Sunday, June 28, 2009

Another Day of Rest?

Tony and I are big believers in low key Sundays. We go to church in the morning and then spend the rest of the day just hanging out...usually alone...but sometimes with friends. We either come home and relax before fixing and eating a nice dinner together or we picnic at any one of our favorite spots in DC and then read until it is too dark to see anymore. It's one of my favorite parts our life together.

Today's events have been anything but low key and I wanted to share them and my thoughts about them with you.

Upon arrival at church this morning, I did my usual thing of reading through the bulletin as soon as I sat down while the prelude was being played. I was shocked to find that a friend's daughter had died unexpectedly on Friday. Knowing some of the details of this young woman's life, I was saddened but not surprised to find out after discreet questioning that she had indeed committed suicide.

There are no real answers in this scenario, only broken hearts with many questions.

After church, Tony and I went to the funeral home for the visitation (what people in other parts of the country call the wake. Southerners call it the visitation). In sitting through the afternoon with my friend, I did something unusual. I watched people to see how they were reacting. Usually I'm too busy in that sort of situation making sure everyone has what they need. Playing organizer or hostess seems to be my self assigned role most of the time.

Anyway, I sat back this time and watched. I was interested in the responses. Most people seemed to think they needed to have some sort of special thing to say, ranging from a shared memory or a super spiritual platitude. If they had nothing to share, they seemed to be somewhat afraid to just hug my friend and her surviving daughter (the twin sister of the one who died) or to show their own emotions.

Don't get me wrong. There were many hugs being exchanged. I just saw a reserve in the body language of many people that you don't see if the death has come after a long illness or as the result of an accident of some sort. I wanted to shake a few people and tell them that it was ok to show their own emotions and to sit with my friend in her pain.

The young woman who died was a Christian. She was, in her healthier days, a strong witness for Christ in her workplace. There is no doubt in my mind that she is worshiping at the Throne of God at this very moment. The young woman who died was also mentally ill and on a downward spiral for many months. She had a biological chemical imbalance that led her down this path as a result of voices in her head she could not silence. We could debate the source of the voices all day long, but that's not where I'm going with this, either.

The fact that she was both a Christian and mentally ill creates confusion for a great many people, thus the uncertainty about how to respond. We tend to want things to be neat and tidy and easily addressable. Suicide and mental illness are anything but neat, tidy and easily addressable...especially within the Church.

Many people believe that suicide is the unpardonable sin even though there is no Scriptural basis for such a view. Still others believe that mental illness can be cured simply by being spiritual enough or by doing all the right things that "good Christians" are supposed to do. That's not Scriptural, either. These views result in faulty responses that often add to the pain of the situation rather than help it. People also sometimes seem to be uncomfortable with the emotional pain of another person and therefore shy away rather than coming alongside the hurting soul to walk the valley with them.

I saw the whispered conversations today behind hands. I can imagine what they were about...anything from the flowers to the lovely antique organ on the wall to gossiping about why this young woman had not gotten the help she needed.

I saw the tears in eyes of people as they mirrored the pain in the eyes of my friend. I was proud of my friend for not hiding her own tears...for her honest response to this horrible circumstance.

I heard the prayers for my friend and her surviving daughter and know that God heard them, too. In spite of the broken hearts there was a peace that passes understanding present in that funeral parlor today. It was a thing of beauty in a place of ugliness that is death. Christ walks our dark valleys with us whether we realize it or not.

Even though she left a letter, all of our questions will not be answered this side of Heaven. There will always be "what if" and "if only" and "WHY?" though they will grow less pressing over time. A mother will have to learn not to blame herself or to assign blame to the father and brother that deserted her and her two daughters. A twin sister will have to learn to live without part of herself. If they have any heart at all, the bureaucrats who denied her treatment will have to face their own questions as well.

All of this is messy and untidy and not easily addressed. Here are some hints, though, on how to deal with situations like mine when you don't know what to say or do.

1. Put aside your fear and reach out.

2. Reaching out can be as simple as a quick pat on the shoulder or a card in the mail or an email. Depending on how well you know the person, offer to take them to get professional help if needed and then do not abandon them during their healing process.

3. When you have a friend dealing with depression who is also a Christian, offer to pray with and for them. Don't worry about saying the "right" or "wrong" thing. God will guide your mouth if you ask.

4. Assume nothing. If you haven't been there, you don't know what they are going through.

5. Treat them like you'd treat anyone else who was sick or who had a broken limb. Look them in the eye when you speak and LISTEN when they speak.

6. Include them in activities. Invite them and give them the opportunity to say no. Sure, a person who is depressed can be hard to be around, but it is so important to them to know that someone cares.

7. Remember that it is not about you, but about them.

If you are struggling yourself with thoughts of suicide or other signs of depression or mental illness, please get help. Email me directly at or contact your local house of worship and ask to speak to a pastor or pastoral counselor. If you are in immediate need, go to the nearest ER and tell them you are afraid you will harm yourself if you don't get some help. Ask to speak to a chaplain.

There is no shame in mental illness. It is no different than physical illness. If your leg was broken, you'd seek treatment, right? A broken spirit, soul or heart is no's just not as visible.

My heart aches for my friend as she is walking this valley but I know she is not walking it alone. The same Jesus who walked His own valley and triumphed also walked with me through my valley into triumph. He will walk with her, too.

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