m sorry.” She hung her head low, like a child anticipating punishment, then whispered, “I can’t believe I did what I did.”

Nor could I. Although I knew Mom had lived with clinical depression, it seemed that through medication and counseling, she had everything under control. What I didn’t know at the time, however, was that a few months earlier, after being on Prozac for nearly three decades, she stopped taking the medication cold-turkey. Doing so sent her into a rapid downward spiral. She tried to hide her struggles, but it was apparent something was wrong because when she visited at Christmas, she was irritable, snippy, and exasperated. She also seemed confused about simple things and constantly complained of memory issues. After the holidays, Dad said she took to the bed, blinds drawn, phone turned off, as she shut out the world.

Though it was obvious that she was slipping back into a deep depression, I’d seen this behavior before and she had always emerged out the other end of the dark tunnel. I assumed the same would happen now. Only it didn’t. In fact, I didn’t have a clue how bad Mom was until she called me right before my birthday to tell me she had swallowed a ton of sleeping pills.

In the hospital, despite being scared out of my mind, I squeezed her hand and assured her that it was going to be OK.

“Let’s call your minister,” I suggested.

“No!” Mom barked. “I don’t want him or anyone in the church knowing what I did!”

I knew that mental illness and suicide were uncomfortable subjects. But frankly, I couldn’t care less who knew what about anything. I just wanted to get my mom help.

“Your minister can be a great resource,” I said.

“You don’t understand,” Mom said softly as she started to tear up. “I’m not a good enough Christian.”

My brow furrowed. What did she mean by that? I imagine she was feeling enormous guilt for contemplating (and attempting) suicide because she knew God didn’t want her to kill herself. As a result, I suppose she was questioning the “quality” of her Christianity.

“Mom, that’s not true,” I insisted.

But my message wasn’t penetrating. She just stared at me with vacant eyes of gloom and continually mumbled that she wasn’t good enough in the eyes of the Lord.

At the time I felt paralyzed, not knowing what I should or shouldn’t say. It’s not like I’d had any suicide prevention training, and the only psychology class I took in college, we spent all of ten minutes discussing chemical imbalances in the brain. I was ill-equipped to know how to handle this situation.

Instead I played the good daughter and told her what I assumed she needed to hear — that life was not as bad as it seemed at the moment and that things would look brighter tomorrow. I basically reiterated every pointless platitude I had ever heard on a television show or read in a Hallmark card. I might as well have been whistling in the wind for all the good it did my mom.

I went home and started researching suicidal ideation. I wanted to educate myself, so I could better serve her. But I didn’t do it fast enough because a few weeks later I got another phone call — this time from my dad. There was no saving her this time.

I fell to my knees in the middle of the sporting goods store. Breathless and nauseous, I dialed the person I felt pulled to call — my pastor. When I told him what had happened, he was at a loss for words. He skipped the condolences and the prayers and simply blurted out: “That sucks.”

I was dumbfounded by his unfeeling response. While it did suck, yes, I was looking for something more soothing, healing, and helpful. To add insult to injury, he quickly changed the subject and asked if I’d be willing to join the Board as communications director, as they were in need of a writer for some current projects.

I was shocked — not only by my pastor’s response but also by the response of the entire congregation. The joke has always been that bereaved families are inundated with frozen lasagnas and tuna casseroles, but no one from church dropped off a single morsel of food. I imagine my situation made people uncomfortable, so they found it easier to avoid me. And boy, did they. Silence surrounded me at every turn.

In the weeks and months to follow, that callous conversation with my pastor repeatedly played in my head. I was barely hanging on and was in desperate need of a lifeline, yet my church family, time and again, fell short. What bothered me more was that my mom might have had a different outcome had she felt safe approaching the church for council. And while I think her reluctance to do so had a great deal to do with society’s stigma surrounding mental illness, I imagine that somewhere along the way she had received the message from church that those who complete suicide burn in the flames of Hell. Hence, her stance of not being a “good enough” Christian.

Oh, how it hurt my heart to think of Mom questioning whether she would get to spend eternity with her Creator because she was saddled with a mental illness. Of course God didn’t want Mom to take her life, but I can promise you He didn’t want her to suffer, either. Just as some people succumb to cancer or heart disease, my mom succumbed to clinical depression, and I’m convinced that God would never punish her for being sick.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. In 2017 alone, more than 1.4 million suicide attempts were made. It’s been six years since my mom’s death, and in that time, I have educated myself by doing research, speaking to mental health experts, attending support groups, and registering for applied suicide intervention skills training. In short, I’ve done all I can to equip myself with the tools that I wish I’d had prior to her death.

If I could turn back time to that day in the hospital, I now know what I would say to my precious mom. I would assure her that God loves her unconditionally. I would beg her to use every ounce of strength to stay with me while we worked to help her feel better. And I would promise her that no matter what thoughts floated around in her head, she was not betraying or disappointing God. I would tell her that God did not look down on her for feeling weak, confused, and scared. And I would look her in the eye and say, “No matter what path lies ahead, Christ will forever remain by your side. One day you will bask in the glorious light of heaven.”

The more that churches remain open and authentic when talking about mental illness and suicide, the better chance we have of saving lives. Because we are all “good enough Christians” when we love God, embrace hope, and show empathy to our fellow man.

For information about suicide prevention or to speak with someone confidentially, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273–8255 or the Crisis Text Line at 741–741. Both provide free, anonymous support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Salve

The Salve is a progressive Christian lifestyle publication…

Christy Heitger-Ewing

Written by

Christy is an award-winning writer who has written more than 1,000 human interest stories for national, regional, & local magazines.

The Salve

The Salve

The Salve is a progressive Christian lifestyle publication covering love, doubt, politics, and more.

Christy Heitger-Ewing

Written by

Christy is an award-winning writer who has written more than 1,000 human interest stories for national, regional, & local magazines.

The Salve

The Salve

The Salve is a progressive Christian lifestyle publication covering love, doubt, politics, and more.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store