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Mark Winborn

Mark Winborn, Ph.D., NCPsyA, is a licensed clinical psychologist and nationally certified psychoanalyst in private practice in Memphis since 1990. He is the author of three books – “Deep Blues,” “Shared Realities” and “Interpretation in Jungian Analysis.”   

Reflections on the death of John Kilzer

By Updated: March 20, 2019 11:14 AM CT | Published: March 19, 2019 3:04 PM CT

John Kilzer’s death came as a shock to many of us who live in Memphis. It is difficult to comprehend how a person with so many talents and who was so generous of spirit could become so despondent that he would end his life.

John was a gifted athlete, musician-singer-songwriter, associate pastor of recovery ministries at St. John’s United Methodist Church, scholar, and faculty member at Memphis Theological Seminary. His primary ministry was to those seeking recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. Every Friday night since 2010, John led a special worship service, crafted around music, but focused on building community for those who attended.

John also struggled with alcohol dependence in his own life, beginning his own recovery journey in 2000. In this regard, John was a “wounded healer.”

Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen indicates that there is a fundamental woundedness in human nature; it's a common feature of humanity shared by both minister and believer.

For Nouwen, ministers such as John Kilzer are called to go beyond their professional role and leave themselves open to the pain of others. In other words, ministers and those in other healing professions are called to use their own woundedness in the healing of others. At times, such openness can become an occupational hazard – becoming overwhelmed by the exposure to such pain.

When a figure like John ends his life, it is not uncommon to feel confused about the man, his mission or his message, and to wonder what he believed and practiced. But John’s message, and the message of recovery, is always aspirational.

Drug or alcohol addiction rarely travels alone; it often begins in response to other emotional difficulties like abuse, trauma, anxiety or depression. One of the common maxims in recovery is “one day at a time,” meaning that one should always aspire to cope with today and hope for continued sobriety tomorrow.

It is impossible for us to know what was in John’s heart as he ended his life. In general, suicidal individuals do not want to die per se. They are seeking an escape from pain. They long for an end to suffering – whether physical or emotional. Often, they feel hopeless about the possibility of change, their old coping mechanisms have worn out, or they have simply become exhausted from struggling for so long.

During these dark times, they often have difficulty feeling connection to people and experiences that have meant so much to their lives – spouses, parents, children, friends, faith, spiritual insight, love, or creativity. On some level they know those things exist, but these connections often feel far away, shrouded behind a thick veil.  

Many of John’s songs were songs of hope and aspiration, but also of suffering. These states often walked side by side in his songs. For example, in “Walk by Faith” (from his 2012 Madjack Records album “Seven”) John sings, “When darkness falls on your brightest day, and it turns into an endless night, what will lead you home by a different way, walk by faith and not by sight.” In the song “The Stranger” (also on “Seven”), he sings, “I am lying next to the pool of the broken, waiting for the water to move. I’ve been told that miracles could happen, and I want to be whole again.”

It seems clear that John was singing both to the listener as well as himself. No one, including those in ministry or the helping professions, has anything completely solved or figured out; we are all fellow travelers on a long journey through life.

The way John’s life ended does not take away from his expressions of faith, his ministry to others, or the creativity he expressed through his music. John was not simply a minister, performer, friend or husband – he was also a pilgrim on the road of life. He suffered as we suffer. At some point his suffering became too great and he sought relief from that suffering.

John lived his life attempting to overcome his vulnerabilities, embrace life, practice his faith and minister to others. For those who are struggling with and confused by the news of his death, John’s life serves as a testimony to continue “trying.” John was continuing to seek help when he ended his life. Rather than sink into despair over the ending of John’s life, we should all gather strength from his effort and example. I think John would encourage all of us who are suffering to seek help with our suffering.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline 800-273-8255 is available 24 hours per day.

Related stories:

GEOFF CALKINS: Calkins: John Kilzer — former Tiger, musician, minister — lived a life of recovery and grace

BILL DRIES: Memphis singer, songwriter John Kilzer dies

G. SCOTT MORRISRemembering John Kilzer: ‘The theme of his songs was always love’

YOLANDA JONES: John Kilzer’s death ruled suicide     

ELLE PERRY: Mourners recall John Kilzer’s message of 'hope, love and recovery' 

DONNA DICLEMENTI: For John Kilzer's mourners: Remember 'shared sorrow is half sorrow'    

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