Led by Georgia Lovelady
(The READING that preceded this sermon is attached at the end)
It seems fitting that I should deliver a message in September. September is Suicide Prevention Month, last week many of us walked in the NAMI walk, and Mike died a year ago. For those who are new to the fellowship, I will give you a one sentence background so you can follow my message: Last September 20th, my husband Mike took his own life after a losing battle with depression.
Recently I was thinking about this service when a kind woman who I had not seen since the memorial, expressed her condolences and gratitude for Mike being in her life. As we parted, she touched my arm lightly and said, “But you know, you will see him again.” And I tried to let it pass, but found myself saying, “I don’t know that. As comforting as that might be.” And that’s when she said she had a book for me, the book that was read to the children today, The Next Place.
My title, Life after Death, is really about my life after Mike’s death. It is about some of the lessons I’ve learned in the last year.
So here are the truths that I live with today. The Awful Truth- capital A, capital T- is that I am a better person for Mike having died. I do not have a better life. I would trade what I have learned for that better life. With Mike, my life was fuller and richer with more laughter and adventures and thoughtful conversation. I would have kept my life companion, my dancing partner, my hiking buddy, the 2 person book club, the work-life balance guru. But I don’t have that choice and it its place I have this:
I am more compassionate. I have never had someone very close to me die before Mike. I understand loss in a way I never understood before. People say you don’t know what it’s like to have children until you do. In a similar way, you don’t understand grief until you have experienced it. This grief makes me more compassionate towards others that have losses. I have a friend whose daughter lost a late term pregnancy and I didn’t quite get the depth of her grief until I spent 12 weeks in a grief support group with a woman who had had 4 miscarriages. We grieve the future we will never have with that person.
It helps me walk my mother through the loss of my father, her husband of 66 years. I think anyone who has lost a companion would tell you it is not enough to experience something wonderful, there is an innate desire to share that something wonderful with someone close. That is why when my mother calls and leaves a message that says simply, “Look at the moon and the way the clouds are moving across it” I know that she just had to share with someone.
I am a better person because Mike role-modeled how to do the right thing. Without thinking about it consciously, I started asking myself, What would Mike do in this situation? And then I started using that question like a mantra when I was in a tricky situation, What Would Mike Do?” WWMD. Hey, that could be a bumper sticker. I’m not trying to elevate him to sainthood. He just was a great example of doing the good and right thing. And it has really helped me.
When my younger son, Cole, got married this past year, we hit a little snafu. He and his girlfriend, Kezia, planned a wedding in May and sometime before that, December, he said they were coming to town and could me and my parents all come to Granny Sandy’s house. Granny Sandy is Kezia’s spiritual leader in the Baha’i faith and Kezia teaches the children’s program. I should mention that Cole and Kezia had started to live together at this point. So the “kids”-as I like to call these adult married people- are running late driving in from Missoula, so they say just meet us at Granny Sandy’s house. I take my Dad, my Mom says she can find it on her own, my Dad doesn’t think she can, my Dad got to be right one last time before he died, and after I stand on a street corner for 15 min. to wave my mom into the right house, I get a call from her saying she couldn’t find it and she’s gone home instead. And how important was this little get-together anyway?
At the house, we meet and greet Kezia’s parents and the Baha’i leaders and then we start on the little Baha’i ceremony that is going to bless the couple or some such. Then it dawns on me, that this is the actual marriage ceremony. That they have brought their marriage certificate to be filled out and signed. And I’m dumbstruck. I’m having trouble wrapping my head around how important this meeting is and that everyone in the room knows what’s going on except me and Dad. And I am not covering well. Kezia’s mother asks if I’m okay. I’m not. I have no trouble with them being married in the Baha’i faith. My head is swirling: Why now? What happened to the wedding in May? Does anyone in the room besides me know that the minute they sign that piece of paper, Cole has no health insurance. Which is no small thing when you know that they have already been in one accident and had a flat tire on the same stretch of road they will be driving back on.
I don’t have the resources to pay out of pocket if there are medical expenses. No one else seemed to see this as a problem. So I sucked it up, but fear and worry had taken over and I wasn’t able to be present and joyful for them. As it turns out, Kezia’s faith, like many, does not subscribe to co-habitation before marriage and she found it difficult to teach the children in her care when she was not following the teachings herself.
The plan was to go to a restaurant after the ceremony. And I got into my car and said to myself, you have a 7 min. drive and you have got to get your head around this and be gracious. You need an attitude change now. And I thought, What Would Mike Do? What Would Mike Do? And my breathing slowed. And it came to me.
So when I sat down at the restaurant, I said, “Cole, I would just like to say how happy I am that you have found each other. You are lucky enough to have found someone like Kezia who has a deep-felt spirituality at the center of her life and I was lucky enough to find that in Mike. And the reason that Mike did not move in with me before we married, was because of his faith… and also because of you. He said, “I do not want to run into your son in the morning outside the bathroom door and have him think that I am just hooking up with his Mom.” And so I think Kezia needing to marry early to feel okay in her faith and to feel okay in her skin, is a good thing. And I think you supporting her in that is a loving thing to do.”
I shut up and we had a perfectly nice meal.
Here’s the Second Awful Truth. Had Mike died any other way, the good that has been generated by his suicide would not have happened. There was a community-wide education around mental illness that blossomed in the aftermath of his unexpected death. There were friends and neighbors and shopkeepers and Carroll faculty who said they didn’t understand depression until it happened to Mike. They didn’t understand a person could be joyous, and productive, and coping (and taking their meds) and it still not be enough to ward off the crushing dark place that closes in on you until you can’t go on. There were numerous people who went to the NAMI Walk last year for the first time and contributed to NAMI in his name.
As one person put it, had he died in any other way- if he had been hit by a car, died riverboarding- his would have been a life cut short. But it would not have stunned people, it would not have educated hundreds of people, it would not be noteworthy or significant. It would simply be our loss.
Many of you know Matt Kuntz, the Executive Director of NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness), who taught Mike to riverboard. What Matt has told me is that he refused to teach Mike to riverboard on numerous occasions. It’s a dangerous sport and not one Matt relished taking the unexperienced on. But Mike persisted until they went together. And I said to Matt last week, “You know, I would have been okay if Mike had died riverboarding with you”. That whole “He would have died doing something he loved” thing. Matt said, “Yeah, well I wouldn’t have been okay with that.” And I thought, Yeah, nobody wants anybody they love to die on their watch. Which is how I feel from time to time. It’s a little inescapable when someone doesn’t die of old age.
So the Second Awful Truth is that because it was a tragic death, there is research being directed toward treatment-resistant depression. The Montana State University’s new research unit has earmarked funds to study the kind of depression Mike had. It has an interest in understanding the brain in ways that lead to more effective treatments. Don’t get me wrong, the new mental health department was not created because of Mike, it was already in the works, but its focus has been shaped by events.
So that’s the big-scale stuff. I shared last year how my friends and community carried me aloft and that my deep appreciation for the connections in my life have only deepened more. I have inherited some of Mike’s friends. I have a relationship with a little 5 yr. old that is there because his Uncle Shu Shu died and left me a bigger place in his life as his Auntie. Again, I would trade my special spot as Auntie to have seen Mike be uncle to that little boy since he did not have kids of his own. Remembering Mike’s antics with Sean Yin have us laughing to this day. We all wished that this surrogate parenting gig had not ended. I have received condolences from his friends who had kids, who tell about Mike babysitting their children that end with the line. “And that’s what you get when you let Mike babysit your kids- they end up talking to rocks believing there’s a person inside.”
Kierkegaard said, “Life must be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”
And so I get to have an understanding of things I didn’t get while Mike was alive. I hate to do errands. And he loved nothing more than to have me along when he did errands. There was the trip to the dump for recycling and to Lowe’s for something to fix the house, and Costco, and a stop at the dollar store. I would go with him on occasion- because I knew he liked me to go- and at the end I always felt that I’d been taken hostage as he fit in one more stop and I would whine and say I’m tired and hungry, and if we go in one more place I’m going to melt down. And my crankiness ruined any of the loving togetherness he’d envisioned when he cajoled me into going. There is a book called “The Five Love Languages” and one of the languages is spending quality time together which rated high for Mike. Knowing this I tried to love him in the way that spoke to him. So after Mike was gone about 6 months, the mudroom started filling up with all the recyclables he took care of on his own. All the newspapers, and bottles, and plastics, and cans just kept piling up. This is just one of many chores he did that became my job after his passing. So I loaded them up in his vehicle, and I thought as long as I’m doing that I should gas up his car, and as long as I’m doing that I should drop off his Carroll Collage shirts that someone else could wear, and as long as I’m by Carroll which is by the dump, I could go by the nursery and pick up some mulch, and before I knew it I had a whole list of errands. And as I headed out I thought, this wouldn’t be so bad if I had someone else to do it with. It could be an okay way to spend part of a Saturday if it was done with the company of someone I liked and loved. And then I got it. And I thought, How come I couldn’t get it before? How come I couldn’t participate with the right attitude before? How come I couldn’t get it before he died?
So it’s been a year of doing the NAMI Family to Family support group, and grief support group, and working with Hospice caring for my Dad, and getting a new job and figuring out my life without Mike. For me it comes to this: There is only this life. And if there is another life after this one, I won’t know until I get there. I am unable to take comfort in the notion that I will see him again, I only take comfort in imagining that Gracie, his dog, was there to greet him on the other side, in The Next Place. I wish I could have loved him like Gracie did, who was happy to go on any and all errands. I will work to be my better self. There is no waiting for the HereAfter, no waiting for things to get better. This is my chance at the view.
This reading is an excerpt from a book by Ann Patchett. It involves a faithful priest named Father Sullivan who is 88 and nearing the end of his life.*
“Let someone else have their turn at the view”
Night after day Father Sullivan was awake with his thoughts. It would be incorrect in every sense to say that so near the end of his life he had lost his faith, when in fact God seemed more abundant to him in the nursing home than any place he had been before. God was in the folds of his bathrobe, the ache of his knees. But now that his heart had become so shiftless and unreliable, now when he should be sensing the afterlife like a sweet scent drifting in from the garden, he had started to wonder if there was in fact no afterlife at all. In suggesting that there may be nothing ahead of us, he in no way meant to diminish the future; instead, Father Sullivan hoped to elevate the present to a state of the divine. It seemed in this moment of repose that God may well have been life itself. God could have been in the masses in which he told people how best to prepare for the glorious life everlasting, the one they couldn’t see as opposed to the one they were living at that exact moment in the pews of the church hall, washed over in stained glass light. How wrongheaded it seemed now to think that the thrill of heartbeat and breath were just a stepping stone to something greater. What could be greater than the armchair, the window, the snow? Life itself had been holy. We had been brought forth from nothing to see the face of God and in his life Father Sullivan had seen it miraculously for eighty-eight years.
Why wouldn’t it stand to reason that this had been the whole of existence and now he would retreat back to the nothingness he had come from in order to let someone else have their turn at the view? This was not the workings of disbelief. It was instead a final, joyful realization of all he had been given.
*To give accurate credit, I cut down this excerpt to shorten it for the service. From the book Run.