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Meg KissingerFebruary 02, 2024
The Kissinger family, 1965.The Kissinger family, 1965. Front row, from left: Patty, Billy, Molly on their mother Jean’s lap, and Danny on Holmer’s lap. Back row: Meg, Nancy, Jake, and Mary Kay. Photo supplied by author.

When I glanced at my cellphone and saw that the pastor of my old parish was calling, my heart froze.

Father Wayne Watts of St. Francis Xavier Church in Wilmette, Ill., wanted to talk.

Yikes, I thought. Am I in trouble?

It had been just a few weeks since my book, While You Were Out, was released. In it I painted a brutally intimate portrait of what it was like for our family to grow up in an era of silence about mental illness. One by one, the institutions that were designed to protect us had failed—including the Catholic Church.

I didn’t pull any punches about how the church had compounded my family’s shame, making us feel dirty and sinful. Neither did I back down when Gayle King asked me about it on national television.

Recalling the night that my sister Nancy jumped in front of a train, I wrote about how our father gathered us all into the living room and ordered us to keep the details of her death a secret.

“If anyone asks,” he said. “This was an accident.”

Meg (left) with Nancy, 1970.
Meg (left) with Nancy, 1970. Photo supplied by author.

My father feared—with good reason—that the bishop would not allow us to have a funeral Mass for Nancy or bury her in our family’s Catholic cemetery plot. His best friend’s son had died by suicide the year before, and the family was heartbroken when the pastor refused to allow the boy’s body inside their church. On the night of Nancy’s wake, a nun from our school walked into the funeral parlor, pointed to my sister’s casket and croaked, “She’s going to Hell, you know.”

Years later, my youngest brother, Danny, frantic and suicidal in the midst of some terrible legal trouble, sought the counsel of a priest at the Newman Center on his college campus. The man talked to Danny for hours and suggested that my brother spend the night at the rectory where he would be safe. As Danny slept, the priest molested him.

My book describes how my older brother, Jake, like so many kids who were different, had been mocked and beaten on the playground of our Catholic school while the nuns appeared to turn a blind eye. The abuse was so relentless that he transferred to the public school.

How do I love a church that once considered my family members to be unworthy of eternal life with God?

It gave me no glee to expose these injuries and hold up the church to more criticism. The gift of my Catholic faith is one I cherish above all others. It’s baked into my bones. Even as so many of my friends and family members quit the church, stung by what they consider to be the myopia and outright bigotry of some of the teachings, I’ve always turned to my faith for comfort and inspiration. It steadies me and gives me strength. I am captivated by the promise of God’s unconditional love and the radical irony of his only son dying so that we may have new life. As I stare at the crucifix, seeing the hands and feet of Jesus nailed to the cross, I see how his sacrifice gives proportion to my suffering.

And, yet, how do I love a church that once considered my family members to be unworthy of eternal life with God?

The week before he died, Danny sent me a letter describing what it was like for him to live with his bipolar illness. “It’s an awful disease,” Danny wrote. “It causes you to think and act in awkward ways.”

Danny (photo supplied by author)
Danny. Photo supplied by author.

Danny was desperate to be accepted for who he was.

“Only love and understanding can conquer this disease,” he wrote.

I long for a church that can foster that kind of love and understanding.

Pope Francis says the church is at its best as a “field hospital for wounded souls.” This includes people suffering from mental illness and their families. Millions of people flock to the pews each day, frantic for help with their depression or anxiety, confusion and loneliness. We need to find ways to make them feel seen and heard and warmed by the fires of our love and acceptance.

As it turned out, Father Wayne was not calling me that afternoon to scold me. He was calling to invite me to return to my old parish to talk about my book.

“You sure?” I asked him.

I met Father Wayne in 1992 when he was a newly ordained priest and had come to my mother’s deathbed to hear her last confession and anoint her. I’d seen him a few times over the years, but I don’t live in Illinois anymore and did not know him well. Now he had returned to my old parish as pastor. He was taking a chance by inviting me to speak.

“I’m sure,” he said.

What a wonderful opportunity—and a terrifying one. I could go on national television or stand in front of a crowd of 400 strangers and talk about my book without breaking a sweat. But going back to the place where so many knew our family and all of our struggles? That made me nervous.

Pope Francis says the church is at its best as a “field hospital for wounded souls.” This includes people suffering from mental illness and their families.

By telling our story in all its cringeworthy rawness, my brothers and sisters and I were bearing witness, hoping to inspire change. Here was my chance to do just that at my old parish.

I told Father Wayne I didn’t want to just stand up at the podium by myself and prattle on about the book. I wanted this to be a night when people struggling with their own mental health or that of a family member could leave with a solid plan for how to get help. This was a chance to give the people of the parish something our family did not have all those decades ago.

Father Wayne loved the idea. He quickly lined up an all-star roster of mental health providers. They included representatives from Catholic Charities; the National Alliance on Mental Illness; Compass Mental Health; Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide; Haven for Youth, a mental health education program, and the Kennedy Forum Illinois, which works to press insurance companies to provide true parity for mental health coverage.

The meeting would be held in the school gym, the very place where my brother Billy proudly won the seventh-grade boys’ free-throw contest and one-on-one tournament back in 1973. As I walked into the school that night, I was mobbed by old pals, including the friends of my long-dead brother and sister. My brother Jake was there, sitting next to one of his grade school tormentors. The two had long ago become great friends. If those two could find the way to reconcile, couldn’t the church conjure the same grace to acknowledge its failures and pledge to be kinder to those who suffer?

Indeed, on that night, it did.

Let’s find ways to love people with mental illness, Father Wayne told the crowd. Let’s learn how to listen to them so we can understand them better. Mental illness is not a moral failing. It’s a disease.

Just as our family found ways to talk to one another about the illness in our midst, the church, as an extension of the family, was now listening.

Just as our family found ways to talk to one another about the illness in our midst, the church, as an extension of the family, was now listening.

We talked about action steps like starting a mental health ministry in our parishes; including prayers for people who suffer from mental illness in petitions at Mass; learning how to talk about mental illness in nonjudgmental ways.

The room buzzed with possibility. No one seemed to want to leave. They lined up to talk to the mental health counselors and each other.

One after another, people came up to tell me, with tears in their eyes, that our family’s story could easily have been theirs.

Later that night, as I was driving back to Milwaukee, my phone lit up. Father Wayne, again.

“Tonight was a blessing,” he texted.

The next day he forwarded me an email from a woman who had brought her friend to the talk. The friend’s son suffers from serious mental illness and she has been seized with fear for his safety, not knowing where to turn.

“She left feeling supported, understood and hopeful for the first time,” the woman wrote.

Since then, I’ve become fascinated by the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers, begun by Bishop John Dolan of Phoenix, who lost three siblings and a brother-in-law to suicide. The association trains facilitators to lead group discussions on growing through grief. They help people find benchmarks of hope and to see, as Bishop Dolan says, “that those who are suffering from mental illness are welcome within the family of the church.” The office also provides training for clergy members, religious, deacons, parish ministers, school leaders and laypeople on the most current understanding of mental illness, “preparing us as a church,” he said, “to accompany those suffering from mental illness with confidence, understanding and pastoral care.”

At last. Sign me up.

We are doing this, I thought. We are breaking through the thick wall of silence, shattering the prejudice so that no other family has to feel dirty and sinful about the illnesses they did not ask to have. We are helping them heal with the love and understanding that Danny craved.

We are being that field hospital for wounded souls.

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