Finding God in the Depths

Earlier this year I submitted an essay I had written about my brother’s suicide to Today’s Christian Woman. The essay was originally published on May 14, 2014–the day I turned 40–in their issue on depression. It was the first time I’ve been published in a Christian outlet. That itself was a gift. Seeing it go live on the first day of a new decade was even better.

Here’s the full essay:

Finding God in the Depths

How losing my brother to suicide challenged my faith and helped me understand God’s sovereignty

Kristina Cowan

In September, I lost my precious brother Jim. He had the heart of a servant, the regal pluck of a knight, and the charm of a child. And after a brief bout of severe depression, he died by suicide.

I’ve not known a world without him. He was eight years old when I was born. Until my husband came along, Jim was my protector, my second dad, my best friend. He drove me to college and came whenever I needed help moving or celebrating my birthdays. He embraced my friends, taught me to drive, and showed me how to give from the heart and extend grace.

Jim was easy to love. He was burly and tough, sensitive and soft-hearted. In love with life, he shrank back from nothing. He chased the horizon, ever in competition with himself. Excitement was his lifeblood. As a child I looked up at my brother and thought, “I want to be like him.”

When his children were young, my husband and I visited Jim at his office. Lining the wall behind him was a raft of pictures. I paused, thinking at first that they were images of several different kids. But they were snapshots of the same two boys, his sons.

A battle lost

Marital strife and emotional abuse had triggered his depression. When he first told me, I was surprised. Married for almost 24 years to his high-school sweetheart, he enjoyed a loyal group of friends, managed his own business, and doted on his sons. But as his life as he knew it dissolved, Jim’s sense of self-worth went with it.

I was committed to saving him from despair.

I talked to him almost every day during the summer. I was committed to saving him from despair. We communicated by phone, e-mail, and text. I sent him psalms, cards, care packages filled with Philip Yancey books and Jesus Calling, bacon-laced chocolate, and art from my four-year-old son.

When my sister and I visited him, we talked for five hours at our first meal. The three of us hadn’t been alone in years. I was full of joy, but I was also full of sorrow to see him so thin, his eyes glazed in pain and betraying the broken state of his heart.

We cried, talked long, and laughed hard. We planned to get our families together at least once a year, rotating whose home we visited. Between Cleveland, Chicago, and Houston, we thought we had a fair pick of fun places. Jim dubbed them “pilgrimages.”

Yet his depression worsened and he became suicidal in late June, making several attempts on his life. He was under the care of several doctors, was in a support group, and was taking medication. Jim loathed relying on these—he reveled in being the fixer, the builder, the healer. His inability to rebuild his life had crushed his hope and, eventually, his spirit.

Minutes before taking his life, he called me. His sobs conveyed a torment that words could not express. I struggled to take on some of his anguish—to talk him down from the desperation. I couldn’t.

But I could comfort him. I told him that I loved him no matter how he low he felt or how messy his emotions seemed. That he would survive a divorce, and eventually, thrive.

Since he died, I’ve wondered if I should have kept him on the phone longer and dialed the police. I’m in the Chicago area and he was in suburban Cleveland, but there had to be a way. But with some perspective, I see that Jim’s life wasn’t in my hands. I wanted it to be—but God meant Jim’s life for other purposes.

His way, not mine

I’m disappointed with God’s decision. Some days, I yell at him.

I’m disappointed with God’s decision. Some days, I yell at him. I cry while driving my kids to school. Why didn’t he prevent the suicide? Jim followed Christ. He believed in the Cross and sought its redemptive healing. My sister, Jim’s two best friends, and I had formed a suicide-support network. We planned to save his life. A long prayer chain was pleading on his behalf. At the time we felt we had spiritual authority—that we were doing God’s work.

So was God on vacation all summer? Probably not, since he’s omnipotent.

If I had it my way, Jim would be alive. But a recent devotional reminded me of Isaiah 55:8–9: “‘My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,’ says the Lord. ‘And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts are higher than your thoughts.'” I need to let God be God, and have his way. Nothing is good about my brother’s suicide—but I believe God can use it for good.

Shortly after Jim’s death, a rush of love and condolences poured in from friends and family. An encouraging note came from a fellow writer: “We read in John 11 that when Mary saw Jesus she said: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ If is not a healing word. ‘If I had done this . . . ‘ ‘If I had done that . . . ‘ You simply do not have that power. But Lord is a healing word. Jesus is Lord. He knows our pain and understands. He empathizes completely. We also read ‘Jesus wept.’ And others remarked ‘See how he loved him!’ Then he who has power over life and death resurrected him who had died. Your brother will live. But now we grieve.”

God is at work. Doing what, I’m not sure. Still I know he’s in the mix.

Losing my brother to suicide is testing my faith. As I reflect on the summer, the Boston Marathon bombings come to mind. Like those runners, I too raced—alongside my brother—and fell upon a finish line littered in death and confusion. In the first days after Jim died, I reeled. But a surprising peace has come about—the sort that surpasses my understanding. God is at work. Doing what, I’m not sure. Still I know he’s in the mix.

I scour the ruins of my grief, searching for redemption. I strive now to weave Jim’s story into the fabric of my life, to enrich the lives of others with it, and to help God do what he does best: draw glory from the mire. As Frederick Buechner wrote, “Even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead.”





1 Comment
  1. This essay has polished into a diamond. I hope it reflects far and wide. It isn’t a topic we can ever understand, but that needs to be attempted again and again. Thank you for not letting Jim’s sad death be the end of the story. I have thought about and cherished my own deceased brother John Barry so much more since meeting you, even though John Barry has been gone for more than twenty years. You’ve helped me remember the many reasons I loved my own big brother, because he was so much like your Jim.

Leave a Reply

Latest Posts