(This blog contains references to suicide.)
My husband and I were foster parents for the first ten years of our marriage. We fostered 93 children whose names are still listed on a stained and wrinkled sheet of notebook paper that is taped inside a kitchen cabinet. Sometimes, standing in my classroom at the end of the day, after my 82 current students have paraded through the classroom with their tales of sorrows and joy, I think You lived with more children than that.
And these children were strangers. They were not flesh of my flesh. They were little people who had been ripped from their homes–flawed though those homes may have been, they were still places where primal bonds endured–and forced to cast their lots with strangers.
These were not children whose hurts could be cured by Legos, cotton candy, and shiny bicycles. These kids had endured unspeakable things. They had been beaten, molested, gone unfed. They were children with “issues.”
In social worker lingo, a child who steals a roast beef from the kitchen and hides it under his bed has “food security issues”–what this means is she was annoying the neighbors by eating their dogs’ food.
Yes: we kept children in our home who had been found while foraging for dog food.
And the logical thought that follows reading that is something like: I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t help those kids, I wouldn’t know where to start.
And that would be true.
There were children who had been beaten so badly by their parents that, after carefully documenting their bruises, the teary-eyed pediatrician hugged them. Their father worked for a national company, and twenty-two years later, I still almost vomit every time I see the company logo. The beatings were that bad. That brutal.
Bundling those children up and taking them to Disney World wouldn’t have solved their problems. There was no quick fix.
Occasionally, DFCS workers called before they brought a child and said, “I forgot to tell you: you may want to hide the knives and scissors before we get there.”
Hide the knives. Hide the scissors. Oh, and sleep well.
Of course, we couldn’t go to church on Sunday and say, “Gee, guys, the reason we are a little stressed right now is that at night before bed, Lizzy tells us that she hopes we die–did you know her uncle molested her?” We were bound by DFCS rules–and common decency–to protect our foster children’s privacy.
Even after our elder daughter’s adoption, we kept a great deal of her background private. No one knew that she had relatives who could have taken her from us in 1998–and chose not to. So, in 2016, we found ourselves judged for sending her to visit them–despite the fact that two state governments said she could have been with them all along.
The most valuable thing about years like those we have just endured is the clarity they bring. Amid the garbage, beneath the flames, there it is: the distillation. We are certain about things that once shook us.
Among the revelations, the clearest is perhaps the most unsettling: I now realize how little we truly know about one another, about even our closest friends’ journeys. At Stephanie Grace’s memorial service, the pastor shared a scripture I had never heard: “The heart knows its own bitterness and joy; he will not share these with a stranger.” (Proverbs 14:10 WEB)
That day, I felt again the clarity and truth of scripture; I knew with a certainty that I had no true insight into the hearts of even my own husband and daughters. None at all. I had never before known such loss and brokenness, and I knew that none of us could verbalize our anguish. In sorrow, they were strangers to me. Though much was known, more was unknown.
We don’t go around telling others our deepest secrets. We don’t show our worst hurts. In adulthood, we learn that few people really care, that others will twist our words or–worse yet–mock us with them later, parading our pain for fun. So, we don’t share our fears. We repress and self-medicate, but we don’t say, “You know, I’m in such a rut–every single day of my life is the same.” “I can’t get out of bed in the morning since my husband left.” “I drink a twelve-pack every night.” After all, who would we tell that to?
And what could they do, anyway?
I have spent twenty years teaching; I have also spent twenty years reading about suicide. I know, I know: suicide is so stigmatized that I’m not supposed to even admit I read about it–despite the fact that I teach Antigone and Julius Caesar, plays in which suicide is featured prominently.
But I do read about it. I know things like:
- People who die by suicide sometimes see it as a rational act. Susan Rose Blauner, in her book How I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill Me, says that the person is drawing a line in the sand, saying, “The suffering stops here.” (That’s a paraphrase–every copy I have ever given away has been kept, and rightfully so.)
- I know that suicide is contagious–so much so that institutions and the media are asked to follow protocols in the aftermath, that whole towns must try to cope.
- I know that the time period from the decision to attempt suicide to attempting it is only twenty minutes for at least half of the people, a much shorter time period than period previously thought.
- I know the rate of suicide is rising.
- I know that suicide is the second or third leading cause of death among young people between 15 and 24.
- I know that LGBT youth are more likely to attempt suicide.
- I know that Christians who love Jesus can be truly depressed. (Click that link!)
- And, thanks to Mark Rutland, I know that there is hope in Christ, even for those who die by suicide. Years ago, I heard the pastor’s explanation in a sermon on cassette, and it has stayed with me: He said that he was confronted by a brokenhearted mother, hysterical over the loss of her beloved child, and he assured her that he believed there was a millisecond between the initiation of the attempt and its finalization in which her child could have thought, “My Lord, what have I done??? Forgive me.”
I was once on an elevator in Town Center Mall with a beautiful blonde young mother. She was impeccably dressed; her bubbly toddler daughter was in an expensive stroller. Abby was two, and she and I were ragtag and exhausted, still consumed by Greg’s leukemia battle.
As our daughters looked out the glass elevator together, I made some offhand remark about our struggling air, my husband’s bone marrow transplant, his leukemia.
I remember her matter-of-fact tone, even now: “Leukemia? That’s an easy cancer. I lost my first daughter to —————. There’s no cure. You’re lucky, he has an easy cancer.”
She meant her words to be reassuring–and they were–but they were also jarring.
She looked magazine-perfect, but she had lived horror.
When we had boarded the elevator, I wanted her life–but by the time we got to the basement, chastened, I was so grateful for my easy sorrow.
Four minutes had changed my perception irrevocably. Just four minutes.
I do not understand much–but I do understand suffering. I do understand pain. And I know what those who are suffering the most, who are enduring loss and heartbreak and despair and hopelessness need more than anything, and that is someone to come alongside.
The unexpected death of a child, the failed adoption, the divorce, the loss–these pain of these things will never totally go away on this earth. It will always be there. There is nothing you can do about the pain of these losses–these things that they don’t even make greeting cards for.
It’s hard to accept that sometimes, nothing can be done, that there are no words to say, that some losses are truly so savage that even the comfort of words is lost.
Do what Jesus would–in the middle of the pain and sorrow–show up.
In Seattle, we watched twenty-one people die of cancer. Friends on the ward. Neighbors in patient housing. Young fathers. Toddlers.
It was so awful.
On one of the worst days there, my best friend, widowed under an hour, raged at the front door of the apartment building, having forgotten her key. Abby, who was 18 months old, went with me to open the door.
My friend was unrecognizable, such was her grief.
Abby was unfazed by her wails. Looking at me for clarification, she said, “Ria’s heart is broken?” and toddled over to her, arms open wide, offering the only comfort she could: the comfort of love.