On May 11, 2018, my grandfather killed himself.
He’d been a pastor, a seminary professor, a brilliant preacher, a published author. But at 85, he faced his worst fear: dementia. The darkness he’d watched swallow so many of his old friends was coming for him.
I don’t think we’ll ever know if it was his fear of the disease, or the disease, that made the final decision. Perhaps it was some awful tangle of both. But that summer afternoon, he decided he couldn’t weather the storm he saw coming, and he left us.
I’m not finished grieving my grandfather. I don’t know that I ever will be, this side of heaven. The grief of his death has joined the chorus of all creation, groaning for redemption (Rom. 8:22–23), and those notes will linger until the King’s return. What’s more, I’m not far down this road, and can’t really say what form this grief will take in two, three, or 20 years. Yet here is what I’m learning so far.
He Was More Than One Choice
Suicide doesn’t just end lives—it poisons them. Those last desperate moments have the perverse power of oozing back over a person’s entire life, infecting every memory. It lurks in the background of family stories and in the corners of Christmas photos, muttering, “Well, he was happy that day, but we all know how it ended.” When someone becomes a suicide, it suddenly becomes a struggle to remember that he was ever anything else.
Suicide doesn’t just end lives—it poisons them. Those last desperate moments have the perverse power of oozing back over a person’s entire life, infecting every memory.
But consider Saul, who hounded young David nearly to death and, in the end, chose to fall on his own sword rather than suffer defeat in battle (1 Sam. 31:4). Yet when David heard of Saul’s death, he didn’t dismiss him as a suicide. He mourned him as a king: “mighty . . . beloved and lovely . . . swifter than eagles . . . stronger than lions” (2 Sam. 1:23–25). Each of us, one day, will bequeath the ones we love the uncomfortable and unharmonious jumble of our choices. We’ll each leave behind victories to celebrate or forget, crimes to condemn or forgive. In the end, we’re all at the mercy of memory. So, may we be merciful in our memories.
My grandfather was more than that last frantic minute alone in his garden shed. He was Dr. McBride, who helped lead Texas Baptists through the Conservative Resurgence with gentleness and grace. He was Jerold, who cared for his first wife during her long fight with ALS. He was young Jerry Bob, skinning his knees on the streets of Winnfield, Louisiana. He was an able leader and a terrible driver, a recovering workaholic and a jokester, who loved new gadgets and always referred to a person’s backside as a “hiney hoo.” He was my Grandaddy, and I will remember him, all of him.
He Deserves Heaven as Much as I Do
Suicide does not disqualify us for heaven. Sin does. And “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). I, even in what I hope in faith is my regenerate state, wake each day to sins yet uncommitted and sleep each night with sin yet unconfessed. Were a stray bullet to find me as I write this, I would pass into eternity unshriven and undeserving of eternal life, just as my grandfather did.
So Grandaddy’s death did not disqualify him for heaven, because he was never qualified in the first place. His righteous life didn’t earn him a seat in paradise, for “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16). Likewise, his unrighteous death could not snatch him from the Father’s arms, for “neither death nor life, . . . neither the present nor the future, . . . nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38–39).
His righteous life didn’t earn him a seat in paradise, for ‘we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.’
Whether death finds you at the end of your rope or a long fight with cancer, it finds you unworthy of glory. Even as believers, we all take that last leap into darkness in the mad hope that Christ is on the other side, ready to catch us and set us on new and better feet.
It Doesn’t End Here
During his last year or so, Grandaddy spoke often of wanting to “finish well.” As the years, the diagnoses, and the list of departed friends lengthened, he knew he was coming to the final stretch of his earthly life, and he wanted so badly to cross that finish line with his head held high.
Perched in my folding chair at his graveside service, the bitter irony of it all was not lost on me. I rehearsed the proud litany of his life, from degrees to pastorships to denominational positions, to children, grandchildren, dear friends, loyal colleagues, my grandmother, and the precious woman he’d married after Gram E.’s death. All those years of steadfast faith . . . and this? This is how it ends?
But at that moment, the pastor laid a hand on the coffin and quietly said, “It doesn’t end here.”
And he was right. My grandfather’s story did not end on May 11, 2018. It didn’t end in a West Texas cemetery. My Grandaddy’s story ends at the feet of Jesus. His story will end “when the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality,” and “death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54). His story ends when the glorified Christ will “wipe away every tear . . . and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain,” nor cancer, nor Lou Gehrig’s disease, nor Alzheimer’s (Rev. 21:4).
None of us will finish as well as we’d like. We’ll all leave words unspoken, sins unforgiven, lessons unlearned, and good deeds deferred. But if we, like my Grandaddy, are in Christ, then we can live, and mourn, and die knowing that one day he will tie up all the loose ends of our lives, turn all our tears to laughter, and make all things new.