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.
In my rucksack, was ‘Redemption Road’, a book by the Jesuit priest, Brendan MacManus, in which he describes walking the Camino de Santiago in search of healing after losing his brother to suicide.
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.’