Yesterday’s news on the untimely death of Robin Williams hit many of us hard. Here was a man that we thought we knew well, at least we knew all of the characters that he played, and the many talents he possessed. He was quick witted, funny, gifted, and seen quite habitually smiling. Yet, depression is an illness that is so often hidden, that is until it can no longer be. Suicide, then becomes a final expression of a state of no longer wanting to hide, no longer wanting to hurt, and no longer wanting to be. So too, was the story of my brother Paxton, his name meaning “peace”, and his life cut short at the all-to-soon age of 40.
Smart, funny, loving, a practical joker, an incredible hugger, Pax would do anything to help someone he loved. At 14 years older (yes I was the “surprise” child), he was in many ways a father figure to me. He taught me how to float on Lake Norfork, to play penny ante blackjack, to work hard and how to laugh at myself when I took the demands of life too seriously. Listening attentively when I would ask for his advice, he would smile and ask me what I thought I should do. This was to be one of my first lessons in pastoral ministry. He was present with me.
In wake of his death, this is what I felt the most, an overwhelming sudden absence and a longing for him to be present with me again. Mixed in also was a whole list of regrets, things I wish I would have said in that unknown last conversation that night, and times I wondered if I had appreciated fully. Questions as to why he didn’t know how much he was truly loved, or the extent of the devastation his death left us all feeling. Yet, what I discovered was that God was there too, breaking into my sorrow with glimpses of grace, mercy, and unconditional love.
At this time, in the rural South, suicide was a topic of non-discussion and I knew of no one personally who had experienced what our family had or was willing to talk about it. Those that did choose to comment, oh how I wish sometimes that they hadn’t. One of the most hurtful things spoken was that “suicide is an unforgivable sin, I’m truly sorry that your brother is going to hell”. Yes, that was said, and all in the pretense of being a person of faith. Those words rung in my ears, and I could not reconcile them with the all loving God that I knew so well. Reeling from the sting, and recognizing others I knew shared this understanding, I reached out to my pastor in Massachusetts, and in doing so God reached out to me.
“Elizabeth, tell me, how are you doing?” was the kind Irish voice on the other end of the line. As I began to relate the events of Paxton’s death, I stopped, there was a point I couldn’t go any further. “Father, tell me why would someone say this to me? Tell me, please is this really what our church teaches, and our faith holds, is there really no room for God’s loving forgiveness?” As tears flowed and my heart pounded, I heard these words. “God loves Paxton. Only our loving Father knows the heart and the moments of death which allow for great grace of reconciliation.” Hearing his words were grace for me as well, for while I knew of the state that depression and alcoholism had created, I also knew of Paxton’s quiet love of the Father and Son as a baptized Christian. Then God gave me another gift- a conversation shared by an elderly neighbor of his in the month before his passing. That evening she had walked out of her apartment to see him sitting and looking at the stars, and seeing him so happy she couldn’t resist joining him. Gazing upwards he said, “All those countless stars..He made them all..one day I will be a part of that, and with Him too.” She said that while the conversation surprised her it was the happiest that she had seen him in quite awhile. This chance meeting with her was yet another grace.
Over the course of the next few years, I slowly discovered that in speaking of my loss, of the painful rupture that suicide creates in the lives of those who they leave behind I had found the grace that only God can provide. Not alone, I had found peace in the listening support of family, friends, my faith community, and in the voices of those who too had lost a loved one to suicide. I also recognized that throughout this God was strengthening me, step by step, day by day to be of help to others- to be present- in their sorrow and their joy. This is today how I remember my brother, best honor his life and continually glimpse God’s grace in the gift of ministry.
In God’s Peace and Love,
If you are considering suicide, or know of someone who is please take the time to speak to someone who knows where you are and can cast a lifeline of hope: National Suicide Prevention 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.
For those directly or indirectly affected by the painful loss of suicide, this is what our Catholic tradition actually says in this matter:
That, we are to be responsible stewards of the gift of life given to us, it is not for our disposal. (2280) Further, it is detrimental in cutting the connections to family, friends, and community, and therefore in opposition to our expression of our love of God. (2281) However, there are several conditions in which one’s degree of responsibility is considered affected. (2282) Finally, “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance”. (2283)
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pt. 3, Sect. 2, Ch.2, art.5 http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a5.htm