When My Brother Committed Suicide
By Chen Xi*
*Not the author’s real name
In 2018, I got a phone call that forever changed my life.
A friend of mine had called me to give me the news: my elder brother had died. He had been struggling with depression and had died by suicide.
I was stunned. I remember the only thing I could think of then was:
At the time, I was in a third-world country, working in a ministry that helps families with special needs children. So that very afternoon, I got on a 25-hour flight back to my home country. I had always imagined that the next time I’d be in my house or my church, it would be to share about the ministry I was involved in. Instead, I went straight to the funeral home.
If Only I Had Known
My brother and I were close when we were young. Then he got married and moved to a different city. We tried our best to catch up with each other during birthdays, Christmas, and Chinese New Year. I would see on his and his wife’s social media accounts that they travelled frequently for the holidays, so I thought everything was fine on their end.
It was a shock when I learned that my brother had been living by himself for some time before he passed away. It turned out that he and his wife were struggling with their marriage.
We never got any explanation as to why all of this had happened, so I assumed then that he became depressed because his marriage and his job were failing. I never knew he struggled with mental illness. Not until our mutual friend told me that he had been depressed for a long time, and our friend had been pushing him to get professional help.
Alone in My Grief
Although I wasn’t the only family left to my brother, I felt very alone in my grief. My family is a typical Chinese family in that we’ve never talked about emotions. My mom didn’t even cry during the cremation. My father left us when we were younger, and when he came to the funeral house, he didn’t look like he was grieving either. I felt like I was the only one who expressed full sorrow, though I realised later that my younger brother was grieving too.
But since grief was not a topic in the house, I struggled to find someone to talk to. My brother’s wife also chose to keep this a secret, and we wanted to respect her decision. But I still needed help. I was full of guilt and questions. So I went to see a Christian counsellor.
I went through intensive counselling and read a lot of books about grief and suffering, only to find that a lot of people are still journeying through it. And I had many whys inside my heart.
How Could This Have Happened?
Having grown up in a local church that was dedicated to planting small churches in remote places across my home country, I’ve been exposed to missions work since I was in high school and have always had a heart for it. That’s how I ended up in that third-world country, to join the special needs ministry there. I saw how people gave their lives to Jesus, and I wanted to do the same.
I never realised that beneath all this, I had been holding on to this belief—that if we do ABC, then God will do XYZ; if I obey God and do good, I would be happy; if I live a godly life, God will spare me from suffering, death, or pain.
When my brother died, I struggled to make sense of everything. I couldn’t understand why God allowed this to happen to my family, when I was faithfully serving in His name, in a country far away from home; when I had willingly left everything behind: career, lifelong friendship, and all the other comforts I had at home. I gave it all up, for God. Why did this happen? God is supposed to be good, right?
So I stopped going to church.
I didn’t join any small group or any other ministry. I couldn’t face the people who would try to diminish my grief, or even ask me when I’d go back into missions. I couldn’t even think about it! I barely ate, and I struggled to sleep for months.
I was bitter and full of grief. My church family often said things like,
be just fine
to be grateful
all of which were unhelpful in this situation. I didn’t know how to deal with this disappointment. And talking about God just didn’t make sense at that time. I struggled to connect His character—wise, loving, mighty—to what I was experiencing.
Turning to the Bible
Despite all that, I knew that this situation would not go away by itself. I needed to take the journey towards healing. I read a lot of books about grieving and surviving a sibling’s suicide, but none of them were as comforting as the Bible.
Even though I didn’t want to talk about God, I still wanted to talk to God. And it is only in the Bible that I can feel God speaking to me and addressing my pain. Though I did not literally hear His voice, it made me think that God seems silent because He is sad too. I believe that He was weeping with me as we grieved over my brother’s death.
Folks from church used to tell me that we can’t complain to God. Complaining is sinful (and on some level, I still believe that complaining is a sign of ungratefulness). But in the midst of grief, complaining is what makes us human. The psalms are full of complaints; desperate people who wanted God to act now.
I read the book of Job over and over, especially those unpopular middle chapters filled with questions, complaints, and agony, and I found that the words uttered by Job were exactly what I felt. I lamented through the Psalms. “You have taken away my companions and loved ones. Darkness is my closest friend.” (Psalm 88:18, NLT). I recited Lamentations 3:31-33 whenever I had my depressive episodes.
For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.
These books are full of honesty about pain, yet also full of hope. Through them, I learned not to doubt alone, but to learn from those who journeyed through their doubts.
I asked God, “Why would You let this kind of pain happen to my family? I thought I have served You wholeheartedly. I read my Bible, I prayed, I’ve never relied on my own understanding. Why is it that my friend, who has lived an ungodly life, has a better family situation? They didn’t have to deal with pain or sorrow or guilt.
Whenever I asked why, I found comfort seeing that there were others in the Bible who asked God the same questions. Psalm 73 was one example that I related to. And sometimes God didn’t answer. But knowing that this experience is universal, that I’m not alone in this, it comforted me.
Before, I had not realised that the Bible is full of characters who suffered even as they obeyed God, and that godliness doesn’t guarantee exemption from suffering. Even Jesus, the most blameless, sinless person ever on earth, suffered. Even Jesus asked “why” when he was on the cross.
Reading the Bible comforted me as it showed me who God is and who God is not. God is not a person who is watching me suffer from afar, or dealing out consequences for things I didn’t even know I’d done.
Day by day, God showed me that our relationship shouldn’t be transactional. This was difficult for me to grasp since I had been living with this belief for 30 years. I realised that 30 years of going to church and serving didn’t make me a true believer. I realised that I had been a selfish Christian, because I was serving God with expectations, and when He didn’t do what I believed He would do, I quickly grew bitter. I wondered how I could begin to serve, worship, pray, and read the Bible without expecting something in return. It took daily practice and fervent prayer to move from the false belief to the truth:
God is God and we are just mere humans. We can’t control God’s actions by our obedience or godliness. Yet, the Bible tells us that He is kind, loving, full of compassion, and that He gave His Son to us as the greatest proof of His love.
The Bible showed me truth, and hope springs when truth is rehearsed. I realised I have no other person to run to. I only have God. So even with all the bitterness and complaints, the whys and hows, and despite all the emotions, I knew deep down that my best option was still to run into God’s embrace.
God, I know You are powerful and full of wisdom and love; You know better than I do, and I believe You can turn this out for good. God, I want to love you, no matter how painful it is.
Going Back to Church
I eventually started going back to my church, leading a small group, and joining other ministries again, even though I still don’t know the purpose of this painful experience.
My church is still imperfect and ill-equipped to deal with grieving people, but I believe God wanted me to use this experience to serve and to receive blessings from His body. I can’t see God physically, but the church represents Him even with all its imperfections. They prayed for me for months, they tried to reach out to me and invite me for meals, tried to cheer me up (even though it failed for the most part), and tried to listen. And as bitterness gradually dissolved, I decided to take part in the ministry again, though not as much as before; now that I know my limit, I try my best to juggle everything and keep my mental and spiritual health in check.
Sometimes, when I’m busier than usual with ministry, this question still pops into my mind: “What’s the point of doing all this for God if my life isn’t spared of pain?” I miss the moments when I can serve without thinking too much about what I would get or all the what ifs. But whenever I’m struggling, I remind myself to go back to this thought:
When we go through darkness and we don’t feel God is there, we hold on anyway, and we say,
“I know you’re God, and I’m not getting anything out of all this, but I’m still going to pray. I’m still going to go to church and worship. I’m still going to love my neighbour. I’m still going to do the things I ought to do,”
It will help us move away from seeing our relationship with God as a transactional one. When we replace our expectations with the truth of God’s word, then we see God for who He really is, and that is what keeps us grounded in our faith.
Journeying Towards Healing
I am now back in my home country, serving at the same school I was in before I left for missions. The teachers and students have welcomed me and it’s so comforting to know that I’m needed and welcomed.
It’s been two years since the incident. I have been keeping everything to myself and less than five close friends know the whole story. But here are some indicators that tell me that I am journeying toward healing:
1. I can retell my experience (through writing or speaking) without sobbing uncontrollably. I’ve been journaling about my experience for about two years now.
2. I feel less resentful towards my brother’s wife and her family for not telling us why it happened. I used to hate her and wish something bad would happen to her. But now I wish she has also journeyed toward healing. We all need it.
3. I appreciate reading about people who deal with grief, and hearing from those who have lived with prolonged pain and especially those who show great empathy (my favourite book is written by Diane Langberg).
My biggest takeaway from this event is not insight but empathy. I believe I’ve become more empathetic towards my friends. I’m now more aware that a lot of people struggle with mental illness and that we are often oblivious, thinking they’re fine when they actually need help.
I’ve tried my best to educate my church that grieving people don’t need Bible verses recited to them; they don’t need unsolicited advice. What they need is for you to weep with them. I’ve also shared on my social media that getting help is totally okay, that seeing a counsellor or a psychiatrist doesn’t make us unbelievers, and that therapy and medication and prayer can go together.
Mental illness, suicide, and grieving are still taboo subjects in my culture, but I am hopeful that things will progress and get better and that Christians can be well equipped in this area to help those in need.
It’s okay to ask for help. If you or someone you know is struggling, there’s always someone ready to listen and help.
Get help and support by contacting your local suicide prevention helpline.