Thursday, December 17, 2009

End of the Year

When I opened this blog, I entitled it Desert Year, not Years.

Did I know, intuitively, that a year would be long enough? Did I hope for some kind of transformation; did I hope that in a year the desert would bloom again?

It's been a good place for me, this blog. Sometimes it's seemed like one long wail ~ against the loss of my beautiful child, against the disappearance of God, against the end of life as I knew it. Sometimes it's been a place in which to digest the trauma of suicide; to come to terms with one of, ironically, life's heaviest and loneliest experiences. Sometimes it's been a place of profoundly moving friendship, as other mothers have generously shared their own sorrows.

But I think it's run its course. I am, surprisingly to me, in a new place, something that's happened in just the last few days. In some ways a harder place ~ I think that I have found my way through an exterior shell of anger and pain and I am going to be left with a deep and pervasive sense of loss. There is not going to be anything to protect me from the reality that my beloved son is truly gone.

A couple of weeks ago I heard a talk by a 60-year-old man, and he mentioned having called his mother over the week-end. Such a casual remark is like a sharp stab into a tender spot for me; when I am 91, there will not be a 60-year-old Josh to give me a call. (Dear God, if I live to be 91, I will have spent 35 years without him, which is ten more than the short 25 we had. I am not hoping for 91.) Those are the moments, and they occur multiple times every day, with which I am going to have to contend without the protective veneer of the past fifteen-plus months.

But God is present to me again, in a way God has not been, and the air has cleared enough for me to recognize that the face of God has been present to me, albeit unrecognized by my grief-stricken heart, in the gifts of my family, of countless friends ~ some of whom I have known for years irl and some for only weeks online, and many in between ~ and most especially through the remarkable men who have persisted as my spiritual directors in incredibly patient and nonintrusive constancy.

I found the following a couple of days ago and posted it on my Advent blog, but I think it serves as a good ending to this one. Of course, total silence is beyond me, and I hope you'll still visit Search the Sea, where the journey will continue, sometimes no doubt loudly, but I think usually quite differently. This blog will stay up for awhile, at least until I decide what I want to do about it.


The 14th century Dominican mystic, John Tauler, explains the gift of Zechariah's silence like this: “God cannot leave things empty; that would be to contradict his own nature and justice. Therefore, you must be silent. Then the Word of this birth can be spoken in you and you will be able to hear him. But be certain of this: if you try to speak then He must be silent. There is no better way of serving the Word than in being silent and listening. So if you come out of yourself completely, God will wholly enter in; to the degree you come out, to that degree will he enter, neither more nor less.”

Monday, December 14, 2009

Suicide Sadness

When I check my stat counter, I usually find that at least one or two people have come to this blog via searches along the lines of "surviving child's suicide."

Two young men in circles connected to friends of mine have died by suicide in the past week. I doubt that I would have known about either death had it occurred two years ago, but now I am one of the people who people know, as in "I know a woman . . . ," and so I hear about them.

I am dumbfounded by how many young people die by suicide. I had no idea.

Per a request that came to me, I left a message on the funeral home condolence website for one of the young men. It has not been printed online. Was it too raw? I wonder. I commented on what a wonderful person the young man seems to have been, given the memories posted by those who knew him; I offered a listening ear; and I was honest (quite briefly) about what lies ahead. There are, of course, several messages which contain those dreaded words, those "I can't imagine" words. Interesting, if I am correct, that the website censors are more comfortable with words that push away rather than words that acknowledge.

Both young men were Catholic and apparently there have been issues in both cases in addressing the manner of death in funeral services. I am at a loss. We found nothing but openness and offers of help in our Presby church, and I have found 100% the same from my Catholic friends. In fact, some months after our son died, one of my Presby seminary friends commented that I must have found myself wary of discussing my son's death with the Catholics in my life, and I was very surprised. By that time, practically the only people outside my immediate family with whom I was discussing it in detail were Catholic priests.

I am also dumbfounded by how few in the clergy community seem to know how crucial open conversation is to the process of healing or, perhaps, how to initiate or withstand it such engagement. I suppose it is the withstanding that seems so daunting, and so the initiating does not happen.

Apparently there is a website now via which one can end ones' Facebook career via virtual suicide. I learned that from a longstanding blogging friend; from another, commenting on the former's information, I learned about a concert she had attended in which a piece of narration used the simile "falling like winter suicides." I got into a Facebook debate myself a few weeks ago about a writer's use of the word suicide which many people had found . . . meaningful in various ways. I thought their arguments were preposterous.
One of them responded with words to the effect that my own language was flat rather than provocative.

Perhaps that is a consequence of a very real acquaintance with suicide. It is no longer (if, indeed it ever was) merely a source for a provocative pushing of the the limits of language and imagination. It is a horror which flattens all which follows.

I was wrong about the condolence guestbook. As I was writing this last night, my note was published. It, and this post, became the source of a lengthy conversation, as Gregarious Son wandered in while I was writing and asked what I was doing.

He shrugged as I read the condolence note to him. "What you said is true," he said.

It's difficult even to remember what life was like before I knew some true things about suicide.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


My blogging friend Ruth has just lost her mother, and has shared this Dietrich Bonhoeffer quotation from her pastor's funeral homily. I am thinking that from now on it will go into every condolence note I send.

"Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try and find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first; but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bond between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; God does not fill it, but on the contrary, keeps it empty, and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain."

Monday, December 7, 2009

Suicide is Different

I've been thinking about the essay to which I posted a link yesterday.

I've been thinking about the friend whose son shot himself on Christmas Day eight years ago. I had emailed her earlier this week to see if she wanted to get together, and she responded yesterday that her daughter's best friend's young husband had shot himself the night before.

All I could think was that if there was ever someone who should have understood the legacy he was leaving to his family, it should have been that young man.

Which reminded me of the darkness, the terrible and incomprehensible darkness of pain and despair, that must fill the heart of someone about to die by suicide.

And then I thought of the two young men at a nearby college who have died by suicide this fall.

And then I thought: How did this happen, that my mind is filled with images of young people shooting themselves and hanging themselves and filling their bodies with lethal doses of drugs and jumping from buildings? Thoughts which never entered my head two years ago and now there they are, side by side all the other thoughts.

And then I thought again about that essay, in which the writer says that however it occurs (and he includes suicide in his list of possibilities), the death of a child is one of life's worst experiences.

And then I realized that, much as I hate to dwell on it, suicide is different. Even though I do not believe that suicide is a choice in the way that we generally define the word, there is an element of initiative in it that renders it the worst possible kind of death, at least for the survivors.

There. I've said it.

Who is God?
Does God care about anything at all?
Who was this child with whom you were entangled from the moment of his conception?
Is anything that anyone ever says or does reflective of what they actually mean?

Those are the questions.

Suicide is the worst because it is unthinkable and yet: there it is. Completely real. And leaving the rest of us with no choice at all but to contend with it.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Make Straight a Path Throught the Desert

Today is the day in the church year on which we read about John that Baptist, that seemingly deranged cousin of Jesus, he of the animal skin attire and the crunchy locust meals, out in the desert crying for the path of the Lord to be made straight, for valleys to be filled and mountains leveled.

I have always been mystified by John's obsession with the destruction of some of the most beautiful of our planet's geographical features. Year after year I have listened to this text and wondered: What would you do away with? The Pacific Crest Trail? The valleys in which the lochs of Scotland lie? The Tetons? What kind of a proclamation is this?

This year, I think, I am starting to get it, for the first time ever. I wonder whether I would ever have had a glimpse of what it means had I not been stumbling around in another dimension for the past fifteen months.

I have used so many geographical and geological metaphors to describe this journey, a journey that I would run from as fast as possible if that option were open to me. Relentless tsumani. Insurmountable mountain. Rock-strewn trail. Impenetrable wilderness. And, of course, desert. Endless, dry, empty, lonely desert.

None of them is a road back to the light. None of them is a road to hope.

It seems that they must all be navigated. There is no other sound option; we have to swim, climb, and walk through the terrain of grief, inhospitable as it is, or we will not reach that juncture at which it becomes not merely agonizing but transformative. We don't get to dispense with the wild craziness that makes the aftermath of loss so intolerable; we don't get to pretend that we're all right or that it never happened.

But ~ and this is what I think John the Baptist is talking about ~ we do have to find the way out. We have to reach, with our eyes open, the place where the swells of water become gentler, where the density of the forest begins to recede, where the desert seems to offer something other than parched wasteland.

I don't think God wants us to level the Alps. In fact, Jesus always found God in places like mountaintops, deserts, and valleys ~ the story is quite clear on that point. But what he found there is a transparency of vision that we so often lack. That most of us, I think, lack completely when we are plunged into the darkness that follows the death of a child.

And so the invitation, perhaps, is to go to the places he went but also to see as he did, with clarity and gratitude, rather than with eyes clouded by tears and a mind crumbling under a weight almost too great to bear.

I have, of course, no idea at all what I am talking about. I was moved to write this post by the words of this father, who lost his nine-year-old son to a malignant tumor several years ago, and who I found via my friend and fellow traveler Karen, mother of beautiful Katie. He is much farther along the road to gratitude than I am. But as I skimmed his essay again, I couldn't help but notice how many allusions he makes to things which have appeared in my own thoughts and writings: the suffering of other parents, the Holocaust, the omnipotence or lack thereof of God, the compassion ~ or not ~ of God, what prayer is and isn't. And even the Wizard of Oz.

Oh, for that elusive pair of ruby slippers.

We have to find clarity without them.

And so: Advent.

(Cross-Posted from Advent blog.)

Friday, December 4, 2009


where would I go
if I could go anywhere at all
it wouldn't matter would it
the places I have held sacred
a trail skirting a mountain high above a glacial lake
a wide and empty beach with the tide creeping inward
Chartres' labyrinth
a pathway through the mountain laurel
a waterfall into which we all plunged
the desert under the Sonoran stars
windblown wild wondrous places
it wouldn't matter at all
it could be the sidewalk in front of the house
where three children drew with colored chalk
and sold lemonade
it could be anywhere
where the three of them are
and there is no such place
there is no season of the year
in which they are all held
in my arms

Boy Interrupted

I just read about this film, and thought I would post this review for those who might be interested. I don't think I want to watch it during these holiday weeks, which are difficult enough all on their own, but maybe in January.

Sundance Report #4 – Boy Interrupted Review

By John - January 16, 2009 - 23:17 America/Montreal

Boy-interrupted-review.jpgPROSPECTOR THEATRE, PARK CITY

“Oh my God, we’re at the Sundance Film Festival because my son killed himself.”

These are the words spoken by Dana Perry, director of “Boy Interrupted,” when asked what was going through her head while watching the world premiere of her documentary film. Since leaving Temple Theater about 30 minutes ago, I’ve been searching for the right way to talk about this film – a film directed by the mother of a boy who committed suicide at age 15 after 10 years of battling with diagnosed bipolar disorder. He goes through periods of happiness, then periods of extreme depression. Suicide is a subject all-too-common since the age of 5. All seems to be going well for the first time in years as he moves into his teenage years, but then he’s slowly taken off meds and, without warning, he jumps from his New York apartment bedroom window. It’s a heavy experience, so here’s what I’m going to do – split this two ways:

Emotional: Hard to argue with such a personal story. With both parents of Evan Perry, the subject of the film, intimately involved with the project as director and cinematographer, respectively, it’s nearly impossible to imagine how it must have been to distance themselves enough from the material. Hart, the father, made it clear to the audience during the Q&A that this film was really about sharing the experience of their journey toward trying to make Evan well and not about the extreme grief of losing a child to suicide. However, it’s tough to escape that framing since it underscores so much of the film. Both Dana and Hart entered into the project also hoping it might allow them some closure, but found that not the case in the slightest. Though Evan’s death is now three years in the past, the wounds are clearly still fresh. As Dana said following the film, “that’s the first and last time I’ll have seen this film with an audience.”

Technical: This is not a film that prides itself on production quality. Told mostly through somewhat blurry home video clips and talking-head interviews, it’s not a film that will win awards for cinematography or for editing. At first I was struck by the lower perceived level of quality, but at the end of it all, the quality of the imagery on screen doesn’t really matter. The story is communicated effectively and with a lot of emotion. What more is needed?

Should you see this film? Not if you’re disturbed by teen suicide or the thought of your children killing themselves. But if you’re up for an emotional story about loss and a family’s journey to try and save their son from his own mind, then it’s definitely worth a look.

You can find out more at


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ignatian Accompaniment Through Grief

I've had a lot of time in the past fifteen months to reflect on what it means to accompany someone through terrible loss ~ what it means in general, what it means for me as a devastated mother, what it means for me as a spiritual director, as a would-be pastor or hospital or hospice chaplain. What is good and helpful and considerate? What is not?

This post, I do believe, is going to turn into a paean to Ignatian spirituality and to those whose lives it shapes, whether Jesuits or others who do spiritual direction in the Ignatian tradition. In my case, it means two Jesuits in particular: my former director, who had the temerity to move away after helping me for two years, but has remained one of my great supporters through seminary and has been a source of wisdom and challenge via email and occasional visits during this past awful year, and my current director, who thought two-and-one-half years ago that he was signing on for a monthly hour of support and guidance for a seminary student, and had to turn into a consistent and faithful source of compassion, prayer, presence ~ and, yes, wisdom and challenge, too ~ during a year of such harsh and time-consuming need that I cannot even begin to describe it.

(And that description doesn't even take into account the many others in my life who have brought their Ignatian experience to bear upon our conversations and friendships. Maybe some other posts someday.)

What is so distinctive about this spirituality that makes it so pertinent to accompanying someone through the journey of grief?

In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius suggests a wide variety of types and forms of prayer. Some lend themselves more to certain situations or meditations than others, but I've never had a director suggest that I should limit my prayer in one way or another. Flexibility ("accomodation" is Ignatius' term) is key, and I have been graced by finding directors who are fearless in their willingness to venture into unfamilar territory.

Given the range of prayer in the Exercises, it is nontheless the case that imagination is a significant hallmark of the Ignatian understanding of encounter with God. When a person makes the formal Exercises, there are many opportunites to pray, or meditate (Ignatius usually uses the term contemplation here ~ not to be confused with the emptying form of prayer so popular in contemplative prayer practice today) imaginatively throught the life of Jesus. Imagine the place, imagine the sights and sounds, imagine yourself as a person among his followers or family, on the edge or in the midst of his circle. Imagine yourself watching, listening, speaking, participating. Who are you? Who might you be called to be? Imagine Jesus into the circustances of your own life. What does he say; how do you respond?

You might be able to guess where I am going here. If you're a regular reader, you know that I have often bemoaned the statement so frequently made to me after our son died: that "I can't imagine" sentence. In fact, its repetition by a few individuals has resulted in my consistent avoidance of them. (The Lovely Daughter tells me that people are trying, and that I could be more generous, but I have my own problems with imagination ~ I find it difficult to imagine either that they are or that I could.) As a statement of intended solace, "I can't imagine" is not as bad as "I know just how you feel" ~ but it's close.

This past week it suddenly dawned on me why my Jesuit and other Ignatian friends have been such a source of help to me. Steeped in the practice of imaginative prayer, it never occurs to them to say, "I can't imagine." They seem to slide into imaginative accompaniment effortlessly. They don't have to be parents or to have suffered this degree of loss or faced this kind of horror; they can imagine it, at least well enough.

It's not effortless, of course; even as a neophyte director, I know that it takes considerable intentionality and attentiveness to imagine yourself into someone else's life and concerns. It also takes great generosity of spirit: as you share the Scriptural and prayer lives of others, you begin to understand how differently we all respond to, understand, and encounter God. You seek, always, to reverence both the other person's experience and your own; to absorb the similarities and the differences, to recognize that God is reaching out to each of you, and and to know that you can listen contemplatively and imaginatively even if what you are hearing is nothing at all like what you yourself would have come up with. It's not effortless at all.

But there it is. Just as even I, with some considerable practice, can access the notes to a simple Bach composition on the piano and with them, an entire tradition of music, so someone practiced in imaginative interaction with Scripture can access a tradition of prayer that makes it possible to walk with someone through the universal and yet endlessly unique pathway through grief.

I don't think I've ever heard someone well versed in Ignatian practice say, "I can't imagine." I know that these are people whose imaginations are at work all day, who are accustomed to drawing on their interior resources in all circumstances, and to allowing them to expand whenever they seem inadequate to a particular situation. God's gift of imagination is how we find God in all things, even ~ somewhere, someday ~ in this wilderness of sorrow.