Suicide. W. takes his own life. Where do we go with this. How do we approach such a traumatic death? How do we approach the family’s confusion, anger, despair?
I am fortunate that I have made suicide a subject of specialist study — scientifically. To embrace suicide pastorally is quite a different matter. The Why’s? are overwhelming but there is really no persuasive response to that question. Even the How? question poses some gargantuan problems. Suicide not only stigmatizes the person who has taken his or her own life but curiously, the deceased’s family is also stigmatized by the act. Many painful and insensitive questions are asked by outsiders, law enforcement, investigators, even by friends.
It is my task, the challenge for me, to somehow transform this complex situation into a meaning moment without being judgmental in any way whatsoever. God judges, not I. My purpose is to be present to the family and to support them in their grief in whatever way possible without being patronizing or unauthentic.
The deceased was a very popular, well-liked, socially very active individual, and his memorial service was very well attended by persons of almost every life stage, occupation and faith tradition, including RC religious. They were all listening.
Memorial Homily for
* September 8, 1940– † March 26, 2015
Upon The Palms Of My Hands I Have Engraved Your Name
Delivered on Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Chaplain Harold W. Vadney M.Div.
“Can a mother forget her infant,
be without tenderness for the child of her womb?
“Even should she forget, I will never forget you.
See, upon the palms of my hands I have engraved you”
Isaiah 49:15 – 16
When I sat down to prepare for this evening, I couldn’t help but think about the news that broke last August 11, 2014, about the death of one of the funniest, most beloved, successful men alive: Robin Williams, who took his own life. Then, as now, we were confused, in awe, disbelief. How could someone who had achieved it all, someone so beloved, someone so damned funny just choose death? We’re faced with those very same questions today because just four days ago, W. Little, an intelligent, gifted and accomplished man, an athlete, a mentor to many chose death over life. And the answers to our questions have to remain where they’ve always been: between W. and God.
But this is a Celebration of Life, by the living. Sure, we’ve come together on an occasion of great sorrow and grief: sorrow above all for W’s family, his wife S., his sons W. and M., his beloved grandsons K. and J., his brother, and his many relatives, friends and acquaintances. We’ve come together to support and to grieve; not to judge; the Apostle James teaches that “judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jas 2:13). The bottom line is, really, that we have come together to mourn a loved one who left this world so suddenly last Thursday.
Taking one’s own life is a particularly difficult kind of death to deal with, but Holy Scripture describes a number of examples, at least seven, of good, fine people who chose death over life, and numerous stories of important Biblical personalities who themselves stood at the brink of suicide. In fact, while suicide is a terrible thing in most people’s minds, the Bible doesn’t seem to condemn suicide; it doesn’t paint it as something good either but it does show us good people doing it for what seemed to them to be good reasons. That might seem odd to us here, in these circumstances, but it also helps us on our way to rethink our situation today.
Take for example, the great prophet Elijah, who was deeply loved by God, highly respected by all who knew him, successful in all he undertook, in his work and in his achievements. But one day Elijah felt so downhearted, so dispirited, he felt like a troubled guest in an alien world; he felt so depressed that he threw himself under a juniper tree and begged God to take him from this world (1 Kgs19:4). This great prophet, so successful, so respected, so loved, mysteriously felt ill at ease in this world and asked for death. We read similar accounts about King David’s despair in Psalm 38, King Solomon’s depression (Ecc 2:16 – 17), even St Paul’s devastating disappointment with the Corinthians (2 Cor 1:8 – 10). Despair, depression, hopelessness, the freedom to choose death over life to ease the pain is an old problem, probably as old as humankind itself.
W’s obituary calls this service a Celebration of life, and today we are doing several things: we are remembering W’s death, celebrating life, and reframing both in the context of our faith, in mercy and love, and celebrating that love. At the heart of all death and all life is mystery. Thinking of this mystery, we are reminded that we haven’t gathered here today to fault W. or anyone else. For some deep and intense and mysterious reason, known only to W. and to God — and I suppose that reason was better known to God than even to W. — W. simply finally ran out of energy, out of that special energy that we have to admit is so barely present in all of our lives. We all have experienced those moments of despair when the rose loses its scent, when music no longer moves us, when, like Elijah, we lie down under our own juniper trees and ask how we can possibly continue to live.
Even though we’re calling this a “celebration”, it would be bizarre if there were no great sorrow, no great grief. It’s been said that “Grief is a song that the heart must sing,” because grief is the memory created by love. Like love, grief can be very painful but it is also very powerful. In a mysterious way it keeps the person who is gone alive in his survivors. And it binds those who grieve in a special communion. So our celebration becomes bittersweet, love peppered with grief, grief sweetened with love.
I recall the story of the man who so loved a special spot where he could enjoy the green sea rising to meet the clear blue of the sky, bathed in the gold of sunlight; he built a beautiful house on that cliff overlooking his cherished view; but when the house was finished and he went to his balcony to admire the view, a fog had moved in and hid all the beauty he sought. Full of anger, despaired and disappointed, the man locked his doors and went away. But a week later the fog had cleared, revealing the radiant beauty of living creation. We all have fogs that roll in and cover our hearts, our minds, our spirits. That’s part of being human. But very often our very lives depend on the quiet patience to wait out the fog and the shadow. Some of us wait and some, like W., don’t. Why some wait and some don’t is a mystery; it’s a question that’s better for us to leave alone and leave to God.
Like the prophet Elijah, like W., most of us understand so very little about life and death. There’s a lot the person who is seeking relief in death doesn’t understand about life; that’s why he thinks the solution is in death. For some mysterious reason, in the quiet hidden recesses of his mind and soul, he doesn’t seem to understand that life has a lot going for it, that there are people who love him, people who would do pretty much anything for him. But does he turn to those whom he feels will understand — his family, friends, his God? Perhaps W. grew so close to his own hopelessness that he felt other people, those closest to him, would understand how he felt.
But we cannot understand; we are blind to what we can’t see. We saw the side of W. and his character that, for some strange and mysterious reason, W. couldn’t see himself. We see, we saw the treasure: the side that is full of promise and hope; the talent, the successes, the energy, the love, the humor. His love of cooking, wine, travel, of course chess, jogging, and so much more. We’ll remember W. the warrior and his 3 tours in war – torn Vietnam, and the heroism that earned him the Purple Heart and other decorations and commendations. Even beyond death, he is surely telling us that we must try to understand, try to accept that he opted for a solution when the world outside of him could not have been aware of the problem, or even that there was a problem at all. Truth be told, W. was not the best judge of what the solution was.
To be fair to ourselves and to W., we have to admit that there were problems. We can’t delude ourselves or try to paint over the problems with only half the truth of his remarkable personal qualities, his charm, his intelligence, his interest in sports.
W’s life was cut short by W.; but the fact that W’s life was cut short so tragically does not define its overall quality or detract from the real person W. was, could be. We have to put everything in context. Neither can we plague ourselves with unanswerable questions or magical thinking like, What if…”, “If only…”, Why…”. The question we have to ask ourselves at this point and moving forward is, How? How do we find meaning in W’s death? How do we learn from W’s life and his death how to be better persons, to show greater love and understanding for each other? How to listen with our hearts.
“Out of the depths I call to you, LORD; Lord, hear my cry! May your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy,” is how Ps 130, the Psalm we chant when processing to the gravesite, begins. For some it’s a loud call for help; for others it’s a silent scream, a cry that can be heard only by God’s ears. And God does hear it, even if we cannot discern it. But maybe that cry wasn’t meant for our physical ears at all, but rather for the ears of the heart.
The unseen feeling of powerlessness, hopelessness, depression, despair, worthlessness is every bit as deadly as a malignant tumor; every bit as scarring as shrapnel. But we human beings are visual organisms; after all, we have the saying, “Seeing is believing,” don’t we? The apostle Thomas’, better known as Doubting Thomas (John 20:24), is an example of our need to “see” in order to believe. He demanded to see and touch Christ’s wounds before he would believe He had risen as He had promised. Christ tells him “Stop doubting and believe.” Then Jesus tells him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We, too, find it hard to believe if we can’t see the wounds, the injury, the physical suffering; but what if the wounds, the injury, the physical suffering is of the spirit, of the soul? If we can’t see it, for most it’s simply not there. That’s probably why despair, hopelessness, depression are the high – blood pressures of the spirit and the soul; they’re silent killers. They’re silent because those outside the suffering soul may simply not be aware of or choose not to see the suffering, not to believe it’s there; that would be uncomfortable, unpleasant, even inconvenient. That might be why suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, why we have more than 38,000 people taking their own lives every year, why a person takes his or her own life in the U.S. every 13 minutes! Were you aware of those stats?
Statistics are one thing but to try to understand, especially when your heart is broken, is a supreme act of love. W. is asking you for that love.
Most importantly, though, our readings from Holy Scripture today teach us the reasons why even suicide cannot separate us from God’s love.
In this service, we are asking God to take W. to himself. We ask this with the confidence of our faith: as our Psalm reading, today teaches that when tears become our daily bread, when the waters of chaos wash over us, when our spirit is downcast and our soul groans within us, we turn in prayer to God, we thirst for our Rock, our Savior.
And St Paul asks in his Pastoral Letter to the Romans 8:32, “What will separate us from the love of Christ?” Will anguish, or distress, or depression, or confusion, or bad choices, or peril, or even choosing death over life? The answer is like a trumpet blast from the heavens: Nothing! “Neither death, nor life…, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In our Gospel reading, the Evangelist Matthew teaches us of the Savior Jesus’ words of invitation and promise: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest…Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” “Come to me…and I will give you rest.”
These are not empty words of insincere comforters or self – serving preachers; these, dear people, are words of Divine Promise! Heed them well. Lock them in your hearts, and be at peace.
Jesus taught an important lesson of kindness and compassion, two gifts he left in this sorry, suffering world of ours. He taught consolation and promise of good things to come. Realistically, you will have many a difficult day and night but we know that God understands grief — Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, his beloved friend. God understands loneliness, He wept in the garden of Gethsemane; he felt the despair of loneliness and rejection walking to Golgotha, looking down from the cross. Right now, in this the holiest week of the year, we remember, we relive those awesome moments; and on this Sunday, as on every Sunday, we celebrate the Resurrection, we remember the Paschal mystery.
But we must now move from the sorrow and the loneliness, from the thoughts and memory of death to the celebration of life, W’s life and our own lives, we have before us the epitome of a promise kept: Extreme suffering, agony, the death and Resurrection of a Divine Savior. The ultimate promise of Hope and Joy!
We can and should ask that W., from his new place, a place where every tear is wiped away, may guide and support S., B2, M., K., J., all his family and friends. We pray today that God, in his infinite mercy, will give W. peace and rest; and that God will give us all courage, hope and eventually peace in the days, months and years to come. Hope is the antidote to grief, depression, even guilt. While we cannot know the interior struggles others face and we are not to judge; Instead we are to offer the same mercy and compassion to others that we would hope to receive for ourselves.
Peace and joy be with you all.
May he be of memory eternal!
Click this link Memorial Homily_WTL to download a pdf copy of this homily.