When we lose loved ones to suicide
The first thing that caught my eye when I came into church the first Sunday in Lent was a hideous, ripped up quilt hanging in front of us. It looked like it was made from patches of women’s polyester pants in shades of dirty brown and gray. Stuffing was oozing out of it.
We’ve had quilts displayed as visuals for worship before, but never anything quite this ugly. Our Lenten theme, pastor Mag Richer-Smith said, was the mending heart of God. Something told me this Lent was going to be a long journey.
The season of Lent 2005 was for me a season of mourning. I lost two friends that spring—one to cancer and one to suicide. Jean died at age 57 after a 15-year battle with lymphoma. Andy died at 49 after a lifelong battle with serious mental illness and the shame and stigma that surrounded it. Jean died surrounded by family and friends; Andy’s body wasn’t found until a week after he overdosed on his medicine. Jean’s vocations had included being a teacher, librarian and school principal. Andy had never held a job for very long because of his mental illness, although he was proud to work as a custodian at Goodwill Industries.
Their deaths were marked by services that were strikingly different. So many people attended Jean’s memorial service at First Mennonite Church, Indianapolis, that they had to put extra chairs in the overflow area. So few people attended Andy’s service at Hope Lutheran that we only filled four rows of a huge church sanctuary. Jean’s service was a celebration of life and included a children’s story. Andy’s service was muted and joyless. The 23rd Psalm used by Andy’s family’s pastor seemed generic and lacking in individuality. Probably a big factor was that Jean was active in the Mennonite church and had served as a worship leader, storyteller and elder, whereas Andy wasn’t a very frequent churchgoer. Even the music was different. At Jean’s service, we sang unaccompanied and split into men and women’s parts in harmony.
The organ dominated Andy’s service and drowned out the singing to almost a sigh or a whisper.
I learned of Jean’s death through an email sent out to church members. The heading was, “Saying goodbye to Jean Gerig.” It said, “Dear Church family and friends: Jean Gerig passed away this morning around 9 a.m. She will be greatly missed by all of us. Please continue to pray for the family. Amanda will be arriving this afternoon.” Tears stung my eyes and I closed them for a moment. Jean was a mother of two daughters: Analisa, a high school senior, and Amanda, who was serving overseas with Mennonite Central Committee. Jean had had the chance to say goodbye to Analisa in person, but Amanda couldn’t get back from Zimbabwe in time. The death of my friend Jean, who loved life, awakened in me an irrational, nagging guilt. True, I have a sometimes fatal illness of my own—the serious mental illness of schizophrenia. I have in my own way been courageous like she was. But why should I live while she died?
It wasn’t long before the voices were grinding and growling. I don’t hear voices like I used to before my recovery on helpful medication. I know they aren’t real and often I hear more their tone than actual words. But they were hissing, “You’re so sssselfish. You, sue- suicide, tried, tried to die. You failed to die; she failed to live. If you were a better person, Jean would still be alive.” It didn’t matter to the voices that I had not attempted suicide for almost 12 years. It didn’t matter to the voices that I wasn’t powerful enough to have caused or prevented Jean’s death. The voices are about voicing, and they don’t care how it makes you feel. The strangest thing about the voices is that they are mine, a product of my brain.
I learned of my second loss by phone. It was Martha, a friend who I usually only was in touch with Saturday mornings at breakfast club.
“Andy Little has died.”
“Our Andy?” I wondered aloud. We didn’t call each other by last names at breakfast club.
“They found his body in his apartment. The death notice says he died of a sudden illness.”
“Our Andy?” I said again.
Our Andy was a quiet, slightly balding man who was always a faithful attendee of “breakfast club” at the grocery store deli. He was too ordinary to die all of a sudden like that. He would take the Coralville, Iowa, bus all the way from downtown Iowa City to get Listerine mouthwash on sale at Target. I wondered if they noticed he wasn’t on the bus. I wondered if the short order cook at HyVee wondered where the customer was who always ordered a blueberry pancake. I wondered if I could have prevented his death if I had been there.
After I hung up the phone I slammed my fist into one of my kitchen cabinets. I drew in a ragged breath and began to sob. I wrapped my arms around my chest and doubled over. I picked up my teddy bear and bit his ear as I rocked him.
Andy was part of a club nobody asks to join: the club of chronic mental illness. Our breakfast club had started as an agency activity, but for the last five years we had met independent of any counselor, having one by one left the agency due to funding being cut. We tried to look out for each other. There were four women: Martha, Linda, Ro and me. Andy was the only man. Once Andy, with a twinkle in his eye, asked, “What do all of us have in common?” We squirmed. We didn’t generally talk about our diagnoses. He quickly answered, “We all wear glasses!”
I was sure Andy had not died of a sudden illness. I was sure that mental illness had been fraying the edges of his life until this final ripping to shreds. Like our hideous Lenten quilt.
The paper said the memorial service would be Friday at Hope Lutheran. I took a taxi there, still hoping it was the wrong Andy in the newspaper. I came into the church anteroom and hung up my coat on a rack next to only a few other coats. I signed my name in the guest book—one of only a handful of names. Friends and family were gathered in a large room outside the sanctuary in a circle of folding chairs.
A man who resembled Andy, but who was less flat in personality, introduced himself to me as Andy’s brother Dan.
“Andy talked about you friends that met over breakfast,” he said. “You were the only friends he ever mentioned. It means so much to me that you are here.”
He gestured to a man who was bent over, shoulders sagging, twisting his hands. “This is our father.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss, Mr. Little,” I said to him.
“So am I,” he said. He lifted his head for a moment and then looked back down at his hands.
The minister called us to enter the sanctuary for the service. We only filled the first four pews. We sang to the booming accompaniment of an organ, our voices sounding pitiful and small.
Together we read the 23rd Psalm. There wasn’t a body in this service—Andy was cremated—but something about the 23rd Psalm this time seemed so generic and dreary. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. All I could think of was Andy whispering, “I want. I want. I want.” Why didn’t he say it louder? We would have brought it to him if we could.
Sunday after Sunday of Lent there were more white stitches attempting to mend our shredded quilt. Patches of yellow and orange and red were appliquéd onto it. Pastor Mag preached sermons about the stuffing we try to fill our holes with; the stuffing never satisfies. She preached about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit gathered around the quilting frame of grace.
For some reason Easter was harder for me than Lent. There was a totally new quilt with rainbow colored patches in perfect harmony. No holes.
This is my hope: Some day we will all be included in a dazzling crazy quilt. The jagged pieces of velvet will be next to the smooth silk and there will be tiny pieces of mirror embedded in the fabric. No one will be ashamed and no one will hide secrets. Scarlet stitches of healing love will hold it all together. The mending hands of God will make us whole.
Margalea Warner is a member of First Mennonite Church of Iowa City. She is active in the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and is a mentor for the Peer to Peer class. She wants people who suffer from mental illness and their loved ones to know there is hope for recovery.
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