After Suicide

Many of you know that I lost a brother to suicide in 2006.  Last night I attended a talk by Fr. Chris Alar and Jason Lewis based on a recent book they co-authored, After Suicide, There’s Hope for Them and for You. The talk was very good, and I would recommend their book to anyone dealing with any difficult losses.

Also, if you’ve never listened to my own story about losing Tim, here it is: “What Sorrow is Like My Sorrow?” 

Coming to the end of ourselves

Jerry Sitter, in his outstanding book on loss, A Grace Disguised, writes about the sudden loss of his wife, his daughter, and his mother, all in one tragic car accident.  We all suffer loss and Jerry writes so well about what is common to all of us in our losses.  Here is one sampling:

Loss forces us to see the dominant role our environment plays in determining our happiness.  Loss strips us of the props we rely on for our well-being.  It knocks us off our feet and puts us on our backs.  In the experience of loss, we come to the end of ourselves.

But in coming to the end of ourselves, we can also come to the beginning of a vital relationship with God.  Our failures can lead us to grace and to a profound spiritual awakening.  This process occurs frequently with those who suffer loss.  It often begin when we face our own weaknesses and realize how much we take favorable circumstances for granted.  When loss deprives us of those circumstances, our anger, depression, and ingratitude expose the true state of our souls, showing us how small we really are.  We see that our identity is largely external, not internal.

Finally, we reach the point where we begin to search for a new life, one that depends less on circumstances and more on the depth of our souls.  That, in turn, opens us to new ideas and perspectives, including spiritual ones.  We feel the need for something beyond ourselves, and it begins to dawn o nus that reality may be more than we once thought it to be.  We begin to perceive hints of the divine, and our longing grows.  To our shock and bewilderment, we discover that there is a Being in the universe who, despite our brokenness and sin, loves us fiercely.  In coming to the end ourselves, we have come to the beginning of our true and deepest selves.  We have found the One whose love gives shape to our being.

Praying for you, that through whatever loss you are experiencing right now, that you might know the fierce love of God for you.

Love is on its way . . .

Especially for those in desperation . . . this song by Audrey Assad is for you.  (Lyrics below)  Just reach out your hand . . .

You’ve been let down, it’s true
Your pain is so easy to see
You’re hunted by your history
and it feels like you’ve got no escape

Your life left you high and dry
You used to be sure of yourself
But then your whole world went to hell
and tomorrow looks like just like today

So, you lie on your bed, you won’t let the morning come in
And you hide in your room, feeding that fear and it’s killing you
don’t you know
that it’s killing me too, cause your heart break is breaking you

I miss the life in your eyes
the home that I found in your arms
and now you don’t know who you are
but I won’t give up on you
on no

You lie on your bed, you wont let the morning come in
And you hide in your room, feeding that fear and it’s killing
don’t you know
that i’ts killing me too, cause your heart break is breaking you

and you lost your fight
and your flame’s gone out
and you’re down on your knees
cause your life is not what you thought it would be

lift up your head
help is on the way
and it won’t pass you by
you just gotta reach out your hand
lift up your eyes
love is on the way
and it won’t pass you by
you just gotta reach out your hand

go on and lift up your head
because love is on its way
and it won’t pass you by
you’ve just gotta reach out your hand

Christians and depression

Bill, over at Unshakable Hope, has a very timely and interesting post: Why are So Many Christians Depressed?  Most of the comments (and his responses) are very good.  You can find my own among them.  I will direct you over there today.  I’m sure there are some of you, including myself, who deal with (or have dealt with) depression and struggled with “What does this mean about me and God?  Am I failing him somehow?”, etc.

And, by the way, if you haven’t already, read Bill’s story while you’re over there.  (Under “About Bill“.)

Know that you are all in my prayers.  And keep him and his family in yours.

“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.

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.

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 . . .