Monday, August 16, 2010

Suicide and Faith (Part III)

I think that it would be fair to say that one of the basic threads of discussion which I have pursued with my spiritual director for the past two years goes something like this:

Where was God?

Not exactly an original question in the wake of catastrophe. But then, originality is not a requirement.

My daughter is driving from North Carolina to Ohio as I write this. I have spent the past 26 years waging a battle against terror whenever any of my children are out of my sight. Having lost a mother, brother, stepmother, and aunt all to sudden deaths at young ages, I have no particular sense of assurance about human safety or well-being. Actually, I have none at all. But I did pretty well for 24 years, and managed to conceal most of my fears and not convey them to my children. And then one night something I wasn't even afraid of came true.

So where was God? I have asked tearfully and furiously and tiredly, over and over and over. Not with respect to myself. I couldn't have cared less about that. With respect to my child.

After about a year, I had reached the point at which I could at least acknowledge the promise Jesus makes in Matthew 28:20: "Lo, I am with you always." And hope that it might be true.

And then it was completely ruined for me by a sermon preached at seminary. It happens that that verse is preceded by one in which Jesus says "Go and make disciples of all people." The sermon was an energetic call to mission, and an argument that making disciples of all people is a predicatory requirement for Jesus' continued presence with us. "No 'Lo' without the 'Go!' " said the pastor,

I was completely devastated. I had just barely, gingerly, come to a tentative and fragile confidence that Jesus might have been with and fully present to my son when he died, and this preacher essentially told me: No.

It was months before I set foot in the seminary chapel again.

Now another year has gone by.

And I have slowly and tentatively reached the point at which I can barely grasp the hope that the Jesus who is always present to people at their lowest and most helpless was surely with my child; that the Jesus who always extends healing and wholeness to the sick and broken did the same for him.

I am able to say that largely out of my own experience, out of my gradual waking to the recognition that Jesus has been present to me in so many ways through other people since Josh died. And I am not nearly as broken as Josh was. So my only conclusion can be that Jesus is even more interested in him.


I know that some folks are wondering why I am writing this. I sometimes wonder myself. Shouldn't I, as a spiritual director and almost-pastor, be offering emphatic assurance in the hope of the Resurrected Christ?

I think it's important, even if only in this little-read blog, to witness to the genuine experience of the most horrific kinds of loss. The path to a renewed and confident faith is a steep and rocky one, with many slides backward over rough gravel and gnarly roots. Pretending otherwise is of no help to anyone.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Suicide and Faith (Part II)

Part II because you have to read the post below to get this one fully.

My argument is that suicide is in a realm of its own when it comes to the survival of the religious faith of those left behind. I would not presume to suggest comparisons in other ways to other losses, particularly where children are concerned.

The challenge emerges out of what suicide is ~ a decision (not, I would say, a choice) against life, against one's OWN gift of life. If you are are Jewish or Christian, your Scriptures are replete with the exhortation to "Choose life!" If you have spent any time at all with someone who is dying, or whose illness or injury makes dying a very real possibility, you know that the impulse to choose life ~ this life, the earthly one ~ is difficult indeed to counteract. Most people, regardless of their beliefs about whatever comes next, will undergo tremendous suffering for the purpose of hanging onto this life. Their reasons are varied, but underneath them all lies a fundamental conviction that life is of value, and a deep, deep desire to continue to participate in it.

Not so for the person who dies by suicide. At least not in that last irreversible moment.

Many years after my mother and brother died, probably when I was in my twenties, my surviving brother told me that our grandmother, our father's mother, had once told him that after that car accident she was finished with God. She wanted nothing whatever to do with a God who would let such a thing happen. "But the Holocaust?" I said ~ by which I meant: the world is full of suffering and death, much of it on a vast scale. And yet the Jewish people are among God's biggest champions. "I dunno," shrugged my brother. "That's what she said."

My grandmother's response has not been mine. Although, like my brother, I grew up in a family in which the general theological stance was Too Much Senseless Suffering = No God, I came out in a different place. And I have been extraordinarily graced by God in many ways in the past two years. I have, after all, had an entire Presbyterian seminary at my disposal, and I have had the friendship and help of Catholic priests who are able to hear anything and everything with complete aplomb, and I have had the companionship of friends of every religious persuasion and non-persuasion.

But the question remains.

What about my child?

Like any halfway decent parent, I would without a glance backward trade every gift I have been given for him to enjoy them instead of me.

It is all one of the greatest of conundrums, and one of the greatest challenges to a parent's faith.

Suicide (Not for the Faint of Heart)

I could be wrong (wouldn't THAT be surprising?) but I have about concluded that the suicide of a child is the ultimate challenge to any understanding of faith. As is the suicide of a sibling or parent, although the reasons would be somewhat different.

Maybe I'll start thinking about how to articulate that. For now all I can do is mumble something along the lines of: no matter what the articulation of faith in the face of suffering -- like this for instance -- my brilliant comeback is always, "Yes, but . . .".

The suicide of a child is in its own category.

Let me try this:

I went to the eye doctor several months ago. She has cared for all of my children all of their lives. In the context of our conversation about Josh, she told me about another patient family in which the son died last year in a motorcyle crash on the day he graduated from college. The mother and daughter have become speakers promoting organ donation. Brave, heroic women. No question about it.

Do you see the problem?

Suicide: No organ donation. No heroics ~ which is to say, no salvific sense of purposefulness in courage or in helping others ~ not for the person who has died and not for the survivors. Death, brutal and violent - and alone. The knowledge that someone you loved far more than your own life suffered so terribly, and that one aspect of that suffering was an inability to seek help. No good-byes. No conversation at all. And an action that so violates every tenet of life, an action taken by someone whose own life was a process and product of your own love, at conception and for every moment thereafter. Even if you are confident, as I am, that suicide in most cases (including this one) is not the act of a rational person (which is another conclusion that causes only anguish), it is still different than, say, being run over by a train, or cornered by an illness.

The summer right before Josh died, I spent 11 weeks doing my clinical pastoral education in a hopsital in which almost all of the patients are critically ill. Dozens of my patients died. I poured my very being into offering spiritual care to all of those people and their families, most of them complete strangers to me. I could not do that for my own child.

On Sunday I will be preaching on God's all-encompassing love. That's what I believe in; that's all I can believe in.

But some days it's a real stretch to find any point of contact between faith and experience.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Clothes, Books, Mysteries

I decided that today I would empty the three big suitcases and sort through whatever they held.

Clothes, mostly. Well-worn t-shirts and jeans. Casual business clothes, pants and shirts and shoes which I helped him purchase as he made the transition from college to work. He had no idea what to buy, and we had a lot of fun figuring it out together. Most of them will go to a shelter. Although he and his brother are twins, he was six inches taller and weighed about 30 pounds more.

I am keeping the fleece jackets. They fit me; I plan to snuggle into the memories when autumn comes.

Bedding. Some of it flannel sheets for twin beds, which we can use in this house for guest beds. Some of it the last sheets and quilt he used -- I don't want them.

Socks. Lots of perfectly good socks. I ask his brother whether he wants them. Does one want to wear the socks of one's dead brother? I don't know.

Boxers. You can't really give those away, can you? I recognize a number of them; I've often purchased packets of brightly patterned underwear as Christmas stocking gifts.

Some workbooks and craft items that may have belonged to his girlfriend. Another pile. I'll have to contact her when I'm finished.

Some artwork; some prints he purchased toward the end of his life. I like them very much; into a pile they go, for a someday pastor's study.

"They belonged to my son," I'll say when someone asks. I won't elaborate.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

My Day

During the growing-up years, there were three children in our house and four next door. They all played together during endless summer days, and for many years our Lovely Daughter and the youngest girl next door were inseparable friends.

The father next door is German, their family frequently goes back and forth to and from Germany, and the oldest daughter is married to a German man and lives there. Three years ago she gave birth to boy-girl twins. There was much excitement all around during her pregnancy as we all remembered the days when I had baby boys.

When she became pregnant with twins again (another boy-girl pair), her mother delayed telling me, and she did not announce their arrival a week or so ago for a month's stay. I heard the older children playing outside one morning, and called across the fence to find out whether their mom was here with all four children. But I didn't go over.

The next day I was working at my desk, in front of a window which overlooks the street, when mom and grandma walked by, each pushing a double stroller. I called out my congratulations, but I didn't go down. Breathe in, breathe out. One step at a time. Just adjust to the babies being here before trying to meet them.

Today we needed to borrow their pick-up truck, and the dad-now-grandpa brought the keys over. We were moving all of Josh's belongings out of storage, since some of them are going to his sister's apartment. (After we emptied his apartment in Chicago, we simply rented a storage locker, put everything in there, and did not look back. But now, 22 months and $3,000 later, it's time. A lot of his stuff is now in our front hall, but I am determined to be done with it by the end of the week.)

At any rate, I had to take the keys back, which meant that I met the new babies. The little boy, as I had thought from Facebook photos, looks much as Josh did at that age, and has the same easygoing temperament. I didn't ask to pick him up. Breathe in, breathe out.

Some high schools friends of the young mother were over with their own baby, and that young lady chattered happily about how wonderful it would be for the two sets of twins growing up. "Automatic best friends," she said.

I suppose that, after I left, she learned that it doesn't always last.

I'm writing this just to get it out of my system. This is why, I suppose, it is so hard to maintain normal friendships.

Other people are, I think, at the pool today and planning barbecues for tonight.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Mothering and Mystery

I heard a Mother's Day sermon this year that has stayed with me primarily because of the anguish it caused me. The preacher related, at length, a touching personal story of mother-child engagement and bonding over a challenging difference between the two of them. It was a story of great and loving generosity on the part of the mother, one of those stories that is entirely inappropriate for a day on which many in the congregation are acutely aware that . . .

Their own loving and generous mothers have died ~

Their own mothers were never either loving or generous ~

They themselves would have been wonderful mothers, but that opportunity was denied them ~

They have been exemplary mothers, but are nevertheless estranged from a child ~

Their own love could not save a child from illness, from injury, from self-destructive behavior, from death ~

This morning I read a beautiful sermon on comprehending the love of God as we understand the love of a mother. (Magdalene, its author, is one of my favorite preachers; I have threatened to copy and plagiarize all her sermons, seeing little reason to bother with my own when hers are so eloquent.) At one point, she inserts the caveat that would have made the above-described Mother's Day sermon so much more palatable:

"Every metaphor has its limits, and this one is no exception. There are wonderful mothers who cannot save their children from unendurable pain, and there are dreadful mothers whose children overcome and thrive."

That is, I told her, the great mystery of my life. (Well, one of them, anyway.)

It's been almost 50 years since my mother died, and the first stepmother I acquired was of the Cinderella variety. And yet I am a strong and loving and (when I am not consumed by myself) reasonably generous person. As I told the grief counselor whom I saw for awhile after Josh died, I have enough resiliency for ten people ~ and yet . . .

My child, to whom I tried to convey at least enough for one, and who was showered with endless gifts and resources, including the most important one ~ a family who loved and encouraged and supported him every step of the way ~ was unable to survive.

One of my friends once left a comment on one of my posts to the effect that it was so heartbreaking that Josh had died when he was loved so very much.

Of course, there is a different kind of heartbreak in the fact that many children live without love; live, in fact, embraced primarily by indifference and neglect, or even cruelty and abuse.

It is such a strange world that we inhabit.