The morning of September 27, 2004 dawned bright and clear. I went about my morning chores little guessing that the day would bring me greater sorrow than I had ever known. Just before noon three plain clothes members of the South Salt Lake Police Department appeared at my door to bring me the news that my second son Brian, age 33, was dead–by his own hand. Sometime during the night he had slit his wrists. His room-mate had discovered him in the morning.
How does one assimilate such news? How can a mother’s heart bear such sorrow? How many tears can one person cry and not dry up and wither into nothingness? Yet amazingly, as I’ve sobbed out the grief of decades of sorrow with a son who left the Church in his teens and made some poor choices, I’ve found a cleansing, strengthening power in tears. Every person I’ve cried with I’ve drawn closer to. Mutual tears have forged a bond of love that is quite undefinable.
Amazingly, too, my tears of sorrow have been mixed with tears of gratitude–for the love of family and friends, for the gospel that offers an iron rod to cling to, for the scriptures that are full of comfort and the promises of the Lord, for time I’ve been given the last few years to know my son a little better and appreciate him a lot more. I love my son with all my heart and can only bear the realities of this situation because of my faith in God, the love, mercy, and atonement of Christ, and my unfailing faith in the hereafter. How does anyone survive such sorrow without sustaining faith, without the Comforter?
All through these difficult, tear-filled days, I have had a deep inner sense of blessings beginning to bud and blossom–things I have prayed for fervently over the years beginning to be fulfilled. I am inclined to cry out, “Oh Father, I wanted a broken heart and a contrite spirit–but not this way! I wanted to feel progress in the cleansing and sanctification of my heart; I wanted to know firsthand the power of the Atonement for me and for my loved ones–but not this way! I wanted closer family relationships, to have heart-to-heart talks with family and friends, to be able to give and receive the pure love of Christ–but not this way! I wanted to raise my voice in pure testimony of the reality of the Savior’s love and his intercession on our behalf–but not this way! I wanted a more close connection with the spirit world, to be able to sense its reality and have greater hope for spiritual help in my efforts to do temple work for the dead–but not this way!” However “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.” (Isaiah 55:8) Little do I understand the ways He fulfills His purposes in my life. He grants men agency and honors it at all costs–but when those we love make decisions that wrench our very heartstrings, He is mighty to fulfill his promise that “all things shall work together for your good” (D&C 90:24).
Spiritual Help to Deal with the Crisis
The day Brian died my compassionate bishop appeared at our door buoying us up with his presence. He gave me a priesthood blessing that included the words (as nearly as I can remember) “Listen carefully to what I am about to say because these are the very words of the Lord to you. You should not spend one moment going back and worrying about what you might have done differently. You did everything that could possibly be expected and the Lord accepts that.” These words save my spiritual sanity.
Each time I go back in my mind searching for anything I had missed doing, anything that could have made “the difference,” I tell myself “Stop! Remember the words in the blessing.” I suggest that these words apply to most of us in most situations. As parents and spouses and friends we do all we know to do and if we could have done better, we would have. (This week I was told of a suicide where the parents blamed themselves and each other to the point that their marriage and lives were destroyed–three lives were lost instead of one. How useless to compound the tragedy.) In the situation with Brian we all thought he was doing better; none of us had a clue of the depth of Brian’s current pain so we couldn’t respond to what we didn’t know.
Where Can I Turn for Peace?
As much as I wanted to hide from the fact, I knew that Brian’s choice to take his own life was a grievous sin. In the shadowy night that followed Brian’s death I paced the floor and sobbed for assurance that Brian was in the arms of the Savior’s love, not cast into some cold spirit prison to suffer continuing anguish and torment. Oh, how I wanted to hold him, comfort him, assure him of my love and the Lord’s love. I repeated over and over in my mind more words from the bishop’s blessing, “One of the purposes of the Atonement is to take away our grief and heal our hearts. Give Him your grief and He will be with you and comfort you. Remember that the Atonement is even this minute reaching your son Brian. Only the Lord knows his heart. God is a generous and merciful God. He will give Brian the absolute maximum that He can.” I hung onto those words, but still wanted additional reassurance.
One of my sons, Scott, works a night security job; the morning after I had learned of Brian’s death, I had an e-mail from him. “I’ve been grieving for Brian during the night, but in the end I feel very uplifted and cheered concerning his state.” Scott reminded me of a woman’s near-death experience where she was allowed to see the spirit of a man others looked down on. She saw he was a great and noble person–like the spirit we had often felt in Brian in spite of his problems. I remembered reading that those who are lured into the counterfeit “ups” of substance abuse are often tender-hearted souls chafing under the bleakness of mortality and yearning for life to be more beautiful.
Comforting Words from an Apostle of the Lord
A daughter-in-law, Traci, brought us a booklet called Suicide by M. Russell Ballard. (His thoughts first appeared in the Ensign October, 1987, and now appear as a Deseret Book product.) The booklet gave us many answers and comforted our aching hearts. Here are some quotes which reflect my testimony and offer reassurance to all who grieve in the wake of a loved one’s suicide:
Elder Ballard made it clear that suicide is a sin, but then explained, “I feel that judgment for sin is not always as cut-and-dried as some of us seem to think. The Lord said, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Does that mean that every person who kills will be condemned, no matter the circumstances? Civil law recognizes that there are gradations in this matter–from accidental manslaughter to self-defense to first-degree murder. I feel that the Lord recognizes differences in intent and circumstances: Was the person who took his life mentally ill? Was he or she so deeply depressed as to be unbalanced or otherwise emotionally disturbed? [Depression and chemical imbalance make it impossible to think beyond current pain and mental torment.
] . . . Did he or she somehow not understand the seriousness of the act? Was he or she suffering from a chemical imbalance that led to despair and a loss of self-control? . . . Only the Lord knows all the details, and he it is who will judge our actions here on earth.
“When he does judge us, I feel he will take all things into consideration: our genetic and chemical makeup, our mental state, our intellectual capacity, the teachings we have received, the traditions of our fathers our health, and so forth.
“We learn in the scriptures that the blood of Christ will atone for the sins of men “who have died not knowing the will of God concerning them, or who have ignorantly sinned.” (Mosiah 3:11)
“. . . Thankfully, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught this enlightening doctrine: “While one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard. . . He is a wise Lawgiver, and will judge all men, not according to the narrow, contracted notions of men, but ‘according to . . . Their deeds. . . their means of obtaining intelligence, the laws by which they are governed, the facilities afforded them of obtaining correct information, and His inscrutable designs in relation to the human family.”
Elder Ballard told the story of woman whose father committed suicide and she had the impression there would be something she could do to help him, but not being a member of the Church had no idea what that was. Years later she joined the Church, had his work done and said, “I have a strong feeling that he has accepted both ordinances and is greatly blessed by it.”
Then he continues, “I believe the Lord will consider each case separately and judge the circumstances of each individual. I have sincerely sought direction from our Father in Heaven to help me understand the nature of suicide. And I have come to know, as well as anything else that I know from God, that these people have a place in the kingdom of our Father, and it is not one of darkness or despair, but one where they can receive comfort and experience serenity.
“Only our Father in Heaven knows the full answer to the questions our hearts ask regarding those who take their own lives . . . But it is clear that hope exists. In vision President Joseph F. Smith saw the work of salvation proceeding among the dead, and wrote:
“I beheld that the faithful elders of this dispensation, when they depart from mortal life, continue their labors in the preaching of the gospel of repentance and redemption, through the sacrifice of the Only Begotten Son of God, among those who are in darkness and under the bondage of sin in the great world of the spirit of the dead.
‘The dead who repent will be redeemed, through obedience to the ordinances of the hours of God,
“And after they have paid the penalty of their transgressions, and are washed clean, shall receive a reward according to their works, for they are heirs of salvation.” (D&C 138:57-59)
Elder Ballard concluded, “I am grateful for the great plan of salvation our Father in Heaven has provided for us. It is a plan of great fairness and a plan of great love. As I think about the worry and agony of those whose loved one has taken his or her own life, I find deep comfort and faith in the Lord’s promise and blessing to us who remain in mortality: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27)
Additional Understanding of the Atonement
One of the things I struggled with after Brian’s death was the seeming unfairness of his life circumstances. I wondered why he was born into dysfunctional circumstances where he didn’t get the mentoring and understanding he needed, where he was not treated well at school or in his ward, where so many factors motivated him to turn away from the vital support of family and church, where he had known of or received little help to deal with his depression and other problems.
I wondered why his every effort (and he made many) to establish himself in a career had turned to dust, why he had lived his whole adult life under a black cloud of “bad luck.” I found myself recounting an incredibly long list of things that had gone wrong for him and wondering how anyone could have held up under that onslaught year after year. How can it be fair that some people are born into situations where they seem to receive what they need, get every opportunity for education and economic advantages, for the development and use of their talents, and others seem to get so little? Why some are blessed with sound minds and others plagued their whole life with depression or mental illness or chemical imbalances? I grieved all over again the difficulty of Brian’s life when I knew that his spirit was so good and that he was intelligent and talented.
Then my sister’s neighbor brought over an article called “Blessings of the Atonement” by Larry St. Clair and asked her to give it to me. Brother St. Clair spoke of the way he came to understand the “compensatory nature of the Atonement—the sweet and gentle way that Christ atones for the unfairness, inequity, unkindness, and evil which involuntarily comes into the lives of His children.” He told of his experience of being asked to speak at the funeral of a young man who had committed suicide after 21 years of life in a disadvantaged family whose whole existence seemed marked by bad luck, lack of opportunity and tragedy. He had been home teacher to this family for a time and spent hours with this son, whose name was David, attempting to give him support.
In preparation for his talk he tried desperately to understand why David and this whole family had had to endure so much. He prayed fervently to learn what the Lord wanted him to say, but was filled with dread because nothing came. His soul complained to the Lord that life was so unfair and that this boy never had a chance. He continued to pray with his whole soul, but it was only during the prelude music for the funeral that he got his answer–he was given a vision of David in the arms of Christ. In the vision, the Savior looked at Brother St. Clair and said, “My son David is all right now. I love him and I will heal and make him whole again. You must not worry about David any longer; no one can cause him pain or grief ever again.” Finally, the Lord told Brother St.
Clair what he wanted him to say.
When his time to speak came Brother St. Clair shared this vision and explained to those gathered that the unfairness, unkindness and tragedy of David’s life had been completely swallowed up through the power of Christ’s atonement. He said, “I now knew that in the final analysis a significant portion of the atonement of Jesus Christ was dedicated to compensating for the unwarranted bitterness of mortality. I took great hope from the fact that I now know that the Davids of this world will ultimately be loved and healed and made whole again through the infinite goodness and love of the Master himself. And for the first time in my life I understood how very, very much Christ loved me.”
I don’t think for a minute that all is peace and serenity on the other side for someone who commits suicide. This dangerous myth has sometimes spawned more suicide in the aftermath. Death does not shield us from the consequences of our actions or the sorrow for sin necessary for repentance. The Savior is a Being of light and truth, and knowing the truth can be painful; but it can also bring profound relief from the lies of Satan and the lack of realization of one’s own worth. I believe Brian feels pain and regret for the sorrow he has caused others and for the untold possibilities he has chosen to sidestep. However, I believe he now has some vital things he lacked here: hope in Christ, knowledge of how to access the atonement, and a recognition that he is a precious son of God who is loved beyond measure.
No matter how much comfort there may be in the Savior’s mercy and goodness to those who choose to take their own lives, I feel that Brian would tell us now that the most important decision any of us can make is to stay the course, finish the race, endure to the end. Only God knows when we have learned all we were sent here to learn and served all those He has sent us to serve. I can’t help but feel that Brian’s pain would be deepened, his regrets magnified greatly, should any of his friends or relatives choose a similar “way out.”
We honor those who left us only by living better and more faithfully in the years we have left. My beloved daughter-in-law, Heidi, said in her talk at Brian’s service, “Through the Savior’s atonement we do not fear death but we are also commanded to choose life . . . let us fill our hearts with more love for one another, more kindness, more forgiveness. May our hands reach out to other Brians that might be struggling. Most of all let us look on each new day as a gift from God to touch someone else’s life. May God use every one of us as an instrument. True healing comes through Christ and through service. The Savior said, “As I have loved you, love one another.”
More Comfort from the Bishop
At Brian’s memorial service, our good bishop was the concluding speaker. He said that in the couple of days he had been pondering this situation that only one scripture had come repeatedly to his mind: when the Savior was on the cross and looked down with compassion on those who were putting him to death and said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He said he felt strongly that Jesus was at this moment interceding for Brian with the Father and saying, “Father forgive him, for he knew not what he was doing.” He said that the Lord is infinitely merciful and forgiving and that He would give Brian the most grace and love and mercy that he possibly could. I believe that these same comforting words apply to most if not all suicide cases.
Brian’s Gifts to Me
In retrospect, Brian life and death have given me great gifts. He taught me the meaning of the scripture in 1 Sam 16:7 “the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” I know the Lord knows Brian’s heart; he had a way of looking at other people’s hearts that was not judgmental, and he had a keen aversion to hypocrisy. I was raised in a home that was judgmental, where there was a very narrow definition of acceptable behavior. I was raised in a climate where the emphasis was placed on DOING rather than BEING–and Brian has helped squashed that out of me. He taught me that it is who we ARE–not just what we DO that matters.
Brigham Young said these thought-provoking Words, “When the books are opened, out of which the human family are to be judged, how disappointed the professedly sanctified, long-faced hypocrites and smooth-toned pharisees will be, when the publicans and harlots enter into the kingdom of heaven before them; people that appeared to be full of evil, but the Lord says they never designed to do wrong; the devil had power over them, and they suffered in their mortal state a thousand times more than you poor, miserable, canting, cheating, snivelling, hypocritical pharisees.”
Brian taught me charity. He loved all kinds of people and they loved him back. The place where he worked closed down in order that all might come to honor his memory. Brian taught me compassion. As he grew up he was tenderhearted and sensitive. He was aware of my overwhelm and reticent to state his own needs. When I cried he was always concerned and would pat me and want to know what was wrong.
Because of Brian, I learned to pray with all my heart and soul for another human being, and sense a little of how the Lord must feel when we will not accept His gifts and do not listen to His voice. I had to learn to finally accept the timetable of the Lord, and His utter respect for agency. I had to learn to say “Thy will be done.” A scripture in D&C 101:16 became my daily source of comfort as I substituted Brian’s name for the word “Zion.” “Let your heart be comforted concerning Brian; for all flesh is in mine hands; be still and know that I am God.” That scripture applies even more now. I experienced a mighty change of heart in regard to Brian as I changed from anger at his seeming thoughtlessness and bad choices, to an outpouring of love as the Lord led me to understand the integrity of Brian’s soul.
My biggest grief has been that I myself did not learn the central message of the gospel until Brian was out of our home. Consequently, I couldn’t teach it to him when he was a child, and when he was an adult he didn’t want to hear it. Early on it seems like we were caught up with trying to do all the right things so we wouldn’t need to repent rather than understanding that the purpose of life is to learn our nothingness without God, our utter need to turn to the Lord daily, and our dependence on the love and grace and mercy of the Lord.
I trust that Brian will now be in a situation where he can truly learn the power of the Atonement and feel the love of Christ.
The Blessing of Brian Ministering to Me
A few years ago when Brian chose to reach out to me for help, he gave me the gift of his presence, his trust, his love. I was overwhelmed with the goodness of his spirit, the maturity of his personality in spite of the demons he was struggling with. He confided that he had first felt suicidal when he was fifteen. It broke my heart that his dad and I had been clueless–so wrapped up in our own concerns, so busy trying to provide and “do all the right thing” that we had been utterly unaware of the deep pain in this child’s soul.
The day after he told me about this I couldn’t quit thinking about it–it required such a total change in my paradigm, a total realignment of my perspective of the reality of those years. I developed a raging headache and had to go lay down. Brian brought a chair and sat at the foot of the bed and rubbed my feet. For years I had yearned to minister to this lost son, and here, suddenly, he was ministering to me. Brian taught me the importance of expressing constantly our love and appreciation for each other and making as sure as we possibly can that they feel it and know it and understand how priceless they are to us.
A Voice of Testimony
In his last final desperate act, Brian gave me the gift of the necessity of feeling after the Lord to maintain my spiritual sanity–of searching the scriptures, of praying with my whole soul for comfort and reassurance that Brian is all right, and of reaching out to family members and dear friends and feeling their love and support. One last thing Brian gave me was the gift of a setting where I could bear my testimony to my children Through my life experiences I have been led to completely evaluate my perspectives about the gospel–I have searched and prayed and sometimes even doubted. I have studied the scriptures and asked all over again for a testimony of their truthfulness and an understanding of how they apply to me.
I have recognized my former self-righteousness and pride and hope it has been burned out of me by the refiner’s fire. Through it all I have received thousands of spiritual witnesses that the gospel is true . . . . So many times I have opened my scriptures to the exact verse I needed, so many times the Lord has reaffirmed my testimony that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, that the Church has been restored, that the Atonement extends to us all, that the Lord loves us more than we can imagine. Through it all I have learned that we can trust the Lord–no matter what.
I’ve written many articles on trusting the Lord no matter what. I will re-read them tearfully in these coming weeks, grateful for that understanding and commitment. I will see the words with new eyes, feel them with a new heart. I remember hearing two analogies about faith that now have vibrant significance in my life:
1. that it is easy to walk a two by four laying on the ground, but not so easy if that narrow board is stretched across a deep chasm.
2. It is easy to trust the strength of a rope until you are dangling by it over a precipice and your life depends on it.
I am now walking that two by four across the deep chasm, dangling by my rope of faith over a precipice of sorrow–experiencing a true test of faith. I must pray constantly for the Lord’s Spirit to guide my thoughts and feelings away from useless regret and toward hope in Christ. Suddenly words of hymns and scriptures that I loved but took for granted are alive with fiery meaning. Verses like Moroni 7:41 ring with new and deeper meaning: “And what is it that ye shall hope for? Behold I say unto you that ye shall have hope through the atonement of Christ and the power of his resurrection, to be raised unto life eternal, and this because of your faith in him according to the promise.” Verses like Alma 34:16 “And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety. . . “ are like balm to my soul.
A sign hung on Brian’s wall in his own handwriting that said: “Life is not an exact science. Life is an art. Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.” I pray that Brian is now learning more sufficient premises–I believe his good heart will be open and willing to feel and learn the hope and joy of the gospel of Jesus Christ, that he will accept the love and grace and mercy of the Savior who loves him so very much. Brian’s presence was like a rare treasure to his family. He chose to stay away so much, but nothing ever felt complete or quite right unless he was with us–and it never will until he is with us all again. I know that I will see Brian again, that he lives this moment in a different realm where he is being comforted and tutored and loved and healed. I believe explicitly in the many scriptural promises such as Alma 40:23 “The soul shall be restored to the body. “ and 1 Cor 1: 9-10 “We should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead . . . In whom we trust that he will yet deliver us.”
I’ve learned that the level of trust and faith I desire are gifts of the Spirit that I must pray for daily. I will pray to be able to trust God–no matter what, to believe in the promises–no matter what. I find comfort and peace in so many scriptures such as the 23rd Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Jeremiah 41:3: For I will turn their mourning into joy, and will comfort them, and make them rejoice from their sorrow.” I will yet embrace my son and weep tears of joy with him at our reunion. I pray that Brian knows this very minute that I love him with all my heart. I thank God for my faith and for the comfort and assurance and peace that comes from no other source but Him.