Tag Archives: Suicide

Thankful for the Good (I wouldn’t even tell me what would happen to me)

For almost twenty years, I have had a Mary Engelbreit calendar hanging in the same place in my kitchen. Tonight, as I stood washing dishes, I looked up and saw her succinct command: Give thanks.

And I thought about the fact that I do give thanks.

I know, I know, there are those of you who call me Eeyore, who wish I were a little peppier and forced some oomph into the monotone, but, in general, the Lord and I know I’m grateful.

And as I stood at the kitchen sink tonight, I thought about last Thanksgiving, when my father had been dead only a month, and my husband was still my husband–and recovering from his second heart surgery in 55 days. He was in our house, in his recliner, Andy Griffith and Barney Fife his constant companions.

And tonight, for a just second at the sink, I cracked open a door. I let myself think about how much my world has changed since last Thanksgiving.


It is the most astonishing thing–to be without your husband, to have declared null the words you spoke twenty-nine years ago on an August day, to negate them, to take every one back, especially when, for so long, you clung solely to those words. You meant them.

To have them taken away: to have your words taken away when words are everything . . . To watch them disappear and–after months, years, of crying–say, “That is fine with me,” to stand and watch yet another chasm open, knowing that if every cliff gives way, you will, in fact, survive–is a Red Sea moment.

That seems an overstatement—hyperbolic drama. A simple divorce does not compare to the parting of the Red Sea and the sparing of the Israelites. Who must I think I am?


I stood in church on Sunday night–Sunday nights in South Georgia are when the “real” worshipers attend (for those who don’t know me, the sarcasm oozes), when the facades fall off, when the congregation gets loud–and some of the adults were truly free in Jesus that night. They were, some would say, losing their minds.

And, in the back of the church, I noticed some teenagers laughing. Eyebrows raised, hands over their mouths, they whispered to one another, grinning at the fools.

And, for a minute, I admired their innocence, their complete lack of understanding of the reality that, truly, God is the only thing that matters; Jesus is the only thing that gets some of us through, that grace and mercy are truly sometimes our souls’ only sustenance.

There was so much that they had yet to endure, and I loved that.


I have a casual friend who is a sister in loss. I have never been to her home. I do not know her phone number. I cannot tell you what kind of car she drives, but we know loss, and we are sisters in faith–our bond is beyond texting and pool parties. 

When we do see one another, we tighten the knots.


We bumped into each other one day in a Walmart parking lot. One of us, I can’t remember who, had recently celebrated an anniversary, had looked at a picture of her young, naive self, hopeful on her long-ago wedding day–and posted a picture on Facebook.

We stood between shopping carts talking about that picture, about the days when we hoped for bright futures, when we thought that they were assured. And my friend looked at me and said, “You almost want to say, ‘Don’t do it.'”

You look back at the young girl you were, at all that was ahead of her, and you want to say, “Don’t walk. Don’t take that step or that one. Don’t move ahead. Because the path is one of pain and sorrow. The losses are stacked like cordwood.

But on our wedding days, so full of joy, most of us are ignorant of the sorrows to come. Like the teenagers in the church, there is so much we do not know.

On our wedding days, we anticipate unity and joy—the relational richness of Christ and The Church. 

But within marriage, we also learn this: the losses in our lives reveal to us the character of God. Behind each loss, there is an assurance of His presence. He is present in our horrors.


In the loss of my granddaughter Stephanie Grace, I have seen the hand of God more mightily than I have in any area in my life. When I stood in that hospital room and held that lifeless baby, I could not have known that her story would reach–literally–throughout the world.

We cannot see the heavenly scope of our loss; we cannot know the extent of what God has planned when our treasures are taken from us. But when much is taken, when you lose babies and jobs and houses and money and health, when it is all discarded–that is when you know that there is only God. 

There is only God. 


He is our only hope, and even as a cleansed sinner, as someone who does MUCH wrong, I can say that He is faithful, that He has restored much in my life, that He has blessed me abundantly, through every loss that I have endured. 

So, even in the loss of my marriage, in this stripping away, I trust in this: He is there.


I talk about cordwood a lot in this blog because that is how I see my losses. Stacked, heaped, piled high. 

An elderly reader who knew me in my childhood once messaged me, saying, “Even from infancy, you have not had it easy.” 

I cried that day because I had never considered it that way. I see myself as having endured much from first grade on, yes. But I had never thought: Even as an infant, even as a toddler, I was enduring. Brain surgery. Leg braces. Months-long pneumonia. 

Even as a small child, I was suffering.


My brain tells me to count up the suffering, to count up the loss, to evaluate and contemplate and think about all that I do not have. 

And I am without much. 

I rearrange the things I have lost, these logs of heavy sorrows. I pitch a fit and try to throw them. Behind them, all I find is God. 

All I find is God. 


Five years ago, Thanksgiving meant dinner at my father’s. With my husband and my daughters and twenty other people. This year, there is no one. This year, a neighbor is making me a plate. 

In the natural, it makes no sense.


As recently as seven years ago, I would have wanted to make this make sense.

But tremendous, all-engulfing loss makes it impossible to have anything other than God. Past a certain point, there is no comfort but the assurance of God’s presence and the fact that He will do good.

Lose enough, and it becomes easy to live in the day, to do that which is set before you–and on good days, you can even work with all your might. Endure enough, and it becomes twisted into your core that tomorrow is not promised, that all is dross.

You take out your scales–you weigh everything while simultaneously letting so many things go.

And it’s not trusting the process; it’s not time heals all wounds, it’s not relentless forward progress. Rather, it is simply this: You have seen everything stripped away, and you have seen what remains.

He remains. 

He is faithful through our pain, through our loss, through all our suffering.


The 21-year-old bride who stood in that church on that August day 29 years ago would, I know, be stunned to learn she’d spent two decades consumed by caregiving–and she never homeschooled–but her husband did. She would find it amazing that she was, in fact, the primary breadwinner twice. She’d be dumbfounded that she lived within a mile of her childhood home, taught for the arch-rival high school, had only one birth child–and only adopted one. The yoga would be hilarious to her. The pets, oh, what a surprise they would be.

I wouldn’t tell her about the losses. I couldn’t do that to her. I realize that, sitting here now, staring into the darkness of my yard: in the Walmart parking lot that day, my friend and I agreed: we would tell the young bride to run.

We wouldn’t tell her what would happen.

That is stunning: I wouldn’t even tell myself what would happen to me. I wouldn’t recite the litany of the things that I was going to lose. I would let myself be ignorant.

I could not say to myself: You are going to lose this man.

I could not say to myself: You are going to lose your father.

I could not say to myself: You are going to lose your granddaughter.

But I could grab that bride’s hands, clench them tight, look her in the eyes, and say, “God is going to sustain you in the days to come; He is going to be faithful, and you will stand strong in Him.”

There is so much pain in this confidence, but there is also so much confidence. Beneath the cordwood, there is this bedrock: Good will come. 

And for that (and sometimes that alone), I will always give thanks.

Photos by Magen Lindstrom

Things God Did For Me on the Day My Father Died by Suicide

This is a Facebook status from October 27, 2019. I am posting it on my blog because I think it is an important part of my father’s suicide narrative.

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Things God has done for me in the past five days, in order:

  1. Every part of this testimony hinges on this very first thing: I was in town on the day my father died by suicide. I was supposed to drive my husband to Jacksonville on Wednesday–he had a doctor’s appointment to find out if he needed a second surgery. He called me at work on Monday and announced that he was going to drive himself. My first block heard us squabble about it–I didn’t want him to drive with his eyes so bad, but I also have no sick days– and when I hung up, I told the kids, “Something’s going to happen on Wednesday.” I even added, “By Thursday, we will know if this semester is just in the toilet.”
  2. Wednesday morning, one of my students told me that her brother, a favorite student and long-time classmate of Abby’s, was in surgery having an emergency appendectomy. It sounds bizarre just say that this might have been used by God, but, like I told his mother, it kept 10% of my brain occupied most of the day–there was a thought I could go to when everything else was too much, another place for emotion to go.
  3. I did not answer my brother’s phone call. I looked at the caller ID for at least 15 seconds and really considered it, told myself, no, and went on with class. I learned that my father was dead via text–it sounds like the worst way possible, but it was 100% my merciful and loving Father watching out for me. If I had heard my brother’s anguish, I would have become hysterical, and my students would have endured that–and my daughters would have as well. Instead, I calmly said something along the lines of, “Guys, that text said my father just died . . .” and I stepped out into the hall.
  4. My administrators did not reach me. They were coming to break the news–and, honestly, the team was impressively made–and when I saw them coming down the hall, my heart was just so grateful that they had not made it to me. If they had, the high school would have become a place of trauma, and my friends/co-workers would have become part of that trauma, and what it is to me (a place of contentment) would have been forever destroyed.
  5. My childhood choir director, who is like family to me, was nearby. The administration firmly told me that I was not going to be driving myself anywhere, and I was adamant that I was not getting in a car with anyone whom they offered me. (By now, I like to orchestrate the details of Terrible Days of My Life.) We were able to locate her, and she swooped in and got me.
  6. My daughters are strong. My brothers certainly got gold medals in parenting for the ways they told their children, but I just broke my girls’ hearts with one sentence from 1,000 miles away. April was with her fiance, while Abigail was totally alone, leaving class–but I knew social media was going to get to them before I could if I wasn’t both quick and forthright.
  7. People offered to buy plane tickets for my daughters, and they got at least one of them to me. I cannot imagine going to that funeral without Abigail. (Greg’s heart rate and blood pressure have been elevated since my father died, and we felt that he could not safely go to the funeral.) I was so grateful to have my baby girl there. I am also grateful that April is strong enough to miss the funeral–it takes a special kind of fortitude to make that kind of decision, and she has it.
  8. I say a good good-bye. Teaching Julius Caesar for thirteen years taught me the value of “a parting well-made.” My co-workers will say I am better at good-bye than hello. Former students will tell you that my Friday and holiday good-byes are thorough (since weekends/holidays can be dangerous). One Friday, as I started my good-bye speech, a new kid asked, “Is something special going on this weekend?” and a long-timer said, “No, it’s just Friday, and she does this.” I’m so glad I do. My good-bye with my dad on Friday, the 18th, was loving and warm, and that gives me some peace.
  9. God allowed me to discover the song “There Was Jesus” and use it to get myself in a place of stability before this tragedy. A former student’s death the week prior to my Dad’s–stacked on the top of everything else, all the other losses–left me desperately sad, and I listened to that song on repeat for hours.
  10. My inner circle showed up (and every outer circle did, too). Four adults watched me slowly eat a sandwich, and the house filled with people who wanted to see my face, and I needed that solicitude.
  11. God has allowed me to read about suicide for more than twenty years. I understand things that I am certain many people do not, and there is so much grace in that. (See the previous post on my wall with blog links–the subtitle of the blog is “Why you should just shut up” because, truly, you should.) There is a peace in knowing that there is nothing any of us could have done. (There is also a world of pain.)
  12. Finally, I have full confidence in the mercy of a loving Father who sees Jesus when He looks at me and when He looks at my dad. I know my father is with Him.

Standing in my classroom last Wednesday, what it came down to was this: my faith is either real or it’s not. He’s either who He says He is or He is not. And I think God did an affirming work in me right then, and He spared me more dark sorrow, more anguish, more wailing and despair. And I am so very grateful.

The Grocery-Store Spectacle: Grieving my Father’s Death by Suicide

This blog was begun on December 19, 2019, and finished December 31.

In early October, you couldn’t have told me that it could be like this. You couldn’t have told me that there was another realm of suffering: that past holding my lifeless stillborn granddaughter, past all the other suffering my little family has endured, there was an even deeper grief. You couldn’t have told me there was more.

But today, I was wild-eyed in Ganas Pecans–the decision between pecan pieces and pecan halves too much for me. I can barely order eggs at Cracker Barrel or choose an exercise band at the YMCA. I cannot decide anything.

Instead, my body wants to flee. I have been bathed in adrenaline for weeks now, a pure, steady flow that made me grateful to catch a virus, for two weeks of respiratory weakness to tamp this constant fight or flight.

I can feel the hollows in my forearms, empty spaces yearning for movement. My head aches constantly behind my left eye–my neck and shoulders tight and immobile, jaw clenched, my facial muscles now individually known to me. My nose has muscles, I know this, too–suicide has brought them to me. Even just sitting in a chair demands my entire concentration. (It’s so amazing, really fascinating, how much sitting in a chair requires of those deep in grief.)

I didn’t know how fragmented attention could be. That I could forget to make a phone call–remind myself, then forget again–a dozen times in one afternoon. That I could open Facebook messages to send a note, forgetting to whom and for what in that brief second.

I did not know that a fifty-year-old woman could cry the despairing wails of the four-year-old. (I also did not know that, when the fifty-year-old cried, no one would come.)

There is so much I did not know.


There have been so many times in my life that words have been useless to me. (In the early blog’s about Stephanie Grace’s anencephaly, I did not use English in the titles because there were no words that fit.) But here, at this time, when my father has abandoned us, left abruptly, firmly closed the door, well, there are truly no words at all.

We are not people drowning in grief, occasionally coming up for air and seeing sunlight. There is no screaming of hopeful words over cresting waves. There are no motivating life preservers flung just out of reach–not is there a distant, but reachable, shoreline.

We are crushed like acorns. We are small, and we are broken into tiny pieces. We are stomped-upon and powerless. There is no possibility of reassembly.

Our lives will never be the same. There will be no return to baseline, no new normal. The word “normal” will never be used to describe us again. We are a grocery-store spectacle, the gossips’ pitiful feast.

We are “those poor, poor people.”


But we are not only pitiful–we are mad, too. There is anger that we can tap on the days when we refuse tears.

It is an anger unlike any other I have felt. It is not rage–because rage takes an object, and my father is gone.

It is not annoyance, that mild daily anger at long lines and stubborn traffic lights. It is certainly not the helpless anger so familiar to those of us who watch our loved ones self-destruct.

Neither is it the perpetual, disappointed I-can’t-believe-this-is-my-life anger known to those of us who got the wrong LaLa Land ending, though that is the anger it is closest to.

The anger is something akin to “what’s the point” or “why even try”–and it’s both cosmic and earthly–both with the universe and with my father.

82068945_477541166456581_5676904703166775296_nIn my carport and my sitting room, there are Rubbermaid containers filled with memorabilia–forty-year-old amusement park photos, elementary school report cards, “World’s Greatest Dad” trophies, letters from summer camp, tiny plastic Cracker Jack toys, greeting cards that all say, over and over and over again, “We love you. We appreciate you. You are wonderful.” And I look at that–all that written attestation, all that Crayola-ed love, and I think, “It wasn’t enough.”

That’s the source of the anger, really–the fact that none of us will ever truly know one another, that sometimes, there is no way to reach past the pain. Our ultimate impotence makes it seem pointless to even attempt to reach across the chasm–but love demands that we try.


On the last day of 2019, Abby and I took a five-hour road trip. The two-lane roads were littered with dead animals–I don’t understand how, sometimes, there are so many. Amid the dead possums and raccoons, there was also a dead Yorkie and a tabby cat.

In Milledgeville, we were driving in a pack of about six cars when one ran over the carcass of a dead hawk, and matter splattered on my windshield.

I just wailed. Just wailed and wailed.

 

 

Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255

25 Things I Do To Survive Really Bad Days

78950667_441755543206868_8212969989649465344_nSix weeks ago, I joked with a friend that I wanted to write a blog on 25 ways to survive a bad day. We agreed that it was “too morbid” for South Georgia–small towns being what they are, no one should ever admit that, sometimes, simply enduring is difficult. Now, of course, with my father’s death by suicide, people can think what they will.

I am happy that I now have a “toolbox” of things that I know will work to help me find my way out of a funk. It took me a long time–and a lot of research–to get to this point. 

These tips do not depend upon my family members–they have been enduring the same traumas, and they cannot throw me life preservers. This fact used to make me sad, but now I see it as part of the traumas themselves.

None of these may work for you–just know what does work for you and take the time to do those things without feeling guilty.  (This includes getting medication if you and your doctor agree you need it. Not you and your spouse. Not you and your great-aunt. Not you and your pastor. You and your doctor.)

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This is my list:

  1. Getting outdoors and getting quiet. I decide where to look, what will help me most. If the wind is strong, the pecan tree will be the most beautiful part of the yard; if the bees are in the wildflower patch, the patio may be where I want to be. If the sky is blue and cloud-dotted, I will flop on my quilt and make myself look at the clouds float by. And long-time readers will know that the drake elm is, of course, always healing. (Looking at trees is research-based, by the way.)
  2. Taking a bath is a good thing, always. (Sylvia Plath famously said, “There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.”) One of the first things my husband does when we move in a house is defeat the tub’s overflow valve so that I can fill it to the brim. (And, truth be told, the hot water heater is also set a little higher than it should be.)
  3. Making the bed. For me, clean sheets are a front-loaded reward for an anticipated bad day. I will wash sheets and make the bed before a hard day of long drives and doctor’s appointments. Homecoming is that much more wonderful.
  4. Getting on Facebook chat. There is always someone just a click away, and I take advantage of that. Whether it’s a new anencephaly mom or a former student, someone is usually up for small talk. (Wednesday morning, Abby and I Facebook videochatted with a friend from Arkansas for 38 minutes. Today, a friend from Nashville and I traded recipes.) Seeing a smiling face is often all the antidote I need.
  5. Vegging out–Instagram triplets, pregnancy reveals, and cat videos will get my mind out of a loop every time.
  6. Listening to “Hallelujah Chorus.” (On one particularly bad diagnosis day, I sat in the darkened den and listened to it while eating tres leches cake, and those ten minutes diluted some of the horror of the previous eight hours.)
  7. Watching familiar movies. Grease if I’m sick. Notting Hill if I’m sad. Silver Linings Playbook or Lala Land if I’m nostalgic (but never if I’m sad). Manchester by the Sea if I’m feeling honest. (Casey Affleck’s character, Lee Chandler, confesses of his pain, “I can’t beat it. I can’t beat it. I’m sorry.” It might be the most honest moment ever in a movie.)
  8. Inviting myself over. I have several friends who have an open-door policy for me. I’m allowed to come over in my pajamas and sit on their sofas and watch the Braves or pull up in their driveways for a pep talk. And, on bad days, I do.
  9. Listening to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones and singing along, loudly.
  10. Looking through my “treasure box.” I only do this about once every four years; I save it for the worst days. In my nightstand, there is a purple striped box filled with comic strips, notes, and mementos, generally of my life before All of This. Younger Me is, of course, gone, but there is still power in visiting who I was. There are both comfort and validation in remembrance.
  11. Reading poetry. Poets have an ability to perceive things that others miss, so on sad days, seeing through their eyes can be reassuring. (Carrie Fountain has helped Abby and I survive entire years.)
  12. Going to the YMCA. I started going this summer simply because I was emotionally unable to sit in my sad house any longer. I gave myself absolutely no choice, and almost every entry in my Under Armour Map My Walk journal is dismal. Initially, had an awful attitude and hated every step–now, I have new friends, go to classes. and can carry a 42-inch screen TV alone. (Also, the gym is a societally authorized place to be, especially since I am overweight–everyone is always glad I am  exercising; no one can tell me that I shouldn’t be, and so I can go as often as I’d like.)
  13. Visiting the nursing home. Everyone there is always happy to see me; I can sit and do a word search or a jigsaw puzzle with a content companion; I always leave grateful for my home, my mobility, and my pets.
  14. Taking the dogs on a road trip. If I’m posting pictures of the sunset from Swamp Road, it’s a sure sign I had a terrible day that I’m redeeming the best way that I know how. Good music, happy canines, a sunset, and some Bubble Yum will keep me from hitting rock bottom every time.
  15. Listing to music on Alexa–buying an echo dot for $22 and getting Amazon Music Unlimited has been more life-changing than I care to confess. I am not technologically inclined, and being able to say, “Alexa, play Zach Williams’ “Rescue Story,” and then say, “Repeat that,” without ever having to make a playlist has been wonderful. (This also works with Lady Gaga’s “You and I.”)
  16. Reaching out helps–whether I make a coworker some banana bread or write a little note to a far-away friend, I usually feel better. (This is based on research as well.)
  17. Petting a cat or dog. We have three indoor cats, three outdoor cats, and two dogs, all of whom found us, and these animals bring us more daily comfort than anyone can know. Abby jokes that Edgar and I might as well be “surgically attached,” and Baby is rarely out of Greg’s reach. Pets have health benefits for their owners, and I know that they improve our lives daily.
  18. Accepting social requests and attending community events–even if the rest of the family stays home.  Getting out of the house does me good, even if I sometimes have to force myself. If I’m invited to supper or a former student’s kid’s birthday party, I will go. If we haven’t ever talked but once in the grocery store, I will still meet someone at Rodeo with a smile. I have never regretted saying yes to an invitation.
  19. Watching a church sermon I missed. My pastor always challenges distorted thinking and reminds us of the goodness of God, and his sermons are only a Facebook click away.
  20. Doing yoga. I like Amazon Prime’s “Beginner Yoga: Morning Stretch and Flow.” Drinie Aguilar is not too perky, and the first routine is better than any chiropractic session I have ever had. In her spiel, she says something like, “Good for you, starting your morning doing something to help your body,” and I always think, “Yeah, Drinie, good for me.”
  21. Writing. Obviously, this blog helps me–anencephaly, three cancers, two heart surgeries, now a suicide–it’s way too much to keep internalized. I have over 100 non-published drafts–but the thoughts are down on paper.
  22. Talking to a friend who is going through something worse or more interesting–listening to someone else unload will often stop my spiraling. Several of my friends will say, “But why am I telling YOU this??? You have it worse!” without ever knowing how helpful they are being in sharing their own stories.
  23. Meditating with the free app called Headspace. I don’t do it enough, but that app has calmed me down quickly several times–it is so soothing.
  24. Crying. One of the kindest things Greg ever did for me was read research about crying aloud to me for the last thirty minutes of a long drive. It is so beneficial biochemically that I no longer try to stop myself. The benefits of a “good cry” are felt for weeks afterward. (And yes, there’s tons of research. I am only linking one.)
  25. Remembering that “His mercies are new every morning.” This verse from Lamentations 3 has been true in every trauma. Every morning is better. Every morning He is there, with me. And that assurance continues to comfort me through these dark nights.

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All artwork by Tori Press @revelatori. Used with permission.

Please: Don’t Ask How I Am (When You Know)

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(Note: This is not to step on toes. This is to help me survive the grocery store. And any tragedy survivor’s inner circle should always ask–multiple times a day.)

Five weeks ago, after Greg’s open-heart surgery, when he was housebound and didn’t really feel well, I would pick him up after work and we would go sit at Ruby Tuesday’s and share an appetizer. It worked to fight cabin fever, and sometimes, sitting across the table from each other, I could feel the trauma start to slip away, could glimpse the people we once were.

One day, on the way back to the house, when I thought he had also briefly remembered, “Oh, I used to like her,” I said, “I think it would take more than a month on an island together to recover. More than a month. I’d need two weeks of just pure silence.”

And he agreed.


Of course, we did not get that. My father died by suicide days later, leaving us–once again–completely unmoored.

(If you have joined this blog for the suicide segment, but have missed the preceding anencephaly and cancer segments, you need to know this: the members of my little family are all too fatigued/wounded/calloused to comfort one another.)

Beyond encouraging one another to eat and suggesting, “Perhaps a hot shower would help?” we have little to offer in the way of assistance.

We can offer you little as well.


My father’s death has me exhausted by the simplest of questions: “How are you? I am asked this a hundred times a day by the kindest of people. It is, after all, the all-purpose American greeting.

It seems rude, then, to suggest this, but I believe that perhaps after tragedies that question should remain unasked for a while. These days, I can feel “fine” and five minutes later be weeping in my car. Everything is confusing; my emotions are ajumble–do I want to go eat with a friend, or do I want to lie in bed with my cat? Right now, I can’t decide between Mr. Pibb and Coke without crying–so I certainly can’t tell you how I am.

Saying “fine” after a tragedy is easy, but it’s a lie. Not only have I lost my father, but I’m watching my daughters and brothers struggle from hours (upon hours) away.

Saying “awful,” while more honest, necessitates a conversation that neither of us may really want to have–and it’s not entirely true because there are still bits of joy in each day.

Saying “sad” might make you pat me on the shoulder, and then, depending on the depth of affection we share, I might collapse crying in your arms at school or at Walmart.

And you know all this: you know I’m not fine. You know I am awful. You know I am sad. So, maybe just take a break from asking for a while.

Just say, “I’m glad to see you.” Then–maybe–smile.

In the days right after a tragedy, just be glad that the survivors are coming through the door at work or are seated next to you at church. Acknowledge their presence, but don’t question it. It’s one less answer they’ll have to search for, and they will be grateful.

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Suicide and Sustaining Love (It’s Real or It’s Not)

73320660_595813497894505_6486648047261450240_nIt is crazy that I would even think about blogging again, that I would return to my laptop and try to make sense of this latest tragedy, attempt to put it to good use. But, if you read this blog regularly, that’s what it is about, in a sense: putting sorrow to use. Putting pain to work, for good. Because, to me, good must come from hurt.

And so, in the face of my father’s death by suicide, hidden in the neat “died suddenly in his office,” the mask of words that the media offers the bereaved, I will struggle here, again, in words, just as I did with the death of my granddaughter, sweet Stephanie Grace. 

And today, driving home from work and its busy solace, I thought of her and that and all we went through, and I was just so grateful because it taught me so much. That little baby who never took a breath on earth, well, she helped me survive this.

I just thought what it would have been like, had I not lost her–had I not endured so much else. Had things been easier, had I not struggled for days and weeks and years to gain purchase and find my footing, had I not learned to measure my breaths and seek glimpses of good, how, how, how would I have survived this??? Where would I have been?

Today, a week after my father’s death, I stood in my classroom and taught. I have been there all week, grading papers and making copies and hugging kids in the hall, and I have been there because God taught me to stand.


Our losses hang around us like torn wallpaper–things we tried to create are now gone. 74465171_419648325366611_6010560414377574400_nThere are so many losses–even beyond those awful and known. Children, babies, promised adoptions, health, finances, a normal marriage, a home, friendships–all have been stripped away, food for locusts.

But what remains is bedrock. Beneath the gloom is this: I now know that God is for me, I know now the power of despite.

Despite the death of my granddaughter. Despite the health battles. Despite the debt and the unending bills. Despite the lack of joy in my home. Despite the 1,000 miles between my daughters and me. Despite these things, God is still here, trusted and real.

He knows I am broken.

I know I may not be restored.

There is, somewhere, a blog about the day that I gave up. I had been clinging to the idea of better. That things could become better: my husband cheered and physically well, our finances restored to normalcy, a life of stable predictability could still be ours. And then, with the crashes of this summer–the lying doctor and the heartbreak of another mortal health crisis–I just gave up.

We think of surrender as something that involves soft music, altar calls, and weeping–or anger and rage at the unfairness of our fate. But there is also another kind of surrender–a quiet relinquishment, a realization of the futility of fighting, a final letting go. That’s what I did on that summer day: I realized that this may well be my lot, that my ministry may be one of suffering and surviving, of going on.

My testimony may just be getting out of bed. That may be what in me speaks most of God.


I understand, very much, the weight of the pain of this life. There are blogs I do not write because they are “too much”–public school teachers shouldn’t speak too freely of despair. A month ago, I told a friend I was going to write a blog entitled “25 ways to stay alive one more day” (among them: looking at bumblebees on lantana; listening to the Rolling Stones; driving down the highway until you can really see the stars), and we shared a laugh–too grim for South Georgia.


Then, two weeks ago, a former student from my favorite class died. It was unbearable–having already lost my favorite student from that class, I had no other place to put that pain. I cried for days–not only at Carl’s death but at the cost of it all, the cost of this life, the price of our pain. I cried aloud, for the first time in my life, for mercy. I clung to the foot of my bed and cried out for mercy.

The mercy I received is not the mercy I sought.


My father died by suicide the next Wednesday. In his office. Alone.

When I found out, I was in my classroom–with eighteen teenagers. I got a text. (God knew that was what I needed.) And I can’t say I heard a voice or felt a presence, but there was a definite impression: It’s either real, or it’s not.

My faith is either real or it’s not. God is either real or He’s not. My father is with God in heaven or he is not.

And in all my pain, I have seen the constancy of God–every loss has again revealed His presence.

And there has been so much pain that there has also been so much Presence.

So, on that day in my classroom, all I could feel was that truth, filling the room: It’s either real, or it’s not.

And I am assured of this: it is real.


Years ago, on a happy summer night, God told me that everything was about to go,  and I did not run. I knew even then that there was no sense in it, that the voice was firm.

And even now, there are some who say God would not have told me that, would not have said that things were going to be laid waste, that our table would be empty and unhappy–but isn’t there so much mercy in saying so, in His proclaiming loss?

He said I wouldn’t have that again–He didn’t say I would have nothing.

He took. He gave.

And if He continues to take, He will continue to give.

In that assurance, I am sustained.

In that assurance, I take my rest.

It is real.

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Photos by Dalton Gillis

 

The Comfort of Love (Why You Should Just Shut Up)

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(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.

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?


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Braxton Cromwell Stewart

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.

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