Two friends have taken their own lives within a short time: one by consuming more of the drugs that were killing her anyway; the other, also enslaved to drugs, who hastened his death with a bullet. The phone rings: there has been a suicide. A life is ended. Just like that.
The avoidability of these deaths hurts, even more than the unexpectedness. There was no inevitability due to the passing of a lifespan; no valiant struggle against a relentless disease. These deaths were just a damn shame. One’s partying roommates stepped over her lifeless body for hours, not realizing she was dead until they tried to revive her with some coffee. The other was missing for two days until he was found on a side street, dead in his car. The thought comes unbidden: it didn’t have to be this way.
Older, rote-catechized Catholics shake their heads and intone that, sadly, these misguided souls went straight to hell. The idea shocks me, sends me running for the new catechism to read its teaching on suicide. While suicide is forbidden by the Fifth Commandment, we should not despair, it says, of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The church prays for persons who have taken their own lives (No. 2283).
As I pray the rosary for my deceased friends, a line in the Hail, Holy Queen strikes a poignant note: mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. For my dead friends, this life surely was a valley of tears, and I am comforted that I need not imagine a God who would forever deny them his holy presence or condemn them to an eternity of tears. Surely their temporal suffering was enough.
My friends seemed to have so much to live for. They were both parents. They were personable, intelligent, creative people. They had friends and families who loved them. They were also both addicts, for whom the powerful substance of choice defined their daily existence and ultimately became too heavy a burden to bear.
I am saddened by their passing, yet a part of me is drawn to the peace I imagine in their last moments. I play in my head the adages made popular by 12-step recovery groups, and to which my searching friends subscribed at various points of attempted recovery: Let go, let God. Easy does it. One day at a time. Turn it over to God. Wouldn’t that final surrender of one’s life constitute an irrevocable turning over to God? Wouldn’t it, in a way, be lovely?
We have all had those days. We’ve wanted to stop juggling, to let the balls of daily responsibilities and difficulties fall uncaught while we dangle our arms idly. We have sat alone in the dark, without hope. We have all spent time, like Jonah, in the belly of a great fish, despairing of ever seeing the light again, as we faced and regretted our sinfulness. The release from it all is something we’ve danced around in our thoughts. To be or not to be, as Hamlet famously mused, really is the question. My friends chose the latter answer. Their restless souls have found peace at last. That we are left to mourn and weep and wonder: ay, there’s the rub.
Not that the reader should worry about the writer’s precarious state of mind. At the funerals I see the children, bereaved, abandoned, destined for endless therapy. They sit in stunned cocoons in the front pew reserved for family. Their faces make me angry with the dead, with their hopelessness, their selfishness, their callous disregard for God’s gift of life. How dare they? I think. How dare they be so ill? How dare they forget about these little ones? The thought of my own children in that kind of pain tears my heart, and assures me I will cling to any shred of life I can. Peace and surrender will come in due time, and not by my devices. Because life is laced with reminders of its fragility and fleet-footedness.
Think, as we all do, of Sept. 11, 2001. Or think locally: this morning a woman dropped her daughter off at the kindergarten at my daughter’s school. She sped up the same two-lane highway that I take to get to my job. She died a few minutes later because she swerved to avoid an indecisive squirrel in the road. Life is that unpredictable. A little girl now goes home after school to a completely different existence. I find myself hoping that this woman gave her daughter an extra tight hug this morning, that she smelled to her daughter of lavender and security. I hope that this woman and her husband woke up early this morning and made spontaneous love. But it was just as likely the kind of hurry-up, have-you-seen-my-keys, don’t-forget-your-lunch morning that most of us experience regularly. Life can also be that predictable.
Life is also a sweet, bitter, freely given gift, in which the valley of tears is surrounded by mountains of joy for us to climb. The faith to do so is ours for the asking. Maybe my friends who took their own lives forgot to ask, or didn’t know how or thought themselves unworthy. Maybe we as communities of faith can keep a sharper eye out for those among us who struggle mightily with whether to be or not be. And hold out a steady hand to help them with their climb up out of the valley.