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    painting of The Good Shepherd with a flock of sheep above steep cliffs

    Where Do the Lost Things Go?

    Where is my son who committed suicide? I know what Christianity has taught, but I also know the Good Shepherd who goes out to find his one lost sheep.

    By Susan Delaney Spear

    June 30, 2023
    • Michael Nacrelli

      I don't think Scripture teaches an opportunity to come to saving faith after death. Even Catholicism doesn't teach that; purgatory is only for the saved. However, I also don't think suicide can be taken as definitive proof of a lack of saving faith. All Christians make poor, irreversible decisions in our lives.

    • Robert Distefano

      My wife and I lost our 22 year old son to suicide in 1992. He was in the Navy on night watch duty in San Diego. He shot himself in the head with the gun that he was given for his protection. His body was sent to Brooklyn where we resided and we had tremendous support from a Navy Chaplain and grief worker. On the day of his funeral at Calverton Cemetery on Long Island, God gave me a peace which passes all understanding and I knew that he was with the Lord in heaven. He had suffered for many years with emotional issues and I was hoping that the Navy would help him to overcome them. Now, I know that he is finally freed from his torment.

    • Kathleen

      July 6 has special meaning for our family, too. Our 40-year-old son lost his battle with cancer that day in 2020 and he was lost to us. Ms. Spear shows that we do not mourn as those who have no hope, as Paul observed about followers of the Good Shepherd. Our grieving is a vigil that enriches our understanding of God’s nature. Whether our beloveds fought off death or ran to the confrontation, God was with them in their mortal combat. The bravery of their dying lifts our hearts to God. Thank you, Susan, for shining your hard-won light on the path through the valley of the shadow of death.

    • Joy

      Thank you for sharing your heart and thoughts with us. My brother, Darrel, took his life at age 33 and it plunged me into a 2-year depression. Amazingly, our younger daughter, who was 9 at the time, had a vision of him outside. He winked at her and told her that everything would be okay. We fully believe that we will be reunited with him again someday in heaven. I have also had enough experiences with God that I know, above all else, God is Love. 💖

    • Cindy L Martin

      What I’d like share as a suicide survivor is that while I survived my first attempt, ten years later I was contemplating, actually on the verge of attempting suicide again with the intent that I would be successful the second time. I had struggled with depression the majority of my life, and due to other incidents in my life I struggled with belonging and worthiness. The day I decided I was going to complete my suicide, I suddenly found myself in a dark gray landscape and the only light there was the light of God. He walked me to the edge of an abyss and looked down into it’s darkness, then all He said to me is, It’s your choice. I didn’t have feelings of judgment or eternal damnation, it wasn’t anything like that. What was clear to me was that He was with me. In my darkest, deepest moment of despair He was there with me, the Light in the darkest of places. It was after this that I began a long, not so perfect, healing journey. I thank Him every day for coming to find His lost sheep that day, for finding me.

    • Arlene M Tencza

      Thank you for being brave enough to write this. I, too, lost my best friend in the same manner. I always wondered, Could I have done anything? I have begged God for an answer, for closure, but there has been none. Recently, I joined the Catholic church and have come to realize that in his great love and goodness, God is always with us. In life and in death. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. May this bring you comfort as you continue to follow Him. You are loved.

    • George Pence

      I am moved by your grief and the loss of your son. I am a Catholic, not a Presbyterian, and I have little understanding of your doctrine. Perhaps because of that I am mystified by your statement that, "For hundreds of years, until the Reformation in 1517, Christians believed that a soul’s spiritual journey continued after death." I consider myself a Christian, I live after 1517, and I do believe that people who have died bearing the weight of sin exist in a place with the opportunity to grow, repent and join the company of God. That place is called purgatory, and, according to my catechism, "We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. (2283)" Please have hope, dear Susan, most people calling themselves Christian today believe that your Peter remains vital, aware, and pursed by the love of God.

    • June S

      Your essay made me blink back tears...where you quote Ezekiel. I, too, believe that God will restore all things, and that the lost will be found--all the lost. Yet I, too, grew up believing that one's opportunity to partake of salvation ended at physical death. Then I began to search the Scripture for this teaching, and found it nowhere. I listened for it in sermons, and finally heard it--"well, there it is then," I thought, shattered, and then realized the pastor was reading from our denomination's statement of belief. So I was back to searching the Scripture again. This is what I've found: "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable." Thank God for delivering us from the category of "all men most miserable." Thank Him for His promise that all broken things will be healed. George MacDonald is a very comforting saint on this subject. So is Job--There is hope of a tree! Study the phrase "shadow of death;" it appears twenty times in the KJV. I've not lost much by many metrics, but I've lost, too--a close family member, not long after you lost your son. I've experienced the staggering ongoingness of goneness. I am sorry for your loss; I am grateful with you for the visitation God allowed you; I am believing with you in the God of all flesh, for whom nothing is too hard.

    • Tyna Woods

      Thank you

    • Jhm

      I am so very sorry for your loss, my family experienced the same - but I would say your son is not the agent in this but an awful mental disease - no different than cancer or heart disease but it manifests in what I feel is the cruelest ways to the family. Our loss was actually an act of self sacrifice and bravery on the part of my brother whose diseased brain told him lies. I am just so sorry for your heartache and the earthly loss of your boy.

    • Phil Bence

      I too grew up in a four times a Sunday conservative church. I too have come to realize that it made no sense for God to stop loving a person merely because his heart had stopped beating. God is holding Peter and you and each member of your family in his hands. I pray for each of you.

    • Erma

      Let us not use the word "commit" when speaking of suicide. It is not a sin or crime. John 5:25 is clear - our eternal destiny is not determined at the time of physical death. "I assure you that the time is coming - is here - when the dead will hear the voice of God's Son, and those who hear it will live."

    • Joe Renta

      As an old guy still learning about life I am stumped at what to say. “I’m sorry for you loss” seems lame. Everyone’s loss is unique to them in some way, yet tied to others grief as well. The labor of grief. The pathway of grief. These are interesting terms, yet terms don’t and can’t really provide accurate means of description of what is felt. I sit early this morning and will simply bask in God’s Presence on you and your family’s behalf.

    • kay iverson

      thank you for sharing your heart. “may we all be found.”

    “I dreamed of Peter,” I told my therapist in October.

    “Tell me about it,” she said.

    “Well, there was a bright light behind him, but I could see him clearly. His glasses looked smudged, and his hair was not combed, but that was typical. He was wearing a plaid flannel shirt that I’ve seen before.”

    “Did he say anything?” she asked.

    “Yes. He said, ‘Mom, when I took my life, I thought it was the right thing to do, but now I know that it was a mistake.’ Then he reached out to touch my arm. We clasped each other’s forearms. Then he was gone, and I woke up.”

    “Did you feel upset when you woke up?”


    “Well, that was a visitation,” she said.

    “What’s the difference between a dream and a visitation?”

    “Ordinary dreams are symbolic. A visitation is real. I think God sent Peter to give you that message as a step on his journey. An apology if you will.”

    Grief therapy was terribly difficult, even with the best therapist I could have asked for. I was Sisyphus pushing the rock of question-laden grief up the hill, only to find it at the bottom again the next day, or the next hour. Was this my fault? What could I have done differently during the children’s early years? How could I have supported Peter better as a young adult living two thousand miles away? It was a puzzle I couldn’t solve – and couldn’t put down. Occasionally a line from “Adam’s Song” by Blink 182 played in my head: Please tell Mom this is not her fault.

    I could not pray my usual prayers. I did not have the concentration or the heart. So I began each day by praying aloud the Lord’s Prayer. Following the “amen” I said aloud the name of each family member and a few friends. I did not realize it at the time, but this ritual was a steel girder for my soul.

    Lost things live under couch cushions, behind dressers, in old coat pockets. They still exist, in places beyond our sight. I had seen his body, which was now ashes in an urn, but where was Peter’s spirit?

    On July 6, 2014, a Sunday morning, my twenty-eight-year-old son was hitchhiking from upstate New York, looking to take the train into Brooklyn to work his afternoon shift. A kind man in a truck picked him up and drove him several miles, dropping him off two miles north of the train station. He slung on his black backpack and walked a mile. There, he stepped over the guard rail, walked a few feet, smoked a joint, and knelt down. Using his belt, a piece of string, and the low branch of a tree, he chose to breathe his last.

    At the same time, on the eastern plains of Colorado, my husband, Bruce, and I were drinking coffee and dressing for church. He pastored a Presbyterian congregation, and I played the piano for the choir and congregational singing. A deep gloom fell on me. I had awakened from a nightmare in which I had given birth to a stillborn baby boy, gray and lifeless. My arms and legs were leaden, my mind a soup of fog, my heart inexplicably desperate. I was overcome. I told myself to snap out of it and get ready for the day.

    I shared the dream with Bruce. “I feel so strange,” I said. “I must be anxious about our trip to Kansas.”

    Sunday unfolded normally, but my sense of despair persisted. I told myself I was imagining things and threw some clothes in a suitcase for our trip. Tomorrow we were headed to my husband’s parents’ house. They were growing frail. Concerned that they needed more help, we planned to discuss the situation with them.

    While we drove across Kansas in our VW Jetta, my misery deepened. Tall corn waved in the sun; bales of hay glinted in fields. I was moving through a molasses sea.

    “I can’t shake this feeling.”

    “I feel it too. It will be OK.”

    We arrived, ate a meal together, and went to bed.

    On Tuesday, Bruce’s phone rang. It was our older daughter calling to report that she had received a message: our son had not reported to work on Sunday. I did what I do when concerned. I jogged around a neighborhood lake and prayed. Bruce made airline reservations.

    “I have a terrible feeling about this. If there is something seriously wrong with him, I will just die,” I said. We got in our car, drove back to Colorado, slept three hours, and caught a plane to New York.

    Peter was born in Kyoto, Japan, on June 27, 1986 – three weeks early. He weighed 5.5 pounds and jaundice made him yellow as a daisy. But before long he was as healthy and rambunctious as any toddler. We moved to Denver in 1987, and he made friends in the Sunday school nursery. After a few years, he fell in love with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, drawing a perfect replica of one on our stone fireplace (in indelible ink). He loved art but refused to learn the alphabet until he was six, when he realized that letters were the components of words, and thus could help him read picture books.

    Looking back, I think a part of me was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. When the glass slipper finally fell, it shattered.

    Peter loved all God’s creatures, and they loved him. He happily caught snakes for a neighbor who hated having them in her garden. He played fetch with our beagle, Buddy, and had whispered conversations with Olivia, our cat. He taught Guinevere, our golden retriever, to dance. Once, attending an overnight birthday party at a friend’s house, he slept in the basement with the family’s dog who was quietly passing away.

    He asked me one day: “Mommy, why did you name me Peter?”

    “Well, you know that Jesus loved his disciple Peter, and he told Peter that he would make him strong. He would make him a rock!”

    He was silent.

    The next day he returned with the same question, and I gave him the same answer.

    He said, “I don’t like my name.”

    “Why, buddy?”

    “Peter the disciple told three lies and sunk into the lake.”

    a young man playing guitar

    Peter. Image courtesy of the author.

    Around fourth grade, he discovered hockey: watching it, talking about it, playing it. He joined a roller hockey team, and Bruce put a homemade goal in the driveway. When he scored, he yelled “Dude!” and when he missed, he yelled “Dang!” This went on for hours, years, until he picked up an electric bass guitar.

    He knew how to read the bass clef from playing trombone at school. Soon he was spending hours every day and night listening to the radio and copying the bass lines he heard. His school band director recognized his natural ability and cheered him on. He began taking classes at Colorado Conservatory for the Jazz Arts, a phenomenal group of professional jazz musicians devoted to passing jazz on to the next generation. It was there that Peter met lifelong musician friends from all over metro Denver.

    On graduating from high school, Peter won a coveted scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, later studying one semester at Dave Brubeck’s institute for jazz at the University of the Pacific. Jazz, and later rock-and-roll, took Peter all over the world – Canada, France, Spain, Russia, Romania – and across the United States.

    Our older daughter filed a missing person’s report. We arrived in New York, and our younger daughter flew in from Nashville. By Wednesday, a small group of family and friends had gathered. At the suggestion of a sheriff’s deputy, we walked in pairs along the highway where Peter was last seen, from south to north. His superior was not concerned about a twenty-eight-year-old who had gone missing, seemingly of his own volition. But we knew this was highly irregular and were frantic; Peter never missed work, even a humble server’s job. It had been four days without news. Individually, we imagined worst-case scenarios. Collectively, we hoped for the best. Perhaps he had lost his way in the woods?

    Thursday: We talked again to the sheriff and deputy, we searched, we quizzed a convenience store clerk who had seen him, we scoured fields, we noticed the scent of honeysuckle, we prayed. We found nothing.

    Friday: We set out again in pairs. We handed out fliers with a photograph of Peter. Bruce urged us to move north more quickly. We picked up our pace. We sweated. At noon, we decided to contact newspapers.

    painting of the Good Shepherd on a dark hillside

    Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Good Shepherd, oil on canvas, 1902–1903

    My limbs were heavy weights. I kept on walking, looking. At 3 p.m. we stopped at a roadside café for food and water. Sitting at a table on an uneven patio, sipping from a plastic bottle of water, I realized, suddenly, that I was alone. Where had the others gone? In that instant, my husband appeared around the corner of the building, phone in hand. I had only seen that look one other time: the day my father died.

    “I’m sorry, Susan. They found a body.”

    How I got from the café to the spot on the side of the highway, I don’t remember. Red flashing lights, screaming sirens, the sound of voices as if underwater, the sheriff with a shiny forehead.

    A body? I needed to know.

    “Trust me. You don’t want to look,” the sheriff said.

    “Why not?”

    “This isn’t what you want to remember. Trust me.”

    “I don’t trust you. I saw him when he was born, and I will see him now,” I shouted.

    The deputy stepped forward. “Susan. Look at me. When you are ready, nod, and I will move the branches out of the way.”

    I nodded. I saw. We saw. My husband stood beside me, his arm around my shoulder.

    “I won’t let you die too,” he promised.

    The sun sparkled on a thousand shades of green. At terrific speed my mind played a montage of a beautiful, too-brief life. And then, believe this if you will, his spirit – his soul – stirred from its slight hover above his body. Gently, almost apologetically, he rose up and eastward, through the shimmering green into blue.

    And then:

     … the girls were cleaning out his tiny apartment.

     … we were selecting items: guitars, books, pictures, coins, a necklace, a fixed-gear bicycle he rode all over New York delivering takeout. (He was hit by a car twice – that I knew about.)

     … we were eating coconut milk ice cream, the only thing my stomach would tolerate.

     … we were driving a car loaded with his music equipment through thick heat.

     … we were planning a memorial service in Denver, selecting speakers, music, and scripture.

     … I was shopping for a dress. (God bless my friend Laura, who stood with me, unflinching, as dress after dress hung on my shrinking self.)

     … we were attending a memorial concert at The Bell House in Brooklyn that our daughter lovingly organized. Peter’s friends came from everywhere. Each of his musician friends performed one of his songs. Lyrics, music, hugs, apple pie: everything but the common denominator – Peter.

    Where do lost things go?

    Of course, there were facts and details. We had them. But those did not, and do not, matter. What continues to matter is his absence. From time to time, the language we speak instructs our minds and hearts. We lost our son. Our daughters lost their brother.

    To lose: verb (used with object), lost [lawst, lost], los·ing [loo-zing].

    • to come to be without (something in one’s possession or care), through accident, theft, etc., so that there is little or no prospect of recovery: I’m sure I’ve merely misplaced my hat, not lost it.
    • to fail inadvertently to retain (something) in such a way that it cannot be immediately recovered: I just lost a dime under this sofa.
    • to suffer the deprivation of: to lose one’s job; to lose one’s life.

    This definition ( indicates that we can lose something by our own negligence, or we can be deprived of something by no fault of our own.

    I know my Mont Blanc pen is somewhere. My opal ring is probably on some woman’s finger somewhere.

    I have read that the default mode of the human brain is problem solving. When not engaged in work, my brain was in overdrive trying to make sense of Peter’s suicide. Why did he make this irrevocable choice? I wore myself and others out with questions.

    Earlier that June I had visited Peter in New York. We went for lunch and visited the Museum of Modern Art where Peter found a new favorite artist in Max Ernst. He told me that day he was lonely, but he didn’t appear desperate. His band was doing well, and he was playing bass with other bands who were also on the rise. He insisted on paying for my lunch. I ordered an expensive single origin bean coffee. I regret that.

    I walk under the direction of a mysterious God who will not rest until he has gathered up all the lost. 

    When the services and proper rituals of death ended, the labor of grief began. It is not an accident that we refer to grief, like childbirth, as a kind of work. All of me ached for deliverance. It seemed the master of evil, chaos, and suffering had thrown all the pieces of this nightmare into a flimsy cardboard box, shaken it, and handed me the whole damned mess. “Knock yourself out,” he sneered, hissing at me, “Pieces may be missing.”

    Each morning I woke and remembered: Peter is dead. I put on my new reality and wore it to work. I didn’t miss a day of teaching. It was my lifeline. I still knew how to scan poems and discuss literature. I’m sure my students would’ve welcomed a day off from my monochromatic grief, but I was determined. My colleagues, ministering angels in khaki pants, black pencil skirts, and sensible shoes, cracked jokes and cried with me in proper measure.

    After thirty years as a pastor’s wife, I was no stranger to human suffering. I knew that none of us is immune to it. Looking back, I think a part of me was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. When the glass slipper finally fell, it shattered. It was then I knew I had never tasted grief before.

    I loved visiting Peter in Boston, where we went to the Museum of Fine Art and stared at the Impressionists, then walked through galleries in The Back Bay. After a summer jazz tour through Spain he developed tendonitis in his left wrist and thumb, which forced a semester of “rest.” This was a life-changing speed bump. He realized he preferred rock to jazz. So he dropped out of college, moved to Bushwick in Brooklyn with a musical collaborator and friend, and followed his rock-and-roll heart.

    I visited Peter in Brooklyn and attended his gigs. Once, he surprised me by covering Bob Dylan’s “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind.” The scent of creativity was in the air. I had heard of Williamsburg hipsters; Peter was a hipster. Together, we listened to all his musical influences and discussed them: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Cat Stevens, Johnny Cash, and hundreds of others. It was music, gigs, old friends, new friends, and the next tune that were on his mind.

    I am grateful for my upbringing in the United Presbyterian Church. I was taught the Bible four times on Sunday (Sunday school, morning service, youth group, evening service), to say nothing of Wednesday evening prayer meeting, vacation Bible school, yearly summer camp, and an array of special occasions. From a young age I received pins and stars for reading and memorizing scripture, and I took a catechism class before joining the church at age twelve. In my forties, I had begun to question my early teaching about heaven and hell, but those doctrines were ever present in my thoughts. Those who died without faith in Jesus would go directly to hell. A place of eternal separation from God. Those who died with faith in Jesus would go directly to heaven, eternity with God. They would enter through the Pearly Gates, and all God’s bounty was theirs.


    I thought repeatedly of Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep. “Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it?” I pictured the father of the prodigal son, running down a dusty lane, his sandals flying off. Mind you, dignified Middle Eastern men do not run anywhere. I thought of Jesus restoring Lazarus, healing Jairus’ daughter. I envied the widow of Nain: Jesus saw her crying in the funeral procession for her only son, and at once he commanded him to return to life. I remembered Elijah lying on top of another widow’s only son and asking God to restore him to life. He did. Does the Good Shepherd only search for the lost sheep while they are living? For hundreds of years, until the Reformation in 1517, Christians believed that a soul’s spiritual journey continued after death. Many of my believing friends continue to pray daily for the souls of their deceased loved ones. Was God still shaping Peter’s soul?

    painting of The Good Shepherd with a flock of sheep above steep cliffs

    Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Good Shepherd (Atlas Mountains, Morocco), oil on fiberboard, ca. 1930

    I had been pondering these things for about twenty years, trying to make sense of a perfect God and what I know of this imperfect world. Once, Peter and I sat in a restaurant in Boston chatting about theology and our spiritual journeys.

    “Mom, I don’t want you to change your theology because you are worried about me,” he said.

    “There are millions of people in China I am more concerned about than you,” I said.

    He smiled.

    There have been no more visitations. My therapist said not to expect another. Peter had delivered his message; that task was finished. His chair has been empty for eight years at holiday meals, birthday celebrations, and special gatherings. He no longer drives us mad with his tardiness or his forgetfulness. He no longer cracks us up with his alarming sense of humor. He forfeited his life. He hurt literally hundreds of friends. He shattered the hearts of his two sisters. His demise changed their lives. His death wounded his father and me in ways that will never heal. We lost Peter.

    I continue to ponder the language of loss. Peter took his life, but he also lost it. In English, “to take your life” is to commit suicide; “to give your life” is to serve a greater cause. A semantic irony. We lost Peter, but he was the agent of the loss. In the history of Christian teaching, suicide is called a mortal sin, and punished as such.

    I searched in scripture for the language of loss and found many references to the search for lost things: the woman and the lost coin, the shepherd and the lost sheep, and these verses from Ezekiel:

    For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: Look, I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will seek out my flock. I will rescue them from all the places where they have been scattered on a cloudy, dark day. (34:11–12)

    I had read the Bible and tried to follow Jesus my entire life, but I was at a crossroads. Had God waved goodbye to Peter and left him to the consequence of his choice, or was the Good Shepherd searching for the lost one on a “cloudy, dark day”? What about me? Was I still “in” this faith? Or was I “over and out”?

    Instead of turning right or left, to recommit to the teachings of my childhood or to walk away, I chose to investigate further. I watched myself walk past a sign that might have been posted by the pastors and teachers of my youth: “Beyond Here There Be Dragons.” Some would say I chose a path of relative truth. In my catechism class, I had to memorize the answer to the question “What is God?” According to the Catechism of the Westminster Confession: “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” Now I see this definition lacks God’s heart, his pulse: love. The God of the cosmos is nothing if not love. Wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth are only forms of his love.

    The path of grief has not been easy, and a few pieces remain missing. I walk “as if through a glass darkly” under the direction of a mysterious God of love, mercy, justice, and kindness, a God who will not rest until he has gathered up all the lost.

    After losing my son, I dove into teaching classes and writing poems to avoid the pain. I did not understand how deeply my adult daughters needed the comfort of their mother. I did not know how to reach out or what to say. I said the wrong thing many times. I did not consider my husband’s suffering as important as my own. I too was lost. I was lost in grief.

    But I came to understand: we lost Peter. Peter is lost in the presence of God. And he continues to exist somewhere, alive and well.

    And gradually, God is finding and restoring pieces of me.

    Augustine of Hippo famously wrote in his Confessions: “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” I now understand that the converse is also true: God is restless until he finds each one of us.

    May we all be found. 

    Contributed By SusanDelaneySpear Susan Delaney Spear

    Susan Delaney Spear is an Associate Professor of English (retired from Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, Colorado).

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