Distress and Melissa," writes Frank Page, "were rarely very far away from each other." Some sources of that distress, like cancer, were beyond her control, but sinful habits and destructive life choices also played a pivotal role. Distress and Melissa would remain entwined until Page's daughter, one of three, committed suicide at age 32. After years of grief, Page, a longtime pastor and former Southern Baptist Convention president, has decided to tell his family's story in Melissa: A Father's Lessons from a Daughter's Suicide (B&H). CT associate editor Matt Reynolds spoke with Page about Melissa's turbulent life, the aftermath of her suicide, and the challenge of shepherding other fragile families through seasons of darkness.
How would you describe your daughter?
Melissa is little in stature, about 98 pounds of pure fire. She is a vivacious young lady who lit up the room with her smile and endeared herself to others. But she is also a young lady who, from early on, struggled in many areas of her life. The struggles never stopped. They changed in nature sometimes, and in their severity, but she struggled her whole life.
You certainly don't present an airbrushed portrait of Melissa. How were you able to be so candid about the chronic patterns of sin and disobedience in her life?
I felt that if this book was really going to touch a lot of lives, it was going to have to be transparent. For over two years after Melissa's death, I was not transparent about her. I didn't lie, and if someone wanted to talk about her, I certainly did. But I really began realizing that if this book was going to make a true impact—and hopefully among people considering suicide themselves—I needed to be honest. In the Christian community, sometimes, there's a lack of transparency and a lack of honesty, and it just would have been false if I had tried to pull a curtain over the reality of her life.
Why go to the effort of writing the book, if it involved such painful memories?
At the outset, I thought it might be cathartic, and therapeutic for me. And so I began writing, thinking it might help me deal with the loss of a daughter. But then I quickly began to realize that there's a huge epidemic of suicide, and so many people are dealing with this. And so I decided to put my pride aside, my love for privacy, and even a protective spirit toward my daughter. And I decided that the best way to honor her memory was by helping people in the name of the Lord.
How have you and your family dealt with the aftermath of Melissa's suicide?
From early on, we resolved that we would not blame each other. We all recognize we could have done things better. I could have been a better father. My daughters perhaps could have done something different to help their sister. We all know that, and we're honest about that. But we also realize that usually, honestly, we did the best we knew at the time.
We're open with one another. We talk about Melissa. We miss her, and at holidays and birthdays, we talk about how there's a place at the table missing, a big place. And so we hold onto each other and support each other. We pray through it. We realize that God's grace really is sufficient. At some point, when something like this happens, of this magnitude, you have to ask: Do we believe what we've taught, preached, read, and said all these years? Does God really come through in the dark times? And the answer is he does, and he did. And he has for all of us.
In the book, you discuss the "what-if" questions that plague the minds of parents whose children have committed suicide. Is it hard not to wonder whether things might have turned out differently, if only you had said something different, done something different, or intervened in a different way?
I still ask those questions. Sometimes it's silly little things that enter your mind, that really would have made no difference one way or another. But somehow you still think things might have turned out different if I had done this better or done that more. The what-if questions will come. But Scripture teaches us how to focus, instead, on that which is trustworthy, loyal, righteous, and pure. And so we've got to concentrate, I believe, on that which is holy and helpful.
We can't allow ourselves to stay focused on what we could have done better. It's a self-destructive mindset. And so while I deal with certain regrets, as anyone would, I really try not to deal with them too long or too much, and then I try to refocus on the things of the Lord. Ultimately, you're going to know there were areas where you did fail, where you could have done better or more. But if you dwell on that continually, you'll only allow the Evil One to keep digging into your conscience, and it will destroy you.
Has the experience of your daughter's suicide altered your approach to God and his Word?
I've always had a strong prayer time and Bible study time—every morning. Every year, since 1974, I've read the Bible all the way through. So my devotional life has always been strong, but Melissa's suicide has definitely changed it. Not long ago I was reading in John 11 about the story of Lazarus coming back to life, and of course that just jumps alive. And so have the words of Jesus, in that same passage, that he is the resurrection and the life, and that whoever comes to him will never die. And so passages about life, and life eternal, have jumped off the pages of God's Word in a far more profound way than ever before. Passages of comfort in the Psalms are far more powerful now.
My wife has had this same experience, and she says that reading anything about heaven takes on a new meaning. Of course, I pray for my girls every day. And I pray for Melissa, and I just ask God to love her for me that day, and to teach her something new in heaven that day. My prayer life is different. It's richer, and more real. And it's more personal. Scripture becomes a more personal. You look for those passages of comfort and strength, where the Holy Spirit just continues to teach.
How did you balance the need to take sufficient time for grieving with the danger of becoming trapped in that grief to the point of withdrawing from life?
Initially, I probably didn't do right in that regard. I'm a real stubborn person, very strong-willed like my sweet Melissa. My goal, from day one, was that I was not going to allow the Evil One to convince me to crawl in a hole and never come out. I did not preach the Sunday after Melissa's death. But after that, I never stopped preaching. I never stopped ministering.
The truth is, for the first year I was constantly in a fog. I think that was a divinely given defense mechanism. I really didn't feel the power of grief until months and months after the death. But I'd already decided that I wasn't going to go into a hole and die, because that's what the Evil One would wish.
In the book, you confront those who assume that suicide is an "unforgivable sin" that automatically condemns one to eternity in hell. How do you respond to this assumption?
I believe there are people who will die and go to heaven. And I believe there are people who will die and go to hell. I believe one's eternal destination is dependent upon one's relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Eternal life is eternal. And if you have truly given your heart to Christ, you belong with him eternally. It's a relationship that cannot be unborn. And so I believe people who know Christ go to heaven, period.
To those who are considering suicide, and to the families and friends of such suffering souls, what advice and encouragement would you offer?
Start where you are, and where you are is with the friends that you have—the ones you can truly count on, the ones who will love you. Be honest with them. Develop a circle of prayer partners who you can talk to you and encourage you. If you know anyone considering suicide, get them the Christ-centered help they really need. Because while you might find help in a secular context, only in Christ can you find true help. So I encourage people to surround themselves with a circle of friends.
Please don't believe the lie that this is the only option. Suicide is not the way to end your pain or the pain you think you're causing family or friends. I believe it's a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I have found that the vast majority of people who commit suicide have come to a place where they have lost touch with reality. So before you get to that point, listen carefully to that circle of family and friends. Listen to the love that they express. Get the help that you need. Go to a competent Christian therapist. They are out there, although sometimes they're not easy to find. Do not listen to the Evil One's lies. He comes to kill, to steal, and to destroy. But Christ has come to give life.
Another very important thing is to encourage people to be very careful in their use of medicines. As a pastor, I have never discouraged the use of medicinal intervention. But I do discourage its overuse and its use without proper supervision. I'm convinced anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drugs are given out by regular family doctors, not by psychiatrists or other health professionals. And I encourage doctors of all kinds to be very careful in what they hand out, and to make sure they continue to monitor the recipient's condition. Because those drugs can have dramatic side effects. On television, you see advertisements warning that this kind of drug can increase suicidal tendencies among children, teenagers, and young adults. And so I tell people to be very careful. Sometimes God does use medicine, and that's okay. But be very careful and cautious in its use, and particularly in its overuse. And when someone has an addictive personality, such as my daughter did, that calls for extra vigilance.
What are some misconceptions about suicide and its causes?
We hear it sometimes stated in Christian circles that depression is a choice, that if you just snap out of it, talk yourself out of it, or pray yourself out of it, then you won't have to deal with this. Or we hear that depression is nothing more than weakness, meaning that you simply need to snap out of it and get into a better way of positive thinking. While some of that may be true in some small degree, I think we have often used platitudes that fail to demonstrate a true understanding about what mental and emotional struggles are really like. And so I tell people to be very careful about your platitudes, since they can be hurtful, and they're inadequate in almost every case. I really encourage them to be more careful with how you say what you say.
Plenty of people want to be helpful rather than hurtful, but they're not sure what to do or say for grieving families. What would you tell them?
Don't let an awkward situation dissuade you from active Christian ministry to hurting people. And it can be awkward. My wife, especially, always feels bad for people who ask about our daughters, only to learn that such a tragedy has occurred. But don't feel bad about talking openly about this issue. And if you really want to minister to someone who's going through this, be there for them. The ministry of presence is powerful. You may not have all the right words to say, and that's okay. Are you there for them? Are you praying with them? Are you by their side?
We had friends come to visit immediately after Melissa suicide. I don't think they ever said anything profound, but their presence was profound. Their love for us was so obvious. They were there to do anything they could. So if you or your family has suffered in this way, let people help you. Let people love you. Let people be there with you and for you. Do not shut them out.
And if you're trying to minister to someone who's gone through it, and that person exhibits anger, which sometimes happens, let them express that anger. You just be there for them. Take whatever abuse they may shout out at you. Just know it's them hurting, and that hurting people sometimes hurt other people.
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