Quick verbal assurances of healing and redemption and glory in the afterlife – “they’re in a better place” – are bull. Offering cheap grace doesn’t fix the problem, it only deepens the grief of the very people we need to help.
Ten years ago today, a troubled man barricaded himself inside a small schoolhouse in West Nickel Mines, PA. He killed five children and severely injured five others, then killed himself. Afterwards, the grieving Amish community responded to their horrific losses in a surprising way. This morning we’ll reflect on their response, in light of today’s Lectionary reading. We’ll begin by listening to an interview of the killer’s mother, Terri Roberts, as heard on NPR’s “Morning Edition” this past week.
“I will never forget the devastation caused by my son” she said. The devastation inflicted upon the Amish, upon the Roberts family and their entire community. It wasn’t just the loss of loved and innocent lives, but the loss of innocence, the loss of the identity they thought they had. Their rural existence, isolated from the tumult and pains of the outside world, was replaced with the isolation of their grief.
On that day, Terri Roberts, the ordinary mother of an ordinary man, living an ordinary life, in an ordinary little town, became the mother of a mass murderer. She later wrote “I was – always will be – his mother. Surely if anyone could spot signs of trouble it would be the woman who gave birth to him.” But she didn’t, no one did.
We see these same emotions: guilt, grief, unresolved and unresolvable questions, in this morning’s reading. The surviving Jews in Psalm 137 are exiles in Babylon: strangers in a strange land. Their homes and their stable and prosperous lives are gone forever.
Why were they spared when so many of their friends and family died? Their city and nation are destroyed. Their identity is gone. Even their God is gone. The Temple that connected them to their Creator and Protector is in ruins.
Evil is sneaky. It rarely announces itself at the door. It sneaks into our lives through the pain and the loss we all encounter every day. Grief is not to be minimized or ignored. It is a valid emotion. Essential, in fact: because all things have an opposite. For light, there is dark. For wealth there is poverty. For evil there is good. For loneliness there is companionship. We cannot really know one until we know the other.
Karen and I both want you to hear and believe this message: you are not alone, even though it feels like that is the truth. There are many, many, people out there who have gone through what you are going through, and want to help. All you need to do is ask – ask friends, ask clergy, ask school counsellors. If you don’t find the help you need at first, keep on asking, and you will find a way back from the abyss. There can be hope again, and you do have choices that will not afflict those you love with that deeply hidden and never-ending pain and sense of loss and guilt that you would be leaving behind.
If you don’t know where to begin in helping yourself or one whom you love, start with the suicide prevention hotline’s website (http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org), or call them at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Trained counsellors in your local area are available (through this phone number) 24 hours a day.
Choose life – most especially for you, but also for those you love.
I’ve long promised that I would eventually post here on the issue of suicide, and this seems to be the moment, as much as I dread doing so: it is a difficult challenge, one that must be approached with great care and compassion.
What impelled me to do so at this time is the death of Robin Williams, and my feelings with regards to a post about Williams’ suicide by Matt Walsh – another screed of his that I once again (almost) agree with.
In his post, Walsh discusses at length how painful suicide is, in so many ways, for those we leave behind: whether we realize it or not. As he and I both know all too well, there are always those who love you dearly, and who will always be haunted and who will always carry a deep, hidden hurt from the suicide of someone they love. He calls suicide a “selfish choice” and again – he is right, to some extent.
Frankly, there are far more survivors than you can possibly suspect of their own suicide attempt(s) or the suicide of someone close to them. I am certain that there are many people you know who carry this hidden pain, and who will move heaven and earth to keep another from experiencing what they’ve gone through – which means they will do everything they can to help you, once they know that you see your own death as the only way out of the deep pain and darkness that you feel you cannot escape.
But, Walsh is also wrong – suicide seems like a choice to those looking on from outside, but for those mired in making that choice, it is not a choice: it is an escape when one becomes convinced there are no other choices. It is a disease that deludes one into thinking that the only way out is to choose oblivion. It leads you to believe that no one else cares, or that no one else can help you.