Saturday, November 10, 2012

Two Funerals Too Many


I stopped blogging last summer because my funeral attendance record was rapidly mounting and I just wasn’t ready to write about it. Somehow writing about anything else seemed trivial in light of so much sorrow. My son was preparing to leave for his first year of college; a wonderful transition for him, but grief filled for me. I was trying, unsuccessfully, to gird myself for the silence threatening to descend upon my home. It wasn’t a good summer for my stepsister to commit suicide, or my friend Gayle to succumb to kidney failure from type I diabetes, or my nephew Cody, to put a shot gun to his head. But then again, it never is.

I don’t count my friend Gayle in the mix. Although she suffered from a disease that ravaged her body for years, she knew great joy in life. She left knowing full well the hope she had in the love of Christ. Gayle left a legacy of faith to her daughters and husband that will be passed on. I had the privilege of praying with Gayle and her family while she lay on life support and even with the ventilator and the tubes and machines assaulting her frail form, the peace of God’s presence prevailed. Her body had been through enough. Even when it was apparent that her life here with us was over, hope reigned. It is difficult to explain and I in no way want to minimize the grief her family is experiencing in facing life without her; but I experienced a sense of hope deep within my soul as I prayed with Gayle. I am confident the peace that surpasses understanding will continue to comfort all of us during this season of grief.

Mourning someone who has made the definitive decision never to see you again is a confusing process. No matter how many extenuating circumstances there were or how severe the extent of the mental illness involved, for those who mourn nagging questions lurk behind every gesture of consolation: “Didn’t you love me enough to stay? Didn’t you trust me? Was there something I should have done?”   I now mourn for two. My nephew shot himself on September 2nd, at his parent’s house, in the evening at around 8:00 pm.  I remember the date because it was the night before my 51st birthday and we were out to dinner when my husband’s cell phone rang.  It really doesn’t matter, but little details like that stick and force the unthinkable into the realm of what is real.

My stepsister Kirsten died on June 5th, the night before my husband’s 53rd birthday, about 8:00 p.m. I saw her about 6:15 when she stopped by with our parents: my mother and her father. We spoke briefly; I gave her a hug in the driveway and said I would call her for lunch.  I will always remember the look she gave me from the passenger seat as they backed away; weary, gentle and sad.

Kirsten went home and packed a small backpack with her identification, my mother’s Ambien prescription and a small pistol my mother didn’t even know she owned. She sent her note out by email and told our parents she wasn’t hungry and was going out for a walk. By the time her friend opened the email a few hours later, it was too late. Her farewell note was articulate and thoughtful; she was grateful to our parents and had come to very rational decisions about her inability to cope with her depression any longer. She was forty eight years old.

 Kirsten was artistic and found joy in creating and enjoying things of beauty. I had grown closer to her in the last year; after she’d lost her job, significant other and mental stability which left her with no option but to move in with our parents. She was, despite her addictions and severe depression, a really lovely and gentle person. She held multiple college degrees in various areas, including social work. She had experience as a counselor for suicide intervention.

Even though our step-sisterhood began in our teens, we held dramatically different world views which kept us from really forming any sort of meaningful relationship apart from our parents’ marriage before her world fell apart. In less obvious ways my world was disintegrating as well, and we began to reach out to one another. It brought me a deep sense of joy to become friends with Kirsten. Step families are an odd phenomenon.  I should know; my father was married four times and my mother twice. It is difficult to know how tightly to hold on to family ties not formed of blood; once the door starts revolving, will it ever stop?

I am grateful to have had time with Kirsten even though my hope of being an encouragement for her was in vain. We did have some good, meaningful moments together which are precious to me. We were beginning to trust one another; to become family. I am grateful to have been the last person to have given her a hug, and devastated not to have had any idea what she was on her way to do. As I help my mother sort through her belongings, I draw a sense of the longing for beauty, security and family which she could never achieve or possibly accept for herself.  I kept a few things to remind me of her spirit. I probably kept more than I should, because in some small way, holding on to symbols of what was good helped both my mother and I feel better about letting go.

My nephew Cody’s story is still raw. His mother Amy is my husband’s sister. She and her husband RV have always been fun, kind and outgoing. It is difficult to walk this path with them. Cody was three when I married into the chaotic family of nine children and almost 20 grandchildren. I will always remember the active, happy little guy with white blond hair who refused to come up from under my mother-in-law’s enormous dinner table the first time I came for a family dinner. I try now to hold on to him in those good, happy times: for his parent’s sake and for all those who are carrying the weight of those questions.

 An uplifting quote from scripture -- that consoling passage to help make some sense of these tragedies: that is what you’ve come to expect from my posts.  Articulating my faith, assisting others in the emotional leap from pain to purpose; isn’t that what good Christian writing is all about? Understanding the depth of that familiar passage in Romans 8: “that God uses all things for good for those who love him”. “All” as in everything. Slowly those realizations are taking shape, but the questions linger. They nag. They are stark realities, visual images that assault my senses. So my prayer now is very simple; I am praying that I am able “to love the Lord my God with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind, and all my strength”. If I can keep my focus on God and learn to trust him completely, maybe I will have something to offer others when they are in need of a reason to stay. Maybe a faith well lived will be enough to shed the light of hope on those around me, through it all.