Grief and Gratitude on Good Friday

Great griefs are like great joys: they bend time. My sister died twenty years ago. Sometimes it seems so long ago that mercifully, I can barely remember the details. Other times, those details rush back at me so sharply I have to steel myself for impact.

Suicide does that.

I can smile now at the memory of my sister. I felt disloyal the first time I did that, as though permanent grief could be the only fitting monument to her memory. Time, mercy, and God’s grace have done their work, bit by bit.

For the first time since her death, I am writing about her and about losing her. This is an anniversary, and the time is right. For years, I thought she had taken Easter away with her and left nothing behind but wreckage. Gradually I found that she left me other things: a greater appreciation for the gift of my family, and how to live with gratitude despite wounds that are bone-deep. Those aren’t compensations. They don’t cancel out anything. They are gifts nonetheless.

I extend my hand to anyone who’s facing a loss, or anniversary of a loss, this Good Friday. I can’t make the pain go away. I can only say that you’re not alone. All I have is compassion, “suffering with,” in whatever way I can manage. The time and mercy and grace I mentioned were not my doing, and I couldn’t rush them.

Learning to Mourn

My sister died sometime around Good Friday or Easter weekend in 1997. She died alone, and so the time of death was estimated by the authorities using observations I’d just as soon not know about. I almost hope it was Good Friday. I can’t bear the thought of depression washing over her for the last time as the sun rose on Easter morning.

My mother gave me the news by phone from 1500 miles away, with unearthly pain in her voice. “Honey, it’s Jeannie.” My sister, all of thirty-five years old. Impossible. How? “She did it herself.”

The word “suicide” never passed Mom’s lips in my presence. It was an obscenity to her, compounding the horrible grief that went with outliving her child.

The shock left me feeling scalded from head to toe.

Lent came back that day for my parents and me, and it went on for months, as if the recent Easter had never happened. We felt abandoned by God Himself. I uttered prayers in those first days out of sheer habit and discipline, for there was no feeling of peace or union with God. As far as I was concerned, He had some explaining to do.

I thank God that no one around me told me to “offer it up.” Those words have their limits. A loved one’s suicide renders them useless. Trust me on that. Certain bits of advice should be strangled in their figurative cribs. Add to that “something good will come out of this.” The words may be true, but in the immediate aftermath of loss they are incomprehensible.

A friend whose brother had committed suicide called me as soon as she heard about my sister’s death. “You’ll learn to live with it, but you’ll never get over it.” She was telling me something I had to take on faith but have since learned to be true. There’s no “getting over” a loved one’s suicide. Don’t even mention the word closure to me. I did indeed learn to “live with it,” though, thanks to the grace of God as shown through the people around me. It hasn’t always been a gentle or easy grace, but it has carried me for twenty years.

The grace came in little things, slowly, a day at a time. It came from the people around me, even when I didn’t want anyone around me. It came in faith that was sometimes practiced as a mere habit, when I didn’t have any heart to put into it.

The rituals of Good Friday became unbearable to me for several years following my sister’s death. As we venerate the Cross, we know that Christ rose again after three days. Only three days of suffering and loss? The parents of a dead child should be so lucky. So when do I get my sister back? When do our parents get to hug her again?

Easter’s answer was too cosmic. My parents and I didn’t want the promise of new life. We wanted my sister’s suicide never to have happened. The weeks after her death were the Easter season, liturgically speaking, and I went to church out of habit and discipline even though I sure didn’t feel like going. It was unreal, and too real, to be mourning my sister when everyone around me was singing Alleluia.

Suicide: Call It What It Is

Can we agree that suicide’s a bad thing? That’s not always a given these days, with choice and autonomy valued in our culture the way they are. My sister committed suicide; that was her “choice.” I can’t imagine saying, “well, I’d never choose that for myself, but it was the right choice for her at the time…” Nope. I do not endorse the idea that the word “suicide” should be destigmatized and avoided, and that we should call the taking of one’s own life by gentler names.

Humanity never gets tired of twisting language to pretty up the taking of human life.

No one who commits suicide bears any stigma in my book. Suicide itself is another story, as an act and a phenomenon. It’s savage and brutal. Changing its name won’t change its nature. Likewise with its near relative, depression.

Suicide was the official cause of my sister’s death, but depression was the underlying disease. I didn’t know she had been enduring it. No one did. We knew she had been going through serious personal, financial, and professional changes in the months before her death. In retrospect, it’s easy to see that those were all manifestations of depression. They could just as easily been symptoms of something else or nothing at all. I for one dismissed them.

That was before I read her suicide note. I only read it once; reading it twice would have taken far more strength than I had then or now.

Would a screening for depression have helped? I don’t know. I wish I could be sure the screenings could reach the people who need them. How can we force someone to acknowledge depression’s presence, much less deal with it? I still don’t know, twenty years after it devastated my parents and me.

Yes, strive to be in tune with your friends and loved ones. Yes, encourage professional support if needed. But can you force the issue? Can you assume that every person who ends a marriage or changes jobs is in the grip of a clinical malady? I don’t think so.

Perhaps I’m making excuses for missing the obvious in my sister’s life.

We were close, and not close. We loved each other, and we couldn’t be together five minutes without a disagreement. As children, we bickered constantly.  Each of us seemed to define herself by what the other wasn’t. “You’ve got book smarts. Jeannie’s got street smarts,” our mother once told me as Dad nodded his agreement.

Living 1500 miles apart once we were adults meant an end to the day-to-day abrasions. With distance, I came to respect her strengths. She was a manager by profession in the food service industry, a problem-solver. She was always dressed and groomed just so. She married a high-school classmate of mine, a great guy whom my parents loved dearly. She was the best aunt my kids could ever hope for – oh, my word, she spoiled them to pieces. In some ways, Jeannie had it all together.

Having it all together didn’t protect her from depression. It didn’t protect us, her family, from the catastrophe of losing her, from that emotional Lent.

Grace in the little things

In the weeks following Jeannie’s death, my kids were the only reason I got out of bed. My husband and I have five children, and they were ages four to 15 when Jeannie died. My two youngest needed me in the morning for all the practical Mom stuff: serve the breakfast, wash the clothes, read to the kids, play with them. Jeannie wasn’t much more than a faraway name to them (whereas our three older children were old enough to have gotten the full-on Aunt Jeannie treatment).

Jeannie, who loved kids dearly,  would have loved the way all five of my children forced me to face life with grief when I really didn’t want to bother. Action driven by love was the therapy they imposed on me, with the help of my husband. Little things, daily things, one step at a time. Normal, necessary things. As I came to understand that those habits and patterns were actually healing graces, I could almost see my sister giving me one of her “well, duh” looks.

Eventually, thanks to my husband and kids and the everyday family things, I was able to laugh at things again. That’s a grace, too.

Ministering to Each Other

What parents endure upon the death of a child is unspeakable. I have never felt so helpless as when I saw my parents face the reality of life without their younger daughter. I wanted so badly to make it up to them. That was impossible.

Sudden death illuminates the value of a single human being, created in the image and likeness of God, created with intention and unique purpose. There are no duplicates, no replacements.

Confronting that fact, I saw my parents minister to each other in ways I couldn’t approach.

My dad had always had a whiff of king-of-the-hill around him. He knew he wasn’t the center of the universe, but he didn’t mind if Mom pretended otherwise. He lost the attitude suddenly and for good when Jeannie died.

His love for Mom was transformed. He turned to her as though taking care of her were the most important thing he could be doing – as indeed it was. He expected nothing in return. Some of his rough edges were gone, never to return.

I remember visiting my parents on Mother’s Day shortly after Jeannie’s death. Dad was so cheerful that I was startled. I asked Mom, “Is he doing this for me?” “No, honey. This is your father now.”

That spirit of patient service was a divine gift to Dad and to everyone around him. Perhaps that gift had always been his for the taking and he had spent a lifetime saying “no, thanks.” In the shock and pain of losing his daughter, he took hold of the gift, with deliberation and purpose.

Mom needed every bit of help Dad could give her. She was ravaged by Jeannie’s death. She had been the heart of our home. Suddenly, she was emotionally and spiritually hollowed out. She wrongly blamed herself for Jeannie’s death. As a daughter, I couldn’t understand that. As a mother, I could.

Three years after Jeannie died, lung cancer claimed my dad’s life. Mom methodically put her affairs in order. Suicide was out of the question for her, but she was ready to die. She was just waiting for nature to take its course; grief had broken down her health.

God had other plans. She couldn’t see what was coming, and neither could I, although I caught on a little ahead of her.

Through unlikely circumstances – “like something out of Oprah!”, as a friend of mine remarked – she became re-acquainted with a man who had been the boy down the street 65 years earlier when she was growing up. He had suffered losses of his own, widowed twice over by cancer. He and Mom hit it off; no one was more surprised than she. One thing led to another, and in 2003, I was matron of honor at my mother’s wedding. She and my stepdad had five glorious years together before she passed away.

I got to hear my mother laugh again. That was a miracle.

Those years were a huge blessing – unsought, unexpected, and treasured all the more because they came after so much loss.

My Mother’s Passing

Mom’s death was difficult. She took a bad fall, and her body shut down a piece at a time until her death three weeks later. Her mind was not spared. She had a bad reaction to a painkiller, going into delirium. The painkiller was stopped immediately, and the doctor assured us that she was likely to become lucid again once the drug had cleared her body.

That never happened. She was too weak. Her mind, once knocked off-kilter, stayed that way. One day, she knew me. The next time I saw her, she thought I was 15 years old, and she was scolding me for my messy habits. The time after that, she didn’t know me at all, and she wanted me out of her room.

I was heartbroken. When she forgot me, though, she also forgot about Jeannie. Her last days were unmarred by the memory of Jeannie’s death and the years of self-blame.

Surviving, With Gratitude

I’m the sole survivor of my family of origin, the only one left to testify to our loss and recovery. I’m here to acknowledge that wreckage is not the end of the story when a loved one commits suicide, even though wreckage is the only thing in sight at first.

To my twenty-years-younger self, I offer two words: hang on.

There’s laughter ahead. There are unexpected relationships. Some family bonds may fray, but others will mend. There are new things ahead that the present grief obscures. Believe in them. Give them time.

His mercy endures forever, sang the Psalmist, who knew a thing or two about loss and survival and mercy.

I gave advance warning of this post to my sister’s former husband, whose own life has known incredible blessings that I rejoice to see. He gave me his blessing. “She always believed in the promise of Easter,” he said.

She always believed in the promise. On this Good Friday, I take what he said as yet another sign of merciful grace and a reason for gratitude.

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