A Conversation with Frank Page about Suicide

Dr. Allen: Dr. Page, welcome to the Spurgeon Room. We are here on the campus of Midwestern Seminary in the President’s home and seated in the Spurgeon Room, named that because of the Spurgeon desk and the Spurgeon Library and different pieces on display here. We have the opportunity to host different guests here and talk about issues facing the church, the Christian life, culture, and so many other things. It is a real joy to get to talk to you today, and we are going to talk about a topic that is obviously at the very center of your heart, and a topic from a book that pierced me in the center of my heart, and that is your book entitled, Melissa with the subtitle, A Father’s Lessons from a Daughter’s Suicide. Allow me to begin this conversation with my own personal story here.

I had requested the PDF of this book from your office some time ago—just before it hit the bookstands. I received the email, and it was one of the longest days for me as president of Midwestern Seminary. It was long in a good way. It was a very full day. It started well before dawn, then I had meetings all afternoon. We had a major dinner where we hosted several hundred guests on campus that began at 7 p.m. and ended about 9:30 p.m., and then my wife and I hosted a couple for about a two-hour interview after that. I got back to my home office about 11 p.m., and I was just spent. I was worn out. I was ready to hit the bed at the end of a long day, which was the end of many longs days. I sat down at my desk, and I opened my email. I was in my suit, had my coat on, had done nothing to relax myself, and I opened that email. I read that manuscript over the course of about an hour and a half, or two hours without ever moving. I never got out of my suit. I just sat there, and I thought it would be one page and it was another, and it just arrested my attention. It is as though the book reached out of the computer monitor, grabbed my lapels, and drew me in. I cried reading it, and I am not a crier—my wife will tell you. I had the full range of emotions as I read that book, and I sent you an email that night after reading it, as you may recall. I want to unpack this book a little bit and the story behind it; and obviously we tread on holy ground, so to speak, given your story here and your family’s. I want to talk about the book and the story there, and I want to unpack it some for those who would read and those who would hear, and for you to be able to speak not only of the book, but from your heart, and convey the message that you would want to convey.

Dr. Page: Thank you, Dr. Allen. I deeply appreciate being here with you, and thank you for approaching this subject and allowing me to speak a little bit about it. I will probably say some things that I have not said in other places because it is scripted differently. Obviously, I am sometimes interviewed by radio stations, and they usually ask the same questions. The book was, I will admit, that I probably began it out of a self-centered reason. I thought it might be cathartic in healing. And indeed, that is true. But I quickly moved past the self-centered part and realized that people need help. I had friends encouraging me to write it for the right reasons, and indeed, that morphed into a dual desire.

Number one, to help people who have gone through suicide with a family, a friend, a church member, but then also, as the book is clear, it is also a tool to be used by those who are considering suicide. I will tell you that since it came out in electronic form on May 1and print on June 1, I am trying to keep a record of the number of people who have written me to say, “That book was written for me.” I just heard from someone in Texas two days ago who said, “I am suicidal, and that book has kept me from making that terrible decision.” Well, that is why I wrote it. It was not an easy book to write.

I am a crier, by the way. I cry probably every day over something. Even a silly commercial on TV, I will cry, but I am still somewhat private. So the book was a little difficult because I felt like I put my soul out on display. Then it was even more difficult because, while I wanted to be honest and transparent about my daughter, and about her struggles, and about our family’s struggles, I did not want to dishonor her memory. So that was very difficult to know that balance and to keep that balance in place; to not go off one way or the other. There are books written that perhaps are not very transparent, and then maybe there are those that just tell too much. I did not want to dishonor my baby’s memory. And so, I also will say that it is a well-written book. I am not a good writer, but Laurence Kimbrough was a co-writer. For example, I said one time, “Melissa was 98 pounds of pure fire.” He wrote it and said, “Melissa was 98 pounds, and rarely did she give an afternoon off to a single pound.” The way he wrote it was just great. My thoughts, my content, but his beautiful writing style helped make it a book that is very readable, engaging actually. Maybe that is partly the story as well as the writing style, but I wrote this to help people and it is touching many, many, many lives. I had a man this morning in the airport—an airline worker in the airport in Jackson, Miss., who said, “Rev. Page, I am getting the book that you wrote.” Well, I do not know how he knew about that book, but he did. He said, “I need it.” I do not know why; I didn’t have time to talk to him about it. Many people are reading it, and the whole purpose is I want people to know that help and hope are found in Christ. You can get help through a counselor and through a doctor. You should. But help and hope are ultimately found in Jesus Christ. And so, hope is what I wanted. And my wife, Dayne, said, “I just want hope to shine forth in that book.”

Dr. AllenAnd it does. And boy, you read that as a father of five, and as a man who has been in ministry for about 15 years, and I have dealt with this more around the edges—never with someone in my immediate family, never with someone in my distant family, insofar as I know. And with church members, it was more around the edges of the church, not someone in the heart of the congregation. But you read that, and one of the things I appreciate is your directness with some of the struggles throughout life. It is not done in a way to in any way understate or overstate that. There is just a beauty in the simplicity of that which pierces the heart. One of the things that you touch on thematically in the book, and I would love for you to flesh out, is that clearly you had a unique relationship with her. She was the source of unique challenges, but there was a unique joy there. I know there are parents who have kids, and maybe there is a child who brings unique challenges and makes you want to pull your hair out, but at the same time there are unique joys associated with that. Would you please speak to that balance?

Dr. Page: Well, thank you, Dr. Allen. I will say every parent knows that. You know, it reminds me of the old story of the child psychologist who started his practice and he had four theories about raising children, although he had no children. Several years later, he had four children and no theories. You know, every child is unique. Certainly your precious children all have their own look and their own personality, and my three daughters all did. They are all strong-willed children, but they are all unique; and Melissa, she was unique. I used to tell her, “Melissa, nobody loves you like your daddy, but nobody knows you like your daddy.” And it would frustrate the fire out of her. She would say, “I hate that you always know when I’m not doing something right. You just somehow seem to know it.” I would say, “Yes, I do honey. And you need to remember that daddy knows.” But she was a unique person: fiery, probably, and you know in our milieu. We have some strong-willed friends; she was the most strong-willed person I have ever met—so strong-willed that her sweet mother could not handle her much of her life. I am too, and I admit that. I am a very dominant personality, and I have asked the Lord to help mellow that. I think he has some. I remember when we were expecting our first child. This was in the day that, where we were, there were no sonograms or anything. We did not know if we had a little boy or a girl, but I prayed for a girl, and I said, “If I have a boy, and he is like I was, my sweet wife will not be able to handle him.” But he gave us a female that had my male dominance in me. She was strong. I would say to her, “Honey, you can be meaner than a junkyard dog, or sweeter than the sweetest angel in the world.” So, she was a person of great contrasts, and many are. So the challenges were great, but I love her so deeply, and I miss her so unspeakably.

Dr. AllenTake the book and compress it for two types of people. One is those who are dealing with either a potential suicide, or an actual suicide of a loved one. What word of encouragement would you give to them?

Dr. Page: For those who are dealing with someone who is considering suicide, I would encourage them to understand, first of all, that that person makes their own decisions. You have to be very careful. This is what happens, Jason, in a suicide situation where it has happened. In those who have survived, divorce rates go through the absolute roof. Suicides of survivors go up dramatically. Relationships crumble. Why? Because often we begin to blame. First of all, we blame God. Well, God didn’t cause that suicide. Second of all, we blame other people. “If you would have been a better mother, she wouldn’t have done that.” “If you would have been a better daddy… If you would have been a better whatever…” So, we are prone to do that. Understand that that person made their decision, and, unfortunately, made the wrong decision. So you first of all recognize reality. You can help, and you should. You need to do everything you can. Have I ever felt like a failure because my daughter committed suicide? Oh yeah. It still happens sometimes, but in my more cogent, sane moments I realize that I did the best I could at the time. I really did. I really did, but was I a prefect father? No. So, we have to realize reality. That person, that boy that girl, can decide what they want to decide. There are many voices people listen to other than the voice of mom and daddy and other than the voice of the Lord.

So, I say to those who have a family member who is considering it, realize that reality. At the same time, get them the help they need. There is help available in most places in most ways. Often times, when someone is calling us and threatening suicide—see that is the unique thing, Melissa never threatened suicide. Ever. We worried about her in many ways because of many affectations and many behavior changes, but she never threatened suicide. Many, in fact, most do. So, take those seriously. Get the help they need. But if it has happened in your life, again, minister. Let me just say this to those who are ministering to them: if you are in a church and someone has committed suicide, and I did have to deal with several in my ministry of 35 years, avoid trite platitudes. “Oh, they are in a better place.” Well, they may be, but that is probably not the time to say that. So, in your ministry to grieving people, be very careful to do what they need most, and what they need most is a ministry of presence. They need a friend. They need a family member who will love them and say, “I am going to be with you.” The day my daughter died, I mean immediately, the word got out and I had life-long friends who came and stayed with me. I don’t remember much of what they said. They didn’t say much, but they were there for me. They were with me, and when I lowered her in the grave, two of my life-long friends stood by me. Two of my male friends, one a retired general, one a car dealer I led to Christ back 20 years ago in Augusta, Ga., they stood with me. I do not think they said a word. They did not need to. So, we need to understand how to minister to those who are hurting. There are ways to do that, and there are ways not to do that. So, I have tried again to keep pointing to that in the book.

Someone asked me one time in a radio interview, “Well, you are always talking about Christ. What do you say to people outside of the faith?” Well, I say the same thing I do to people in the faith: that Christ is the only ultimate source. You can get help from friends; you can get help from books, whatever. Ultimately, only in Christ are you going to find the peace that God gives. Let me say this: why do I think God allowed Melissa to do what she did? Melissa was never at peace, and I think he let it happen so she could finally be at peace. I know she knew him. She struggled with that. I think he allowed it in his permissive will that she might finally rest.

Dr. AllenI want you to unpack the other question I was contemplating, but thank you for opening up your heart there. One of the questions I have gotten throughout the years in ministry, with shocking frequency, because I do not understand theologically or biblically why one would think this or even have to ask this, but can a saved person commit suicide? And the answer of course is yes. But that seems to be a pervasive notion in the church today, that a saved person cannot or would not do that. Speak to that for a moment.

Dr. Page: I would be glad to, Dr. Allen. I will tell you, and the vast majority of people that I have ever known, I have studied this. For some reason I studied it long ago. I studied historical instances of suicide. There are three major mass suicides that have occurred in our history. Masada, a place called Gomley that nobody knows about, where almost as many people committed suicide as Masada, and then of course Jonestown, Guyana. There are other smaller groups on some Japanese islands who committed suicide so as not to be taken captive. The vast majority of suicides with which we are familiar are people who have lost touch with reality. Mental or emotional struggle has reached such a horrible point that they are not thinking straight anymore. I do believe that believers can come to that point of oppression, or confusion, or depression so much so that they are not thinking straight. I believe the vast majority of people who commit suicide have reached that point, and I do not believe that our Lord would hold against them the pain that led them to that point. I do not believe that at all. In fact, Scripture teaches in Romans that nothing shall separate us from the love of God.

Dr. AllenRight, in addition to that though, some people think that as they have this conversation, that you cannot go to heaven if you commit suicide because you are committing a sin that you cannot ask forgiveness for. That is a nonsensical understanding of sanctification or salvation. I mean, most every Christian alive will die with some unconfessed sin in their life.

Dr. Page: That is right, but there are some theologies out there that say it is a mortal sin. There are a few denominations whereby you can lose your salvation very easily, and if any sin happens in your life—thought or un-thought, spoken or unspoken—you can lose it and you better get saved again. It is almost a daily salvific journey and that is not scriptural. It is just not scriptural. It is a hurtful thing when someone has committed suicide within your family and someone brings that up. If you are not theologically grounded and have a biblical understanding, it can be deeply devastating. That is why I said some of things in the book to help you realize, quit listening to people and start listening to God. Go to the Word of God and study it. You know, I remember doing a funeral of a suicide victim in South Carolina, and the church was filled with people of faith and people not of faith, people of various groups, and they were confused. I even brought up those things that I just spoke about. I said, “Who told you that?” I held up the Bible and I said, “Listen to what the Bible says.” All of the sudden I remember people writing me; Jewish people, Muslim people, they were all there. They said, “We have never heard people speak honestly, ever.” Look to the Word. Quit listening to people and listen to God.

Dr. AllenThat is the word I would use to describe this book: so honest. Honest about your story, honest about Melissa’s story, honest about letting the Scripture speak. Say a word, as we would wrap this conversation up, to those who may be contemplating suicide.

Dr. Page: First of all, there are a lot more of those than we think. We are living in a day of epidemic suicide, Dr. Allen. The chief of Chaplains of the U.S. Army said during the height of the Afghanistan and the Iraqi war that we are losing more men to suicide than we are to combat, particularly in the last few months and years. We do not know why, but the level of the young women committing suicide is taking a dramatic leap. I heard recently that for the first time suicide has replaced automobile accidents of young adults as [the top] cause of death. It is epidemic. So, many are out there pondering suicide. Whatever the societal pressures, the cultural pressures that are out there, many are opting for suicide. So many are pondering it. And I say to them, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Come to Christ, listen to Christ. He can help you. There are God’s people who will help you. I am calling, as far as mental illness in general—specifically in deep depression—for churches to be places of help and hope. Don’t to sweep it under the rug; don’t act like it is something we cannot discuss, but talk about it, be honest, and deal with it. But please, call me. Call Dr. Allen. Call somebody. Call a pastor. Call somebody before you make this decision because, as I say in the book, you may not understand what you are going to leave behind. You may not know. You may think you are just getting out of a painful situation, but you have no idea what you are going to be doing to those who love you, and of the ongoing repercussions of what that will do. So please, give serious prayer and consideration to getting the help and hope that is in Christ and through God’s people.

Dr. AllenWell, the book is a gift to the church, and a gift to humanity. Your book coupled with the much publicized tragedy with Rick Warren’s son has brought this to the forefront of the conversation in so many churches. I wish every seminary student would read this book; every father would read this book; every mother; because it is more than a story about a tragic death. It is a story about life, a story about parenthood, a story about struggling, and about loving one with struggles. Thank you for this book. May the Lord use it to increase and strengthen his kingdom. Thank you for the conversation.

Dr. Page: Thank you, Dr. Allen.

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