I was contacted by email by a woman who inquired if I was a former police chaplain in the Milwaukee area. Well, yes, I did put on my chaplain’s bars when doing a death notification for police stations, though my actual position was crisis intervention officer. That clued me that we were talking about a death and not a counseling session. I didn’t recognize her name, but her title of “claims adjuster” made me a little nervous. It is not unusual to be contacted by the Wisconsin Bureau of Investigation for a cold case, or the DAs office to review old testimony, etc., but this simple inquiry with no explanation made me very uncomfortable. So I replied “Yes, why do you ask?”
Kathy said she believed I had done a death notification for her family. She added that her husband had died suddenly and unexpectedly from a brain tumor. Upon seeing me in her doorway wearing a chaplain’s uniform, she had felt both fear and anger, and she confessed feeling detached from God and her faith. She felt that God had, in fact, abandoned her. And so I had taken my cross necklace off and handed it to her, suggesting that she hold tight to it during her hardest times. “God sent me to you,” I had told her. “I will hold you up through this tragedy and stay with you until after the burial. We can do this together.” And so we did.
I immediately remembered Kathy then, though she had remarried. I recalled making arrangements for the three-year old daughter to be picked up at daycare, and then going with a grandmother to bring her back into the family nucleus. I remember the funeral and the discussions afterward in my counseling office and in the family’s living room as they struggled to create a new “normal”.
Now, all these years later, Kathy wanted to know if I would officiate at that little girl’s wedding, since her daughter was now an adult and in love. “My granddaughter will be the flower girl and she’ll be wearing that necklace during the service,” she added.
I scheduled time to go over the premarital counseling and actual wedding service plans with the prospective bride and groom. Here’s what, from that, I’d like to share with you today:
Almost every single day, that beautiful daughter goes to her father’s grave — despite the fact that she has a step-father whom she dearly loves too. She is the only one who goes to the cemetery. Kathy advises it’s time to move on, and to always love her father of course, but to live in the world with the family she has today.
The young woman feels closest to her father at the cemetery, since her memories of him are a child’s blurry pictures — more a sense of being held and loved and of being his little princess. When she thought of her wedding ceremony, the dark hole she feared was an empty chair in the back, where she would imagine he would be sitting. She was still reeling from the death of a grandmother — her father’s mother — who was the one single person in the world still comfortable talking about him with her.
After that session, I asked Kathy to give her daughter a precious wedding gift — the gift of one hour in the cemetery, telling her stories about her father — sharpening the image of who he was. Also, we decided to put his picture and the grandmother’s picture on a small round table at the alter area of the banquet hall where the marriage was to be, and to leave an empty chair at the end of the front row in his honor, which the stepfather agreed to.
It was my priviege to marry this young lady to the man she loves, and I admit to getting a little choked up myself, mentioning her father during the service, as well as those who support her in her new life now.
Back to suicide. This woman child — the daughter — lost her father unexpectedly, with no answers available to satisfy a three-year old’s mind as to why. As she got older, people filled in the missing details with acceptable answers and she railed against cancer and the circumstances that took him away from her. Imagine, now, that she was given a different story ending, in which he chose to leave her, to end his own pain.
In almost every case of adult suicide that is fully investigated, suicide is chosen to end physical or mental pain. Isn’t done to manipulate other people or to punish another person for ruining a life. Teenagers are more likely to do that immature, outward punishment act — to show a boyfriend/girlfriend the depth of a betrayal, forgetting the impact it will have on their parents, etc. For mature adults, suicide is most often an act of capitulation, of avoidance, of voluntarily leaving an overwhelmingly painful situation or humiliation.
Sadly, that same adult often minimizes the impact of their action. They will insist that ultimately people will be better off without them, etc. So this is my message today: that thinking is wrong-headed. It is a symptom of depression. It is not based in reality.
One person’s escape is another person’s prison. If Kathy's husband had killed himself voluntarily, she would not have allowed his picture to be shown at the wedding. The storyline the daughter heard about him all of her life would have been entirely different — all of the stories about how much he loved her, all of the actual facts of their brief time together, would have been erased. Instead of inviting his spirit into the wedding, he would have been shunned, his name only whispered, and most likely, only whispered by his immediate family who would still wonder WHY he opted out of a future like the one unfolding on that day.
Suicide is not cowardice; I’m not suggesting that. We all get to our breaking point in suffering. I got to my physical breaking point during childbirth with a broken tailbone after 28 hours of labor, when, screaming, I begged the doctors to kill me to end the pain (asking that they save the baby, however). I returned to that place of intense pain and anguish when the baby boy who tore me apart entering the world also ripped me apart when he exited his life in a broken car.
It’s harder to express your suffering when the pain is mental instead of physical, but it is just as devastating to the person experiencing it. I understand wanting to kill yourself. I wanted to kill myself. Many days. Many minutes. But I got past those thoughts because my lifetime experiences convinced me that it would not make things easier for those people left behind. And I couldn’t do that to them.
Borrow from what I know and say, if only for the minute you need it: Think again. Somebody needs you at their wedding, their bedside, their family holiday table. You can do this with us to hold you up when you need it. Don't go. Stay.