“How are you doing?”

Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of my brother Tim’s death.  He would have been 60 this year.  As many of you know, he took his own life and the impact on all of us who loved him was devastating.  What I want to share here is a set of e-mails between me and my spiritual director from three years ago at this time of year.  Fr. Dan, remembering that Tim’s anniversary was coming up, had sent me a short e-mail, simply asking “How are you doing?”  My response is very frank.  I share this with you for a few reasons.

One: it means so much for people to remember, to remember anniversaries.  Every year since she found out, a friend always shows up on my brother’s anniversary with a plant.  I, of course, do not expect her to do that every year for the rest of my life, but she obviously knows enough about the pain of a suicide to know how much this touches me.  Just saying those four words: “How are you doing?” can make a world of differences.  Even if my answer is “I’m really doing fine,”  I am still so touched that you have remembered.

Two: Losing someone to suicide is a grief that never goes away and is very paimnful for years.  It is unlike any other grief.

Three: I hope that both my frankness and my sharing of how God meets me in my pain and Fr. Dan’s response to me may bring hope to someone out there who may be struggling in a similar way. . .

(I am editing some of this.)

Dear Fr. Dan,

How am I doing?  It really depends these days on when you ask.  But, if you have the time, I am going to try to verbalize a few things.  I am suffering.  I am suffering most acutely from Tim’s death, but also the many other losses in my life: at the end of my first of college: the tragic death in a car crash of a very close friend; my parent’s divorce and subsequent disintegration of my family; my brother Paul’s death in a car accident at the age of 24; my mother’s death; Tim’s violent death.  They all kind of rush in upon me sometimes. . . . Some days I want to run away.  Some days I just want to shout out: “My brother put a gun in his mouth and killed himself!” Most days I don’t even know how to pray.  I get irritated by stupid questions people ask me about things.  And I have to keep leading us [as Superior of our order] and making decisions and answering stupid questions with love and kindness.  I feel alone and afraid a lot.  Friends I have depended on are not there as they were.  I could cry at the slightest kindness shown me.

And yet in the midst of the suffering, there’s a desire to offer it up, to kiss this Hand from whom it all comes. . . . There’s also a slight hope that I will come to know Christ and His love through it in a way that I would never know otherwise.  There are pinpoints of light.  Last night as I was going to sleep and dealing with fear and pain, I starting thinking, I’m walking through the valley of the shadow of death, the valley of deep darkness.  And the words from Psalm 23 hit me: “I will fear no evil”–and I knew that Satan couldn’t touch me there.  And then this morning when I woke early and was encountering the same things, the rest of that verse came to me: “because You are with me.”  And that brought back to mind Dr. Regis Martin’s article on Christ’s descent into hell which, as you know, has spoken eloquently to my soul.  Paul of the Cross (among others) counsels us to join our sufferings to the different mysteries in Christ’ life: “I will try with all my strength to follow the footsteps of Jesus.  If I am afflicted, abandoned, desolate, I will keep him company in the Garden.  If I am despised and injured, I will keep him company in the Praetorium.  etc.” Perhaps Christ is inviting me to “live” in the mystery of His descent into Hell, to walk with Him through the valley of the shadow of death. I am once again re-reading Dr. Martin’s article, and once again it clarifies and strengthens me.  There’s some experience this morning of His having entered through the ‘barred doors” of my heart, my own little “hell.”  The pain is still there, but there”s also a knowledge that He’s there and I’m not alone.

I must thank you for your kindness in asking me how I’m doing.  Four small words, but when sincerely said can make such a difference for people. And I don’t mean to complain by anything I’ve said here.  Many people have been very kind to me these days, but the suffering continues.

It’s funny, isn’t it–when you’re in the middle of suffering and pain, it just seems like there’s no end, that it just has and always will be this way, and then a few little words: “You are with me” can open up a whole spiritual perspective that makes all the difference.  The wounds are still there, but there’s a little balm.  The mental torment can continue, but I don’t fear that I’m going crazy.  Hell becomes the place where Christ descends and meets me in the scariest places in my life, where one one else can really go but Him.

Fr. Dan’s reply:

Peace be with you.

As you tell of your experience in these days, Paul’s words in Rom 8:38-39 seem so apposite: “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Christ grasps you firmly.  He is walking with you, unobserved by your, through the valley of the shadow of death, and sustaining you by the banquet He has prepared for you.  The reality of the fear and terror of events you describe, which leave a remnant of their foul odor in your memory even long after the events themselves have passed, only prove the more the reality of what you hope for.  That hope is your anchor in Christ, which allows him–like a great heavenly winch!–to draw you through (not around!) those very terrors into the Kingdom.  The psalm says that the banquet is set for you, but “in the presence of my enemies.”  The greatness of these enemies is infinitely surpassed by the greatness of His mercy, which is always for you.  Keep doing what you know to do: relying on yourself for nothing, and on Him, and His infinite mercy, for everything.

Christ walks with each of you through whatever valley you are in right now.

“Still she wept”

I received many kind words yesterday on the anniversary of my brother Tim’s death.  I thought I would share those from two dear friends in the hope that they many console any of you who have lost a loved one.

I remember my mother talking about the death of her brother, Tom, in World War II on the battlefields of France.  It had been 40 years, and still she wept.  The great losses in life, those people God makes in his own image and likeness and gives to us in love, I think are right to always mourn.

If time has done anything, it deepens our grief.  The longer we live, the more fully we become aware of who they were to us and the more intimately we experience what their love meant for us.  (Henri Nouwen)

Of course, we do not mourn as those who do not know Christ and place our hope in Him . . . but we also know that Jesus wept.  And we take great comfort in that.

The waters of rest

My brother, Tim, loved to take photos.  In fact, we used to joke about it.  He would show up at a family event and always announce that he had some pictures to show us.  The reason we joked about it was because they were predominantly of dead dear and caught fish.  (You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.)

But at the same time, he also had an eye for beauty.  He loved the outdoors.  Here are a couple of pictures he sent me taken at the place on the lake where he lived.

He definitely has the best view from where he is now.  (Can’t wait to see it myself.) “He leads me beside the waters of rest; he restores my soul.” (Ps 23.2)

I love you, Tim.  Always will.

“Our wounds are part of who we are”

Two songs are coming to mind today.  One was written by a friend of mine, Kitty Donohoe, on 9-11 which she was later invited to sing at the dedication of the Pentagon Memorial.  The name of the song is “There are No Words.”  Michael Card in his book, A Sacred Sorrow, talks about the importance of lament in our lives, the need to struggle through our griefs to God, as Job did.  In listening to Kitty’s song (which you can do here), you may wonder where God is in it.  My take on it is that it’s the beginning stage of a lament, trying to begin to grieve.  In the beginning, Job himself cursed the day he was born . . . but he stayed in the struggle with God, and we know the ending.  And we know there is “a balm that can heal these wounds that will last a lifetime long.”

The second song is by Michael Card: “Lift Up Your Sorrows”, an encouragement to true lament, to stay in the pain and grief, wrestling through it to find the Lord.

And one more here, another by Michael:”Underneath the Door.”   It is in a sense a testimony to his own struggling through pain in his life to meet God in it.   “But our wounds are part of who we are and there’s nothing left to chance/And pain’s the pen that writes the songs and they call us forth to dance.”

Darkness is not dark to thee . . .

On Tim’s first anniversary, I was still on crutches (from a broken ankle), but all the sisters in my house drove me up to Tim’s grave.  They even brought a folding lawn chair for me to be able to just sit at his grave.  I read aloud from Psalm 139:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there you hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Let only darkness cover me,
and the light around me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to thee,
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with thee.

Sitting with me

I’ve been thinking about what I found most supportive after my brother, Tim, died.  I think of a few things.  People who just sat with me, were with me, not saying much, just being there.  Like Job’s friends who sat with him in silence–probably the only thing that they did right.  People who said something when they didn’t know what to say–but at least they said something, not pretending that nothing had happened.  People who didn’t try to “fix” me by giving me all kinds of perspective, Christian or otherwise.  Again, sometimes the best thing was just being there with me, not necessarily saying a lot.  Not leaving me entirely alone.  (I was afraid to be alone those first days after he died.) People who surprised me with gifts: two dozen white roses, a dinner, a card.  People who would ask me, “Can I do anything for you?” and be okay with me saying, “No, but thank you so much for asking.”

Friends who still recognize that I’m grieving, even four years later, and still “sit with me” in it.  To you especially, I say thank you.

By pictures

I’m finding it hard to blog these days.  As I’ve already mentioned, my brother Tim’s anniversary is approaching and I’m working on a talk for Monday night’s Witnesses to Hope in which I’ll be talking about his death, so a lot is going on deep down–but not yet at the point where I can write about it.  (Saving it for the talk on Monday night.)  It’s time like these when I feel that poetry or photography or music say it better.  I’ve been listening a lot to the soundtrack from Thérèse, probably because it gives expression to both delight and sorrow.  Consequently today I’m just going to post some pictures of my brother, Tim.  (He was child #3, born two and a half years after me, and as you would probably guess, there were not many baby pictures of him!  Or pictures just by himself, although I found a few.)  So here goes:

Tim and me, the big sister . . .
I think this was one of my mom's favorites--she had written "Farmers in the corn" on the back.

The altar boy . . .
Lover of horses

Thank you for letting me share these with you . . .

He was not alone

It bothered me for months that the body of my brother had not been found until ten days after he died.

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This morning I was remembering a story I first heard about three years ago.  It was told by Fr. Basil Nortz during a series of talks about the angels that we have on CD.  The story was told to him by another priest and goes something like this:  The priest’s mother died suddenly and unexpectedly one day, collapsing on the street after coming out of a store in which she had been shopping.   The priest, upon hearing about her death, was able to accept it in peace, except for one fact: that she had died so publicly on the street, a public spectacle–his mother was a very private person and would never have wanted to have died in such a public manner.  This was very disturbing to him. Why did God allow such a thing to happen?
     A few weeks after the funeral, he happened to be in the neighborhood of the store and stopped in.  The woman who worked there knew him and asked how he was doing.  He relayed his concern about the circumstances of his mother’s death.  She said, “Did no one tell you?” Apparently a young man who had been present came up almost immediately, put his coat around her, and held her in her arms until the EMT folks arrived.  The young man helped her into the vehicle and then took his coat.  The priest was so relieved that the young man had been with her, and, of course, wanted to know who he was so he could thank him.  The woman did not know, nor did others that had been present at his mother’s death.  Still he wanted to find him and thank him.
      Sometime later when the priest was praying, he heard a very distinct voice: “I am the one you are looking for.  I am the guardian angel of your mother.”    He realized that the Lord had allowed his mother’s guardian angel to appear in bodily form in order to protect his mother, even after she had died.  

The reason I share that story is very personal.  As some of you know, my brother, Tim, took his life in March of 2006.  I experienced God’s presence and comfort in untellable ways during those first few days after he died.  But like the priest in the story, in the midst of my grief something continued to disturb me.  My brother died on March 17, but his body was not found until ten days later, and that bothered me–that he was alone for those long ten days, and that haunted me for many months.  Until I heard Fr. Basil’s story.  As soon as he recounted the part where the priest heard the voice saying: “I am the one you are looking for. . .”, I began to weep because I knew the same was true for my brother–that his guardian angel had not left him alone during those ten days.   God’s mercy is so great.  “If I ascend to heaven, you are there!  If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! . . . Even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me” (Ps 139.8,10).

That is the heart of Christ for us and for all those we love.  He will not leave us alone. 

 I don’t know why that story came to mind this morning.  Perhaps one of you really need to hear it . . .

Tim’s birthday

Yesterday would have been my brother Tim’s 57th birthday.  Three years ago he took his life on St. Patrick’s Day.  (This was the “very challenging time” of the “Courage” post.  See May 7, 2009.)  There were many, many ways that God upheld me through that time and many, many friends who did the same.  One of those friends was Amy Carmichael (see my last post).   Four months after Tim’s death, I read this and it was a great comfort:

For God sees the whole man, and He has a tender way of looking at a soul at its highest, not its lowest.  He does not do as we so often do, misjudge it because of what its diseased mind made its body do in a blind and broken hour.  And we have to do with a Love that can grasp the poor hands that reach out to Him in that darkness–what father would not do that?  And He is our Father.

But when those who have prayed for such a one have no assurance that there was ever any turning to Him who alone can save, then indeed we seem to be viewing a land like that hopeless country the prophet describes, whose streams shall be turned into pitch, and the dust thereof into brimstone. ‘And He shall stretch out upon it the line of confusion and the stones of emptiness.’  But a word of peace comes through the confusion: prayer in the name of His Beloved Son does not fall upon stones of emptiness. Sometimes, somewhere we shall know better than we know now how gracious the Lord is.

from Gold by Moonlight