I first met Kay Warren a few years ago when we served together on a federal task force focused on the intersection of faith and mental health, a topic that has touched both our lives in profound ways.
Like many Christian women, I’d followed her from a distance for decades, admiring her advocacy on HIV/AIDS issues and global orphan care and tracking all that God was doing through her and her husband, Rick Warren, at Saddleback Church in California. But then I got to know Kay at a more personal level, as a faithful and compassionate friend who understands what it means to be a mother of a child with serious mental illness.
Warren has extended this friendship to many others like me. After her son Matthew’s death by suicide, she made a commitment to help mothers in similar situations. This passion led to a new retreat called Breathe, held recently in San Juan Capistrano, California and attended by almost 90 moms of children with mental illness.
After the event, I spoke with Warren about the isolation of parenting someone with mental illness, the comforts of Scripture, and what she’s learned about God after Matthew’s death.
With all the advocacy and educational work that you do on mental health issues, why was doing a retreat for moms a priority?
After Matthew died, I talked to hundreds of parents who have kids with mental illness. And it slowly began to dawn on me that not only did parents not have enough support, they didn’t have good community.
There are a lot of reasons for that. There’s stigma and discrimination against people living with mental illness. In the Christian community, there’s a standard that we feel like we have to measure up to—you know, perfect marriages, perfect families, always “things are good, things are good.” And when your life isn’t good, you end up hiding how difficult your life really is.
When there is serious mental illness, there can be extreme chaos, violence, or threats of violence. There is extreme dysfunction. There can be homelessness, substance abuse, and a sense of helplessness. And so parents don’t have a place where they can really say, “This is what my life is like.” And I just kept thinking, what can I do, what can I do? How can I help make a place for others, particularly moms, where they can be real, where they can tell their story, where they can find community?
Then a really good friend—you!—said early this year, “Have you ever thought about doing a retreat for moms?” And my response was “Uh, no, but I will.” It became crystal clear to me that that was exactly what I was supposed to do.
What outcome were you hoping for with the retreat?
I was reading Walter Brueggemann’s book called Reality, Grief, Hope. Just those three words encapsulated what it was I wanted in this weekend retreat. I wanted to create space where women could get away from the chaos and the burden of being a caregiver, and in that beautiful space, we could all take a really hard look at reality.
Any time you take a hard look at reality, it’s gonna lead to deep grief. But I didn’t want to leave people in their deep grief, because I know in my own life that hope really can emerge out of grief. But it takes time, it takes space, it takes intentionality, and I wanted the weekend to be that kind of place.
What surprised you?
I wasn't prepared to feel in myself the depth of community that occurred. Community—it's a bit of a throwaway word now. We use it so lightly. But I was looking for koinonia, for community that’s built on the fellowship of common suffering.
The koinonia of the Bible is at a much more soul level, and I saw that happen. I saw strangers who almost instantly bonded with each other over shared suffering. There was a lot of collective pain and sorrow, but at the same, there was a depth and a richness to it that fed my soul. And it was what I had longed for.
I would have given anything to have had even just a taste of that when Matthew was alive and we felt so alone in our pain, like there was nobody that understood the agony of watching our son deteriorate and knowing that, unless some miraculous thing happened, we weren't even sure he would live. (Pause for emotion.) To be able to receive that kind of fellowship, that soul kinship, would have been such a gift.
During the retreat, I really wanted women to see the goodness of God even in their suffering, even in their pain, even in their uncertain outcomes. And I really I saw it. I saw them recognize the goodness of God in their lives.
Tell us about the significance of the name “Breathe.”
Matthew was actively suicidal for so long that we lived on the edge every single day. We woke up going, “Is this the day? Is today gonna be the day that we lose him?” And after living in that hyper-vigilant state for so long, I realized that I didn't know how to breathe deeply. After Matthew died, somebody’s advice to me was to be sure I was breathing. It offended me at first. But then it woke me up to the fact that I had spent two decades breathing in a very shallow way and that one of the ways I could calm myself when grief was taking me to the ground was to pause, breathe deeply, and allow my whole self to reconnect with God and reconnect with other people.
So I wanted retreat goers to practice that not only physically but spiritually, to really breathe in God and his goodness. Because I am convinced that one of Satan’s main tactics in our suffering is to separate us from a sense of intimacy with God.
Let’s talk about your theology of suffering. How has your experience of parenting someone with mental illness formed your view of faith and hardship?
Well, I wish I were a better theologian and I could express it as eloquently as many others do, but I’m thinking of a very desperate time in 2010 when Matthew had been hospitalized after his first suicide attempt and everything just felt so dark.
I was up late at night and could not find my way to God, couldn't find my way to hope, to optimism, to expectancy, to a good future. I have a computer program that allows me to type in a word or phrase that’s in the Bible in 10 or 20 different versions, and so it pulled up every single place in the Bible where the word dark or darkness is used.
That night, I began a study of darkness. And it was pretty shocking, because 2 Samuel 22:12— in The Message translation—say that “God had wrapped himself in a trench coat of black rain-cloud darkness.” Job 19:8 says, “God had built an impassable wall across my path and covered my way with darkness.” And Psalm 13:3 says, “Answer me, oh Lord my God. Give me light in my darkness lest I die.”
As I was reading those verses, I thought yes, yes, that is exactly what I feel. I was resonating with verses where God's people had been very frank and honest about their desperation. And then I got to Isaiah 45:3, where God tells Isaiah that he's gonna use this Gentile King Cyrus to free his people from Babylon. It says in the NRSV, “I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places so that you may know that it is I, the Lord God of Israel, who calls you by name.”
I sat back in my chair and pondered that for about the next hour. I felt like I was faced with this decision: Will I believe what God says, that there are treasures in the darkness? And I decided that yes, I was going believe it.
I don’t like darkness; it’s not fun, it’s uncomfortable. It’s hard to find those treasures in the darkness, but I have. I've seen God produce riches in my suffering—not only in the trauma of Matthew’s life with serious mental illness but in the trauma of his death. God has produced gold that helps other people, and I am grateful for that. It doesn’t always make the darkness any brighter, but it does give me strength to walk in the darkness.
So many people throughout the US and the world have prayed for you and Rick after Matthew’s death. Our readers would love to know how both of you are doing. How can people continue to pray?
I decided a couple of years ago on the best way to answer the question, “How are you?” What I’ve settled on are two words: wonderful, terrible. There is so much in my life that is absolutely wonderful. I mean, I have more than I could ask for in every way. I have a strong marriage. I have amazing kids and grandkids. I love the work that I do. My financial needs are met. My health is good. I'm cognizant of the fact that I have been given a lot that I don’t deserve, but I have it. And so in that sense, I cannot complain.
At the same exact time, there is a terrible, gaping, yawning hole in my life where Matthew belongs. That hole is not gonna close over, it’s gonna remain open until the day I see Jesus. And when I see Jesus, I know I’ll see Matthew. And so I live with both. I live with wonderful, and I live with terrible, and I'm learning that that’s an okay way to live.
How have you felt most supported in the wake of Matthew’s death?
This sounds cheesy, but it’s the truth that I have received my deepest comfort from God. And we also have some friends who have decided to make our suffering theirs. They have not urged us to get over it, to move on, they’ve just chosen to suffer alongside of us, and they've moved at our pace.
I've had a great counselor, too. And we’ve benefited because of our visibility, particularly Rick's visibility. We’ve received so much goodwill from thousands and thousands of people. When I go out on speaking engagements, there's always somebody who comes up and says, “I just want you to know my family is still praying for your family.” And I never get tired of hearing that. I usually look at them and say, “Please keep praying, please keep praying.”
As you look to the future of your mental health ministry, what’s your vision?
I’d like to continue to have these retreats for moms—I’d like to expand them. But I’d also like to have them for both parents, because it’s not just the moms who are raising kids with mental illness. Dads need an awful lot of support, as well.
I know what it would do for people living with mental illness to have a weekend where they don't have to put on a mask, where they can be real about their own grief, their own agony, their own lament, and where they can find hope. To gather people in safety, in beauty, in breathing spaces is a powerful way to strengthen the body of Christ. And I want to be a part of that. I want to keep making that happen.
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