Fifteen-year-old John Dubreuil Smith was babysitting his little sister on a Friday night in 1982 when he locked himself in his Lincoln County bedroom and fired a .22-caliber rifle into his mouth. But that was only the beginning of this family tragedy.
Three deacons of their rural Baptist church “told my mother that my brother was going to hell because he had committed suicide,” said the sister, Katrie Smith Christopher. “My mother let out a wail that you couldn’t believe.”
The service was held at a funeral home 15 miles away instead of at the family’s church down the street, Beth Haven Baptist in Denver. John was buried in a corner of its cemetery. Christopher, who was 8 at the time, says the church shunned her family and exiled him to an untended grave — claims the church firmly disputes.
John’s story illustrates what mental health experts know: Childhood suicide is a growing epidemic that can torment surviving family members for decades. Suicide is now North Carolina’s second-leading cause of death for children 10 to 17 years, trailing only motor vehicle accidents.
Forty-four N.C. children and teens took their lives in 2017, compared with 22 in 2008, according to data reported by the N.C. State Center for Health Statistics. The proportion of deaths due to suicide in that age group rose from 8.8 percent in 2001 to 16.7 percent in 2017.
Despite that increase and a growing focus on suicide as a mental health issue, ancient social stigmas linger. Many are rooted in the church: For centuries, many Christians believed that suicide is the “unpardonable sin” that God won’t forgive. Some churches buried suicide victims on unconsecrated ground.
A church cemetery is where, on Saturday, Katrie Christopher will reconcile 37 years of anguish over her brother.
Christopher had her brother’s body exhumed a few weeks ago from the Beth Haven Baptist cemetery. It was reburied beside their mother, fulfilling her long-held wish, at the church she had joined just four miles down the road after her son’s death.
“There is nothing else I can do for my mama,” she said. “There has been an incredible weight that’s been lifted off my shoulders.”
Kids whose brother killed himself
Christopher, who’s 45 and lives in Colorado, remembers John’s death in excruciating detail.
Watching “The Muppets” on TV with her other brother, Joe, on a February night while their mother and her boyfriend went to an auto parts store in Hickory. Hearing a thump somewhere in the house. Joe finding the door to the bedroom he shared with John locked. Glass breaking as Joe broke a window to get into the bedroom, then his screams.
Joe telling his sister to hide in their mom’s closet, her childhood refuge, as he called for help. The smell of cedar and the feel of her mother’s Sunday dresses on her face. The clank of the ambulance stretcher crossing the front door threshold.
Finally emerging to find blinking police lights and “half the town in our front yard.”
John died the next day at a hospital.
The Lincoln Times-News ran a front page article about John’s suicide. It was followed days later by a second article noting that another local teenager had tried to commit suicide within two weeks.
The story’s headline quoted the Lincolnton police chief: “Something Has Gone Haywire.” Local law enforcement authorities blamed a general lack of communication between parents and children.
“We lost our identity that day,” Christopher said. “We were the kids whose brother killed himself. My mother was the woman who wasn’t home when her son committed suicide.”
The family that had attended Beth Haven Baptist “every time the doors were open” didn’t go there again after John died, she said.
Trauma for family members
The families of children who die by suicide can suffer for the rest of their lives, said Dr. James Rachal, academic chair of psychiatry at Atrium Health in Charlotte.
“Suicide is one of the most traumatic events a family or parent could ever go through,” he said. “You’re not only losing your child, which is extremely difficult, but it’s also the way it is highly stigmatized by our society. In a lot of religions, it’s considered sacrilege.”
Rachal spoke about suicide broadly, not John’s case in particular. The violence of the act, and even the scene where it occurred, can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, he said. Anger at the victim may be redirected at family members. The social stigma associated with suicide may make it hard to talk about outside the family.
There’s also “the thought of how much pain the child must have been going through, and the question of what else might I have done,” he said. Some family members are able to grieve, accept that the loss will always be felt and learn to move forward. Others simply can’t.
“Ultimately, nobody is going to forget losing a child,” Rachal said.
Even at 8, after her brother’s death, Christopher said she had “unrealistic thoughts that I could have done something, and that played on my mind for years, for years.”
John, the second-oldest of four siblings, was sensitive and had a big heart, she said. He had a special bond with his mother, but also taught young Katrie to swim and, at 7, to drive a car — until they hit a tree. He never confessed who was behind the wheel.
Their parents had divorced a year before he died. Their maternal grandmother had passed away four months earlier, and he’d recently broken up with a girlfriend.
“I wish I could go back and talk to my brother,” Christopher said. “I mean, this is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
For six years, until Carol Ann Smith died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 41, Christopher said she watched her mother tend her son’s grave with fingers gnarled by rheumatoid arthritis. She claims Beth Haven Baptist wouldn’t keep it up. The church admits some maintenance lapses but denies that it intentionally ignored John’s grave.
“My brother’s death was the beginning of the end for my mom,” Christopher said. “I think she died as much of a broken heart as she did cancer.”
‘Damning piece of wickedness’
Christian views on suicide were shaped by a fifth-century African bishop, Augustine of Hippo, who proclaimed suicide “a damning piece of wickedness,” Michael Haykin, a professor of church history at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., told the Baptist Press for an article published last September.
The Christian church viewed suicide as “self-idolatry,” distinguishing it from other sins because it allows no time for repentance, adds a 2014 article by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest U.S. Protestant denomination. (Beth Haven Baptist is independent of the Southern Baptist Convention.)
Ministers now focus more on mental health and suicide prevention, the Baptist Press article says, as some pastors themselves feel enough stress and anxiety to take their own lives.
But in 1982, Christopher recalls, three men from Beth Haven Baptist visited their home before John’s funeral and talked to her mother in the dining room.
“I remember them saying that he could not be buried with the rest of the congregation because he had committed suicide and suicide was a sin you couldn’t repent for, and that he was going to hell,” she said.
Claims that don’t sound like my church
A couple of months ago, she repeated the story in a confrontation with Beth Haven’s current pastor, the Rev. David Mims, after a church service. The pastor at the time John died, J.D. Morris, passed away in 2000.
Christopher was “a little hysterical and in talking with her, she had an awful lot of pent-up memories,” Mims said this week. ”She made some claims that just do not sound like Beth Haven Baptist Church.”
“I don’t know if there was a misunderstanding, but that never would have been the theology of Beth Haven Baptist Church, not under my leadership and not under the former pastor’s leadership. Never in the Bible does it talk about suicide as unpardonable sin — I’ve even preached that the unpardonable sin has nothing to do with suicide. There was a time that some people thought committing suicide was an unpardonable sin, but it was just a false belief.”
Christopher’s older sister, Jeannine Dubreuil of Houston, was 16 when John died. Dubreuil remembers nothing of the week after his suicide, but recalls later returning his blood-soaked textbooks to East Lincoln High.
“I blocked it out because it’s so traumatic,” she said of his death. “That’s a story in itself. I didn’t realize it until the last few years; I’d assumed that I had just never thought about it.”
Dubreuil said her late mother recounted the story of the deacons’ visits as Christopher does. She said she didn’t return to Beth Haven after John’s death because of the stigma the family felt, although she recalls it as emanating from the general community.
Christopher says she doesn’t blame Mims, who joined Beth Haven four years after John’s death, but doesn’t like his “minimizing what those men did.” Mims counters that Christopher is damaging his church’s reputation for the actions of renegades who didn’t speak for it.
The dispute continued in a heated exchange in the church cemetery on Wednesday.
Christopher remembers the name of one of the deacons she said visited her mother. Mims recognized the name, saying the man was “a thorn in the flesh of this church. Every church has a troublemaker, and he was a troublemaker.”
The same man was responsible for where people were buried in the church cemetery, Mims said. The man left Beth Haven several years after John’s death, he said.
“It sounds like a couple of individuals came to your house and wreaked havoc,” Mims told Christopher. “It’s a very tragic thing that happened to your brother, and I’m sorry about that. As for what those men said to your family, that never would have been sanctioned by the church.”
The church secretary, Sonya Sturgill, the widow of former pastor Morris, insisted that church members didn’t punish the family after John’s suicide.
“We did not shun that family. I was here,” said Sturgill, who’s had suicides in her own family. “The church has never shunned anybody at any time over anything. We did not believe that as a church.”
The two sides did not agree.
Mims: “Somewhere down the line, you’re going to have to let this go.”
Christopher: “Coming back and reclaiming my brother is putting this behind me, don’t you see that? I’m righting a wrong.”
An overdue 16th birthday bash
On Saturday at Denver’s Victory Baptist Church, where grass is sprouting on John’s new grave, Christopher and her two siblings will host a “reclamation” service for their brother. It is to be an upbeat affair of music, memories and the Pittsburgh Steelers paraphernalia of John’s favorite team — the 16th birthday party he never got.
“Everything is how it should be,” Christopher said. “I’m happy. I’m good with us.”