When Suicide Happens

by FreestocksI’ve read of the suicides of many people in the past, and no such story is a good story. Whether it’s a person who’s in the public eye or a person who was hardly noticed, we lose a person. A mother devastated by her toddler’s death. An actor who suffered in bruising isolation. A seminarian whose struggle was largely unseen. A doctor who couldn’t continue under mental anguish. A pastor who was overwhelmed by everything.

The loss is aggravated by the circumstances surrounding the death. Those left to respond  rotate a series of questions, all of them in big-deal categories. We question life, ours and theirs. We wonder about God and faith. We query our social relationships and relatives. We turn to the tragic circumstances that form around an individual and try to see them.

Here are a few things I think are worth doing–commitments worth making–when someone commits suicide, in no particular order. They sound too general because I’ve written them about “a person” and I fully intend for that be come across as a person who comes to mind, a particular person, a designated individual or individuals who you love:

  1. We commit to being and not only doing, to tunneling into the beautiful wonder that is the self and to emerging from that wonder with a stubbornness for searching for the same in others.
  2. We commit to grieving, feeling as fully as possible, the deep fissures in us when someone kills herself or himself.
  3. We commit to becoming more human by relating to individuals differently and based upon their uniqueness all the time.
  4. We commit to the hard work of paying attention to what turns a person, lifts up a person, spoils a person, hurts a person.
  5. We commit to loving as much as possible in the present moment.
  6. We commit to getting mental and emotional support for ourselves and our communities in the forms of clergy who are permanently slanted in the direction of full liberation; therapists who are helpful in pursing with us our own deep change in the face of psychologically rough worlds; spiritual directors who can listen us into freedom as we journey into the company of God together; family members who embrace us unconditionally and love us lavishly; and friends who are just like family and who stay in place when family diminishes, drops, or dies.
  7. We commit to asking better questions, even when the question is “How are you?” and staying around for the response.
  8. We commit to telling another person how they impacted us, how we felt because of something they did or said, and how we are changed specifically because they matter.
  9. We commit to standing close when a person feels abandoned, reminding them by our physical presence when our unheard words ring hollow that we are with them.
  10. We commit to responding after any death with a voracious invitation to our own special life, to cultivating healthier relationships, to dealing with the destructive dynamics in our own lives, to being different and better people, and to advocating for everybody’s healthcare and self-care.

Also, if you’re in Chicago, consider attending the National Day of Solidarity to Prevent Physician Suicide.

Dangerous Grief

by Mohit Kumar

Photo by Mohit Kumar

Grief is a mixed and dangerous behavior. It is mixed because of its unpredictability. When you grieve well, you surrender to ignorance. You don’t know what you’ll do, which way you’ll turn, or how you’ll act.

There is no map for the terrain in that area. There are hints of light and markers of how others have travelled that world. But those are only markers, only signs that keep us from believing we’re alone in our peril.

It is true that grieving is isolating, but as we grieve, God keeps us looking long enough to see how many people surround us. And we adapt to our way of getting through it. We may even surprise ourselves. “I didn’t see that coming” or “I can’t believe I said that.”

Upon inspection of our selves—when we monitor our souls—we see our behavior in that moment as an instance of grief, a mixed-up flash of pain on display. Grief is mixed.

And it is dangerous. Grief changes you. To put it better, loss changes you. When you lose, you grieve, and it is the tearing that turns you into someone else.

I think I’m starting to wonder about how people have lost in life before I wonder whether I can trust them. I’m generally a cool individual. I don’t let people get rises out of me. I function mostly by keeping my energy on reserve. But I open to people who lose. I am primed toward people who express that loss.

Not in every case, but it’s incredibly helpful when I meet a person who is in touch with her losses, acquainted with his grief. Because that contact keeps a person honest. Being close to anguish keeps you humble.

 It helps you maintain your proximity toward the ground. You stay at the ground of your being and you stay near the earth because, plainly, you’ve put someone or something you loved in that earth. And when you’ve placed a significant other in the ground, you look at that ground with new wonder.

That is change. You look at the world differently. You see something that wasn’t there (for you) before. And that’s dangerous. Being changed and being able to change is miraculously dangerous.

Supervision Helps

She needed to turn aside and name what was unexamined and unfinished in her own life story as she continued in ministry to this woman. Were she simply to react to her as she had to her mother, she would have seen clearly neither her own story nor that of the patient, who was different from her mother in important ways. These parallels can be named and examined or referred for therapeutic work. Particular themes of grief or abandonment or abuse may provoke anxiety in the minister who has these themes as parts of his or her own history. Supervision helps the minister to learn to walk between the perils of overidentification and detached aloofness. Ministry in depth will always raise themes for the sensitive and reflective minister that are in need of attention in his or her own story. Recognizing these themes and remaining responsible in pastoral relationship are the goals of supervision that looks at life stories of parishioner and pastor.

(From Steere’s The Supervision of Pastoral Care, pg. 122)

Thinking About Atheism

Photo Thanks to Leeroy

Photo Thanks to Leeroy

I got a phone call the other day from someone I care about. She was concerned because another person we care about said that she was “thinking about becoming an atheist.”

Now, I want to say that I’m unqualified to talk personally about atheism. But I am qualified to talk about faith. I am suited to talk about how, perhaps, a person of faith loses that faith.

When I talked with those lovely people I mentioned, it became clear that what was at stake was not the loss of faith per se but the loss of a particular kind of faith. There is faith in the sense of what community I’m a part of; faith in the sense of doctrines that I profess; faith in the sense of the meeting between me and the Divine. Faith can be understood in different ways. Securing one’s understanding by the word is vital before we even know what faith we’re talking about.

Further, sometimes faith is worth losing. Sometimes faith is worth leaving. It depends on what one’s faith is. If it the unexamined doctrine that makes me feel unloved by God, isn’t it worth leaving? If it is the way in which a text is read by one community and always used over and against another community, isn’t it worth distancing oneself from? If it is the relative ease I feel by a community when we, together, join against some other community in opposition to that people’s God-made-ness, isn’t it worth losing?

I found myself affirming this woman and how she was thinking about “atheism.” In fact, she wasn’t thinking about atheism in a philosophical sense. She was thinking about leaving the tightened faith that was handed on to her; she was, in a sense, leaving the representations of the Christianity she found death-giving. She was, to my way of thinking, considering a better faith. Not no faith. Not no God. A different God.

Of course, I think differently about these things than those who preach and teach this woman. I’m the person in the room on the edge. I’m the person considering how the underside is represented, blessed, or undone by whose being quoted in the preacher’s sermons. I’m still the kid who got kicked out of Sunday school because I knew all the teacher was saying, was bored, and was asking different unanswered questions. I’m the person who is uncomfortably comfortable on a weird psychic boundary because making a theological home has always been a work-in-progress.

Thinking about atheism may just be thinking about a deeper understanding of the me and God relationship. It may be utter contemplation. It may be worth affirming and encouraging as a person is truly on the road toward a holiness that can only be beautiful. It may be worth celebrating.

“…we make vows…”

Photo Thanks to Ase Bjontegard Oftedal

Photo Thanks to Ase Bjontegard Oftedal

David pointed to this on Facebook. The story, friendship, loss, and tone of Laura’s words are very much worth keeping in front of us.

We make vows to our partners, but we make vows to our friends, too. We think, forever. We think, best friend. Life turns out differently, because people disappoint each other or because we aren’t honest with ourselves or because we just don’t know how to go forward, even with the best intentions. We go in with our eyes wide open and don’t realize they might open wider in five years. So I mourned the end of my friendship…

Read the full post from Laura here.

The Sheltering Canopy

I’ve thought a lot about the tragic deaths of my friends, spiritual relatives, and faith heroes who were killed last Wednesday, and though I’ve written a liturgy, waded through psalm 77, and listened to the cries of our local church in worship this previous Sunday; though I’ve read carefully through the powerful reminders friends have written to keep me on a sane path; though I’ve taken comfort in the words of trusted brother who told me the best thing he could the day after that soul-bruising scene and the arms of many others since that night; I still can’t write.

I still can’t quite put feelings to words. My own words. So these days, I’m trying my best to pray. And I’m soliciting the prayers of better people when I cannot. As it is, prayer has gotten harder over the last few years, something my spiritual director has not tired of inhearing me rehearse. She keeps telling me to name the grace I need as best I can, to celebrate the moments when prayer comes easier, to try to accept that darkness is as much as part of the contemplative life as light. She’s praying me through too.

In many ways, these words and phrases and gestures are entirely prayer and of a particular nature, an intercessory nature: prayers on my behalf which keep me positioned in Divine sight, even when I cannot glimpse in that direction myself.

This prayer was the end of Rabbi David Wolkenfeld’s sermon last week. He discussed sanctity and holiness, drawing upon two primary views within Jewish thought, essentially whether God’s people are already holy–holiness as an adjective describing God’s people–or whether God’s people are becoming holy–holiness as an aspiration for God’s own.

His sermon was encouraging and thought provoking to read on a few levels, and I’m grateful for my colleague, Rabbi Paul Saiger, who sent it to me. You can access the full message here.

God full of mercy, grant rest under the sheltering canopy of your Presence to the souls of the nine martyred men and women who were murdered this week in Charleston as they engaged in the study of scripture and in prayer and sought knowledge of You. May they bask in your Presence and study wisdom and insights of your Torah in the beit midrash shel ma’aleh – the heavenly academy. Bind up the nation’s wounds and grant us the ability to experience a true Sabbath of Peace. Amen.

 

 

Public Process Note

I spend time with people who are dying, actively dying, and I spend time with the people who love them. It does and doesn’t get easier to listen to the rises of hope and the slips into sadness as some son imagines the soon-coming death of his mother or to the patient who looks ahead and thinks about not existing anymore.

I know how to stand and sit with a nurse whose patient just died or expired or passed away. I know how to acknowledge the connection between myself and a doctor I met only around the grim and delightful experience of a patient who died late that night a few months back, the recognition between us like a secret we keep to ourselves.

The medical intensive care unit, the on-call experience, the jacket that identifies me in the hospital all lend themselves to wearing the experience of somebody’s grief. Of course, I have my own because I learn something of these good people, I am known in little bits, and I know them in little bits. And then, I carry and hold the grief of others. And it does and doesn’t get easier.

This post isn’t about the skills necessary to carry the grief of others, and it’s not about the ways in which I support people up to the edge and just before the dark unknown that is death. Of course, for the Christian, the reality is that death is a step or slip or movement. Like the shift of one’s body in a gracious dance, death is supposed to be a movement into another life, another part of life. In the words of a young woman who said something I’ll never forget: Whether we live or die, we win. That is a Christian view of death.

The lived experience is murkier. Living with the stories and words and prayers of another as she approaches that existential doorstep into eternity is grounding.

When I woke up this morning, I heard myself say of one of my patients, “He’s not going to die over the weekend” and, shaking my head at the unbidden thought, “He’s not dying today”. Of course, when I arrived for our morning report where we discuss the issues of the previous day, where we talk about who needs to be followed or continually given care, that patient was on the lips of my colleague. She dropped her head and her tone and said she had sad news. It was brutal for that to be saved until the last relay.

I had been right up until that moment. He had not died. In my mind, he was still with us. In truth, his spirit or his intention was waiting on the perimeter of my unconscious, even before I woke, telling me in his own way–or in God’s own way–that he was, in fact, gone.

I was glad, made glad really, that my chaplain colleague was with him when he died. Knowing of his faith and seeing the notes that had been charted, she sat with him and played gospel music for him. She sang to him, held his hand. She was there when he breathed his last breath.

This morning became for me another moment to grieve, another patient I had cared for, another person I had gotten to know. He was another person whose story, in such a compressed time, I learned to appreciate.

I spent the day doing the same things I always do in the hospital. And if you weren’t a colleague of mine or a nurse from my unit, you wouldn’t know that this gentleman was now added to my mental picture of deceased patients. I would remember that he had been in that room. I would associate the number with the first meeting and then the second until I captured what my last prayers for him had been. Had I prayed a prayer of benediction? I generally tried to.

He joined a different cloud of witnesses and not just the one the scriptures speak of. His face became associated with his room so that when I walked by, I said another goodbye, and it was like that on the unit. He was still a teacher to me, a teacher in how to acknowledge what was happening in me, a teacher of remarking on a man’s grace-filled transformation, and how to continually respect the boundary that we give all that we have when we’re there and that when we’re not there, somebody else is.

He became an occasion for me to remember the other patients who I thought of in similar ways, even if there was one or two profound ways that distinguished him forever in my memory. He will be one of the people I look for when I slip through the split in the veil myself one day. I will anticipate him as a host quite like he was when he welcomed me at the hospital, and I believe he’ll be smiling widely and probably calling me by a title and a last name.