Outside of the Church Yard: Suicide and Me
We have a complicated relationship, and we go way back.
Suicide and the way to early death of young men and women have hit me hard in my life, and I still haven't found a way to work through it very well, or to make much sense of it, either.
I've sat with a young man who was a son to me, when he was suicidal, spending the night holding him, and talking to him, and working through his pain and his hopelessness. When dawn finally came, he was better, and decided he wanted to live. That night took everything out of me, as I used every bit of love and compassion and reason and faith and hope to get him to decide to live, and to tell him that he mattered, that he was important and that life was sacred and good.
I've had long talks with a close friend in high school, as he raged about his father beating him, and neglecting him, and not loving him, and how angry he was about all that, and how he just wanted to end it all. Long talks by the camp fire, where truth was spoken and the meaning of life was discussed, and I thought we'd really gotten to the core of it all.
But, we didn't. And, years later, he came out to me, telling me he was gay and that his sexuality was at the core of his rage with his father, and feeling unloved by his father just made life all the more unbearable.
I learned you never know how deep the wound is that people have to deal with, and struggle with, what the real reasons are that people finally decide that life may not be worth living.
I like to think that if I had known all of the worries, and all of the doubts, we’d been able to figure it all out and “fix” it, around that campfire when we were seventeen. But, probably not. I can’t seem to do that at sixty, and hopefully I’m a bit wiser and smarter now. I’m left with wondering, and not knowing. A lot of the not knowing.
Maybe if we’d been able to say “I don’t know, but walk with me a bit,” that would have been enough.
People ending their lives is not all that rare, but there is a code of silence. We have rarely honestly talked about this part of life, these holes that suddenly open up in our social fabric. Yet, we dance around it, not really speaking truth, not dealing with this subject. Perhaps there are no words to say. That silence is part of the craziness.
In our culture and not too long in the past, a person who ended their own life couldn’t be buried in the church cemetery, which was inside of the fenced in church yard. Their grave was outside of the fence, their lives literally rejected and separated from their spiritual community, and from God.
The code of silence, and shame, and guilt was there for all to see, those feelings literally fenced out of where we were supposed to experience God in our lives, where our pain and our humanity were respected, where we could be embraced by unconditional love.
That rule, that law of our culture is still there for all to see, the graves of the “saved” souls, the children of God, and then, outside of the fence, there are the graves of the suicides, the “eternally damned”.
Oh, we aren’t so explicit now, using the fence around the church yard to make our judgements. Yet, we do judge, and we express our adjudications of shame and guilt.
We follow this rule, this law in so many other ways. We stigmatize and shame, and often ignore depression, other mental illness, and addiction, and the impact of violence and not loving our kids enough, or soldiers trying to come back from war. We make sure people can self medicate with booze, and dope, and lots of prescription meds, and we judge those “solutions” as OK, but when people can’t seem to “get it together”, we put them outside of the fence, and get quiet about it all.
And, when a pop star or other public figure commits suicide, we are quick to pounce, looking for flaws and defects. We are quick to find the defining reason: drugs, love, or the microscope of public infatuation with their lives. We like the simple, quick, and not so very truthful answers. Real life is messier than that, but it doesn’t sell tabloids and it doesn’t draw a television audience. We also don”t have to look at our own doubts, our own actions, and how we as a culture still use that fence.
I held a teenager in my arms one morning, in his bedroom, as he told me about shooting himself in the head, as his father held him, trying to talk him out of it. He showed me the scar on his cheek, and the three missing teeth, and the place on his skull where the bullet came out.
It was a miracle he lived, and it was a miracle we could talk about it in his bedroom, sitting on the bed where his dad had begged him not to do it, and couldn't pry the rifle out of his hands, until he had pulled the trigger.
We gave voice to all those feelings, and all that pain that morning, dealt with the poison, and did some healing. We moved on, not forgetting, but dealing with the feelings he had; we had some honesty, and dealt with his pain and doubts. We went deep, talking about life and love and who we really are, and what really goes on when we are at the bottom and can’t see the light above us, or the hand reaching out to us.
A teenager close to me died, choosing a gun to deal with his worries, and his doubts. People close to him had a lot of theories and there were a lot of stories, a lot of explanations, and a bit of blaming others. There were the usual suspects: drugs, love, anger, rage of not being loved, not having a safe, respected place to be in, not getting enough love.
Those popular stories might be true, or several of them, or maybe there was something else, too. I'll never know. He is gone and didn't tell us why he left us. Perhaps it all hurt too much to talk about and to stay around and muck through it all.
We will never know his truth, and where he was at when he pulled the trigger.
Suicide takes away the answers and the conversations and just dealing with stuff, with family and with friends, and people who love you. We are left with just the questions, and the guilt and the wondering, the "coulda, woulda, shouldas".
Two other teenaged boys, boys I was close to, and they so very close to their buddy who shot himself, lived in the same town. It came my job to be with them in the next week, and maybe keep them away from the guns and the drug dealers and killing themselves. I took them to the funeral home to see the body and to pray and say goodbyes. I held them and sat with them at night in the park, the park they’d played in with their buddy, where we shivered on a snowy bench talking about life and crying.
Some folks thought it was part of making sense of it all, but there was no sense to be made of any of it.
And, as some families do, no one talks about him anymore. It is like he disappeared forever, and wasn't part of our lives. But he was and he is. A lot of people put him in the ground outside of the church yard.
I will always miss him and I will always think of the insanity of a sixteen year old boy kicked out of his house on a snowy night, and finding a gun and blowing his brains out, all alone and cold and feeling unloved.
I've stood on that same street corner, where he died, in the cold and the night, and the answers don't come. Even after nearly thirty years, they don't come, and the wind still blows cold, cold and lonely.
“His death was a single moment for him, but an endless, unforgiving moment for me, for us, for every encounter from then forward with others --- and every encounter with myself.” (Kim Stafford, 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared, p 165).
I know of that loneliness, that pain, that unanswerable, unconsolable ache that fills one's chest. And, all the questions and the not so good answers that people say. Suicide is craziness, about the biggest kind of craziness there is.
Suicide is just craziness, without any real answers and without any magic wand that makes all the crap of that go away.
I think I know, and yet I don’t. Not really.
We still bury people outside of the fence, at least mentally, separate and distant from the “rest of us”, away from community. Perhaps, in that distance, there is safety, there is the sense of not having to confront those painful, ugly questions about despair, and hopelessness, and death.
If we ignore it, it will go away.
But, it doesn’t. Life isn’t that simple, and when depression and suicide slam down on us, in its ugly suddenness, we don’t have good answers.
When I lose a friend, a relative, or anyone who has been a part of of my life, I need to grieve, too, for they have been in my life and then then they are gone. A person’s death and the grief I feel when someone near to me dies is part of the hole that I have in my heart. We all have holes, you know. We all struggle in life to figure out our holes, and to try to fill them up with goodness and love, and to find some sort of peace and meaning in our lives. Life is messy and awkward, and the work with our holes is sweaty, hard work.
We all have holes, we all have hard, dirty work we are doing to sort through things, to move ahead, and live our lives.
And we need to keep everyone we love inside of the church yard, so we can remember them and hold them close. And, they need to hold us close, too.