I keep thinking I will write no more blog posts, that I have nothing more to give, and then a thought snags and I have to explore it, as much for myself as anyone else.
So here goes. I want to talk about Hawking radiation.
Okay, I’m back to the geeky physics stuff. Let me explain.
Grief is like a black hole
A few week’s ago, I was thinking about how one-way communication is after someone has died. I keep thinking of things I want to tell my sister, and I do tell her. I write her letters in my diary. If I’m alone in the car, I move my bag off the front passenger seat to make room for her and talk to her out loud. I update her on what’s going on, tell her about the kids, share my worries.
I tell her all the things I would tell her if she was still alive, but she doesn’t reply. I get nothing back. I had an image of death being like a black hole that sucks in all the love I still feel for my sister, all the things I tell her in whispers and thoughts.
By definition, a black hole is an object where gravity is so strong that anything in the vicinity will be pulled into it, even light. That’s why it’s black, of course.
And death can feel like that, pulling in your energy, love and thoughts and giving nothing back.
What about Hawking radiation?
The image seemed quite bleak and appropriate to the way I was feeling and I would have left it at that, but a quiet, inner voice asked, “What about Hawking radiation?”
Hawking radiation is a theory proposed in 1974 by Stephen Hawking, the well-known English cosmologist who was confined to a wheelchair due to motor neurone disease. After exploring the theory of black holes, he suggested that, due to quantum effects, they might not be completely black. Instead they would have a faint glow due to the emission of radiation. This radiation would cause the black hole to lose mass until it ceased to exist in a last burst of intense radiation.
Of course, this is theory. No-one has actually observed Hawking radiation and the level of radiation predicted is, in most circumstances so small that it would be very difficult to observe.
But it’s a comforting and challenging thought. A black hole seems like the ultimate symbol of grief and yet, maybe even black holes give something back.
Does grief give anything back?
And just like a black hole, maybe grief does give something back.
My sister is no longer here to respond, but does that mean that all the love and thoughts and prayers for her are lost?
Maybe it’s like Hawking radiation. I won’t get a direct answer from my sister, but perhaps I’ll notice and appreciate something else: a robin at the bird feeder, a patch of blue sky on the shortest day of the year, my dog laying her head on my lap.
Or maybe I’ll notice that someone needs me and be able to respond to that.
I thought I had run out of words, but I find it is important to say one or two more things.
I started this blog because I felt I would burst if I didn’t express the strange journey which brought an agnostic with an allergy to organised religion into the Catholic church. I also wanted to make contact with people who’d experienced a similar journey. Alongside this, I wanted to write well, be admired for it and have lots of people read MY blog.
I was aware of these mixed motives and struggled with them. It’s so hard to give something to God, even if, on the surface, it looks like you’re doing it for Him.
Now, the thoughts and words which bubbled up, gently insisting on being written, have almost dried up, but it wouldn’t be right to leave this blog on a note of desperation.
When I wrote the last post, I was devastated physically, mentally and spiritually, by my sister’s suicide. I lost my closest friend. There was a continual ache in my chest. I got easily exhausted, and at least once a week, I had a day of nausea and headaches. Frequently, I just had to give up and go back to bed.
Life felt like a burden. I wasn’t going to do what my sister did, but life was a fruit that had turned dry and sour, all the goodness sucked out of it. I would just have to drag myself through whatever time was left as best I could.
There’s nothing redeeming about suicide. It’s a story cut off before it reaches a resolution. After a long struggle with mental illness, my sister ran out of strength and hope. She inflicted violence on herself, dying alone without the support of family. Those of us left behind have to face our own helplessness. We loved her, would have done anything to help her, but we couldn’t heal her or save her from her illness.
Suicide leaves a vacuum, an empty space which shouldn’t be there. It can very easily suck away the love, faith and hope of those left behind.
On the face of it, her long fight with the illness, our support and prayers, all came to nothing. For a long time, we carried hope like a little candle lit in our hearts, and now we have no more hope. At least not for this life.
I must have still had some hope, because I managed to get to a monastery. I arrived in a state which I can only describe as having fallen off faith and hope and love.
The book opens with a scene in which Brendan leads a retreat for young people. Even while he tries to give them a message of hope and trust, he realises that his own life has not felt right since his brother died.
I recognised myself in this and also in his description of walking the Camino. He had repeated injuries which either made walking very painful, or forced him to take time out and even skip parts of the Camino when he began to run out of time.
Life after suicide bereavement is a physical challenge. You try to keep going through exhaustion and physical pain, but you also have to recognise the times when you simply have to rest.
When I arrived at the monastery, I was in such a bad state that I worried I would pollute the place with my lack of peace.
Moving towards peace
Fortunately, the opposite happened. The peace and prayers of the monastery began to work on me. Nothing dramatic happened, no revelations or intense experiences, but I was slowly absorbed into the peace.
God worked through the everyday, through cups of tea and trees and birdsong. After a few days, the rhythm of the Psalms and Gregorian chant soaked into me and flowed through my mind even when I wasn’t in the chapel.
I sat outdoors and read ‘Redemption Road’. I was sometimes in tears when Brendan McManus wrote about his brother Donal’s decline, or when he put down positive memories of his brother.
Towards the end of his Camino, when Brendan met a young Mexican family. He wrote ‘They reminded me of myself before suicide wreaked its devastation: how I had been similarly open and optimistic, trusting and believing. Was it just naivety about the world? Could I believe in hope again, was there some rescue after trauma, would negativity be overcome?’
I knew exactly what he meant.
By the time I read the final pages of ‘Redemption Road’ and Fr. Brendan’s account of assisting at the Mass in Santiago Cathedral, being asked to read a prayer for the dead, and knowing that his brother was at peace, I knew that something had also shifted in me.
Through small things, walking in the woods, watching birds, I became quietly aware that God was still there and extending an invitation. I could go through the rest of my life with bitterness and suspicion, asking God why this happened to my beautiful sister after all our prayers and all her efforts to struggle with a truly horrible illness. I could continue to endlessly question what had happened to her at the moment of death or afterwards, or I could TRUST.
It sounds so simple, but it’s so hard.
You see, I’ve relied a lot on my own abilities or determination or persistence to get through life. I’ve thought there was a solution to everything given time and application. Oh, and prayer, of course. But prayer was like a dash of salt added to a dish when it was almost ready.
Suicide bereavement brought me up against my weakness and inadequacy. I had failed utterly to protect someone I loved. No matter what I do with my life, I can never make this better. Nor can I even tell myself a consoling story about my sister’s life and death. The sudden and violent manner of her death has left me feeling, quite literally, that I am left with nothing.
Every loss, every bereavement, requires trust. Perhaps suicide bereavement isn’t different in kind, just in scale.
My choice was and still is between dragging myself through life and seeing it as something meaningless or absurd, or trusting that God is still offering me the gift of life and receiving it with gratitude and trust.
After suicide bereavement, there is no longer an in-between. I have lost the ability to enjoy life ‘for its own sake’ and on my terms. Only through making a conscious effort to turn to God, can I manage the debilitating fear that another something awful is just around the corner.
Visiting the monastery, allowed me to heal and to begin to trust. The physical healing felt almost miraculous. The continual ache in my chest lifted. At times, I am quite amazed at how I have been able to do things and even start new projects. However, grief still comes, and I have to be careful to look after my physical and mental health.
Trust and turning to God is a choice which has to be made each day.
A last thought
When he came across a woman who had lost her husband to suicide, the French priest St Jean Vianney said, ‘I tell you he is saved. He is in Purgatory, and you must pray for him. Between the parapet of the bridge and the water he had time to make an act of contrition.’
I used to think of purgatory as a place of purification and suffering. Since my sister died by suicide, I can’t think of it as anything other than a field hospital where wounded souls come for healing, a place where she and other souls who have, for whatever reason, died by suicide, continue their journey into knowing God as love.
Again, I found comfort in the words of Brendan McManus in his small book ‘Surviving Suicide Bereavement. Finding life after death.’ He writes, ‘We have this black and white view: they are lost or found, in hell or in heaven. But in reality it is more like shades of grey. Maybe there is another place between heaven and hell specifically for the healing of suicide? This ’emergency care unit’, an intense healing of hurt or wounds, is where Christ works intensely to love wounded people back to wholeness.’
I am in a place I couldn’t have imagined four years ago when I became Catholic. One of my children is still struggling with what is, at times, a very challenging illness. I considered my situation difficult until it got many times more challenging; my sister and closest friend recently died in appalling circumstances.
I intended this blog to be about my continuing conversion as a child of God, and, more specifically, as a Catholic. I don’t want it to become a suicide survivor’s blog. So, this is probably my last post, at least for a while although I hope I’ll still manage to read other peoples’ posts on wordpress, although at the moment most of what I’m reading is written by people who have lost loved ones to suicide.
I don’t have words to make sense of what has happened. Not yet. I just have to BE, in this place, a hideous desert, where it is not possible to impose some kind of meaning.
It’s like a tree, which was growing in my heart, has been torn out taking some of me with it. I don’t know where all this is going.
In the Bible, the Israelites passed through the desert to reach the Promised Land. The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert for forty days of fasting before beginning his ministry.
In ‘Seven Storey Mountain’, the American Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, uses the image of the desert when writing about his own conversion:
“I had come, like the Jews, through the Red Sea of Baptism. I was entering into a desert – a terribly easy and convenient desert, with all the trials tempered to my weakness- where I would have a chance to give God great glory by simply trusting and obeying Him, and walking in the way that was not according to my own nature and my own judgement. And it would lead me to a land I could not imagine or understand. … It would be a land in which the work of man’s hands and man’s ingenuity counted for little or nothing: but where God would direct all things, and where I would be expected to act so much and so closely under His guidance that it would be as if He thought with my mind, as if He willed with my will.”
I can’t see that land. I can only glimpse it, a place where my heart stays open to God and others, no matter how much I’ve been hurt, a place where I hand myself over to God without any conditions, where I accept life as it is, without demanding success or security. Above all, it’s a place where I am able to do the most difficult thing imaginable: trust in God’s strength whatever happens.
I’m not there yet, but sometimes, when prayer goes beyond words, I go briefly into a place of pain and healing.
Before I end, I want to share two things. The first is a poem by Thomas Merton, written after his only brother was killed in the Second World War. It has touched me. My sister died on a battlefield fighting demons which the rest of us couldn’t see, but which were very real to her.
Sweet brother, if I do not sleep
My eyes are flowers for your tomb;
And if I cannot eat my bread,
My fasts shall live like willows where you died.
If in the heat I find no water for my thirst,
My thirst shall turn to springs for you, poor traveller.
Where, in what desolate and smokey country,
Lies your poor body, lost and dead?
And in what landscape of disaster
Has your unhappy spirit lost its road?
Come, in my labor find a resting place
And in my sorrows lay your head,
Or rather take my life and blood
And buy yourself a better bed –
Or take my breath and take my death
And buy yourself a better rest.
When all the men of war are shot
And flags have fallen into dust,
Your cross and mine shall tell men still
Christ died on each, for both of us.
For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,
And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring;
The money of Whose tears shall fall
Into your weak and friendless hand,
And buy you back to your own land:
The silence of Whose tears shall fall
Like bells upon your alien tomb.
Hear them and come: they call you home. Thomas Merton
This last piece I wrote to my sister while on retreat, trying to express my gratitude that she loved me without judgement.
You would love the light here, the way the darker clouds lie on the left and the lighter ones on the right with a winding scraggle of brightness between them, narrow down by the hills and widening upwards like a pathway to heaven, hills piled beneath and me here folded in a wee room with single glazing and chipped paintwork and the sound of birdsong. I’m imagining you sitting out in the garden painting this view, maybe on that wee, folding chair by the ironwork table.
I’m thinking of life, death and rebirth, sa-ta-na-ma. I’m so exhausted, still stunned and dazed. The only way I can heal is by continuing to hold you in love, not pretending you weren’t or that you didn’t matter or that we can just tidy away our memories and put them to the side like the bags of clothes for the charity shop. No pulling myself together and getting on with my life, whatever that means – is it really mine? – will change the fact that you were, are still, always will be a fundamental part of what makes me, me, one of the few, precious people who was an unclouded mirror reflecting back love.
In the first few hours after the shock of my sister’s suicide, I was travelling to be with my parents, unable to stop weeping. I googled ‘Catholic Church suicide’ and came across articles which quoted the following passage from the Catechism:
2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.
The articles were along the lines of: Suicide is a grave matter, equivalent to self-murder. It is a rejection of God’s gift of life, but taking into account other things, like mental illness, it’s possible that God might have mercy on the person who commits it.
A thread of hope, but not a shred of comfort for someone who has just experienced the incomprehensible and inexplicable pain of losing a loved one to suicide. No doubt these articles were aimed at people theoretically interested in the question, rather than families recently bereaved by suicide.
The poverty of illness
My sister was poor in every sense of the word, suffering from a long, mental illness which she hadn’t chosen or deserved. Because of her illness, she was unable to work, and she and her family were dependent on benefits.
She was poor in spirit, pride crushed out of her by years of struggling with psychosis, an illness which bears a huge stigma. Although she fought to be well enough to take part in family life, during bad phases she was dependent on the help of others, both family and health professionals.
I am grateful for the many people who helped my sister, most of whom I will never know by name. Over the last six months of her life, the support she received was inadequate to turn the tide of her illness. During the last three weeks, she asked for help many times and didn’t get it.
In the end, my sister was so poor that she did not find a way to stay in this world. She didn’t choose to reject the gift of life. She clung on, without the help she needed, until the chaos in her mind overwhelmed her.
Jesus hung out with corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes. He had the courage to touch lepers and heal those whose minds were broken by ‘evil spirits’. I can’t believe that he would prevaricate over my sister, weighing up the graveness of her sin against the severity of her illness, and maybe, just maybe, showing a glint of mercy.
I can only imagine Jesus, seeing someone so sick, broken and poor that she couldn’t find a way to go on living, reaching out his hand to give her the healing and compassion she didn’t find in this life.
I’ve had to do a lot of work to get to this stage. After digging deeper into Google, I found some resources:
A book by Ronald Rohlheiser on suicide which helped me to believe that God shows love and compassion to people like my sister who are so broken and sick that they cannot go on living
Is suicide a grave matter?
Have I got to a conviction of God’s mercy by bypassing the church’s teaching that suicide is a grave sin?
I know that suicide is a grave matter. After experiencing the pain and chaos of my sister’s suicide, the rifts as people look for someone or something to blame, and after seeing the shock and sorrow spread out to touch friends and even strangers who never knew my sister, I can think no other way.
But my sister was a loving, caring person, and didn’t intend to cause us pain.
She was started on a new medication, and discharged from hospital soon afterwards. Surprised by her sudden discharge, I took it as a sign that she was making rapid progress. I now know that she was discharged, not because she was better, but probably because the bed was needed for another patient. Unknown to me, my sister began making suicidal calls for help almost as soon as she was discharged. This went on until the day she took her life. There were plenty of chances for her to be readmitted to hospital, but she wasn’t.
My sister’s mind and body were worn down and almost broken by illness, treatments which didn’t work and a powerful anti-psychotic medication which was known to carry the risk of suicidal urges. If she wasn’t fully responsible, who was?
I started with myself, of course. It’s the typical response of suicide survivors. Why didn’t I phone more often? Why did I assume that she was better just because she was discharged? Why didn’t I know something was badly wrong? Why did I give her space instead of phoning when she didn’t respond to my messages?
My husband said, ‘Don’t do what-ifs’. The suicide bereavement helpline said, ‘It’s not your fault’.
The blame is like a hot potato. If I can’t bear to hold it, where do I fling it? Who caused this illness? The urge to blame someone can be almost overwhelming. And then I pray and see the suffering of other family members and realise, it wasn’t them. This is something which happened, and we don’t know why. If she had had cancer, we wouldn’t ask who caused it.
Who do I blame next? The National Health Service. The second thing the suicide bereavement helpline said was, ‘It’s not the NHS’s fault either.’ That took a while to sink in. It really hurt. I wanted a scapegoat, an institution I could paint as harsh and uncaring. But these people who gave their time and energy and abilities to try to help my sister. For a while, at least, that help was effective. When I heard that one of the mental health nurses who had cared for my sister was off work with stress, I wanted to tell her, it’s not your fault, and thank you for doing what you could.
I can’t attach blame to someone who was ill and crushed and broken, can neither hold it myself, or fling it at other people or even the organisation responsible for her care. I’ve tried throwing it at God, but I’m not getting a lot back from God on this. My sister’s death is an unhealed blister on my soul. Why didn’t you save her? Did we not pray enough, love her enough, love You enough?
Not everyone is healed in this life. I didn’t ask you to pray her back to health, but to pray her into heaven. These are the only answers I seem to catch.
Hope cannot be had by the individual if everything is corporately hopeless.
It is hard to heal individuals when the whole thing is seen as unhealable.
My sister’s illness and tragic death was a symptom of an unhealed world, a world where we burn greenhouse gases without caring about the climate, where we clear rainforest without regard for animals and plants, where we know the cost of everything and yet don’t value what really matters. We live in a society which has recently cut support to those suffering from mental and physical disabilities.
My sister lived in a world which didn’t put much value on those who were too sick to work, a society that didn’t know her smile, a little uncertain at times, but still there, that didn’t recognise the struggle she made to be with her kids, that didn’t see her talent for listening to and helping those who were also on the margins.
Decisions were made: to cut funding to mental health, to close a ward where she had made a slow journey to healing after a previous crisis, to send everyone to one overloaded hospital which was simply no longer able to cope.
This is the world I lived in, cocooned from the worst of the pain and chaos, until it breached my defences and I saw how fragile things are.
This is the world I continue to live in, without my sister, and yet for her in a way.
And my prayer changes from why did this happen to, what can I do?
I’m writing something I never wanted to write. A short while ago, my sister, who was very precious to me, died in a tragic accident leaving behind a husband and young children. I hate to use the word suicide, because it would suggest some sort of choice on her part. I’ll never know what happened, but I know she wouldn’t have left us unless, in that moment, she felt utterly desperate.
A death is difficult
The death of someone who should have many years ahead of them is difficult
A sudden death is difficult
A situation where someone seems to have a hand in their own death is even more difficult.
We are still in shock.
In the first few days of shock and tears, I found myself thinking of two things: my sister in her wedding dress absolutely beaming and happy. This came back to me today with the story of Jesus and the wedding feast at Cana. If she had any faith, my sister kept it to herself and at the same time practised love and kindness to others. I am hoping that she is now experiencing God’s love and mercy.
A totally inappropriate joke
The other thing I thought of seemed totally inappropriate. It was a sectarian joke I heard when I was a child. Although things have got better in recent years, Scotland is a country with a Catholic-Protestant divide. Catholics and Protestants go to different schools and when I was a kid, I didn’t meet many Catholics. It’s easier to tell jokes about a group of people if you don’t know any of them personally.
Anyway, this joke kept going through my head, even though it is totally tasteless and wouldn’t be told now after recent terrorist attacks on places of worship. But I’m going to have to tell it to explain what I was thinking about it. It goes like this:
Question: Why did the priest bring a gun to church?
Answer: to make his people holey.
Okay, the joke could have been told about a minister or some other kind of religious leader, but because I grew up in Protestant Scotland, we made it a Catholic joke.
At first, I couldn’t understand why I was thinking about such a tasteless joke after losing my sister, until I went to Mass and began to understand.
I felt as if I was full of holes, as if God had shot holes in my tough exterior, or allowed circumstances to shoot holes in me. I couldn’t stop crying on Baptism Sunday, as if all the holes were letting in, not just pain, but also God’s love. The pain of my sister’s sudden death was flowing through me, as well as the thoughts of all the love that had been between us. But love could flow out of me much more easily, too, through all these holes blown in my defenses.
And there was so much to give comfort: The spirit of Lord Yahweh is on me for Yahweh has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the news to the afflicted, to soothe the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, release to those in prison, to proclaim a year of favour from Yahweh and a day of vengeance for our God, to comfort all who mourn, Isaiah 61:1-2.
It’s impossible to explain these first few days: the pain, the feeling that you are falling, and that yet even as you fall you know that you won’t fall forever, that there is something there: God, ground, love, to hold you up. I almost understood why Flannery O’ Connor’s short stories have the possibility of God’s grace being brought into peoples’ lives through what seems to be an irredeemable disaster or unkindness.
In these first few days, I prayed that I wouldn’t forget what I learnt from being holey, and that I would be able to trust and give myself wholly to God. And maybe that’s what it means to be holy.
The strange thing is that it was easier to trust God in these first few days, when I was blown into pieces and had absolutely no choice but to ask Him to help me through the next day, next hour, next second.
Now, maybe I’m trying to rebuild the holes, repair the defences as best as I can, even shoot a few missiles in God’s direction: why me, why her, why us? Why couldn’t You heal her? You heal other people, after all? Why was there this perfect storm which led to her death, so many little things done differently might have had another outcome … But I can’t go there. I’ll lose what’s left if I do.
The hardest thing today is the silence. There’s the silence of my sister. Even when I talk to her in my head or write down my thoughts in my diary, she doesn’t answer.
There’s the silence of others. After the initial whirl of emails and texts and facebook messages and people saying how sorry they are, it tails off, as it had to eventually. I’m sitting at home alone, trying to think of anything but what’s happened and finding I can’t.
There’s my own silence. I can’t talk about what happened. It’s very difficult, even to other people closely affected. We say something, the same thing, over and over, pain bouncing back and forth between us like a hot potato which no-one can bear to hold for long.
The most difficult silence to bear is the one I go into when my weary mind can’t take any more words or thoughts about what is, will be or might have been, when I just breathe and try to be aware of … what? Is God in the silence? Often I don’t feel a Presence. Sometimes I don’t find words to pray, and it hurts more than anything else what happens in this silence. I tell God how I feel and cry. Maybe it’s a healing hurt.
I need to end now, just with the thought that all I can ask for is blind trust. It’s so hard to let go of my beautiful sister and accept that I can’t do any more for her on this earth.