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As a writer, needle artist and photographer, I invite you to share my pursuits with me on this site. Among other things, there is a weekly post called “D-mail” that examines the spiritual meaning in current stories, both personal and news events.  I invite your comments at  cathycongerblog@gmail.com

“The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought, this in turn makes us think more deeply about life, which helps us regain our equilibrium.”  N. Platt

Scripture: Psalm 34:18, Proverbs 13:12, Psalm 13:1-4

SUICIDE: THE TRAGIC END OF GIVING UP ALL HOPE

Last week I shared the topic of “hope” with you. Ironically, yesterday I received news about a friend of our family who had given up all hope. After years of struggling with alcoholism and depression, he lost his job, his health, and his marriage. I suppose he could see no way out of his pain, even when friends and family tried everything to help him. When he found a time alone at home, he took his own life.
It was such a shock. His family’s feelings are running the gamut from heart-wrenching sadness to guilt to anger. Why did he do it? Why didn’t he let us help him? Where was God in this? How could he do this to us? What else could I have done to stop him?
What makes a person give up hope, even in God?

Proverbs 13:12 says, Hope deferred makes the heart sick.

That sickness may be such deep depression that the person can no longer hear the voice of love and hope for healing the soul, especially when alcohol or mental imbalance has blinded him. Even King David, who was God’s delight, experienced deep despair. He wrote,

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts (of doubt, fear, isolation, shame, despair) and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, O Lord my God. Give light to my eyes or I will sleep in death; my enemy will say, `I have overcome him’, and my foes will rejoice when I fall. Psalm 13: 1-4
David did not take his own life because he trusted in his God. For lots of others, God has been far away or they have never had the chance to know God at all so there was no hope.

And what about those who loved the one who died this way? I know from what I have read that a loved one’s suicide can trigger intense emotions. Shock. Disbelief and emotional numbness may set in. They may think that their loved one’s suicide couldn’t possibly be real. Anger. They may be angry with their loved one for abandoning them or leaving them with a legacy of grief - or they may be angry with themselves or others for missing clues about suicidal intentions. They may be angry with God for not intervening or angry with their loved one for not taking the lifeline held out for them. Guilt. They may replay “what if” and “if only” scenarios in your mind, blaming themselves for the suicide. Despair. They may be gripped by sadness, depression and a sense of defeat or hopelessness. They may have a physical collapse or even consider suicide themselves.

This experience is new for me, at least at this personal a level so I wanted to understand it better. How could I help? I read what many others have written about it. One article I found was on the Mayo Clinic online newsletter about how to help the survivors of suicide. It said,

“The thoughts, feelings, and emotions of a person contemplating suicide are difficult to understand. So many different circumstances can be involved. Many people with suicidal thoughts are struggling with despair, hopelessness, and depression, and they reach the point where the struggle becomes too unbearable. With others, something has altered their normal thought patterns. Perhaps a chemical imbalance progresses into emotional and mental instability. Or the mind is altered by alcohol or drugs, which could result in an ‘impulse’ act of suicide. It is not out of the question that perhaps a combination of these circumstances exists. And sadly, even those who are very close to someone with suicidal thoughts may never know that person’s thoughts and feelings.

When a loved one dies, your grief may be profound, but when a loved one commits suicide, your reaction may be more complicated. Overwhelming emotions may leave you reeling - and you may be consumed by guilt, wondering if you could have done something to prevent your loved one’s death. As you face life after a loved one’s suicide, remember that you don’t have to go through it alone. You may continue to experience intense reactions during the weeks and months after your loved one’s suicide - including nightmares, flashbacks, difficulty concentrating, social withdrawal and loss of interest in usual activities - especially if you witnessed or discovered the suicide. ”

Suicide is a topic rarely discussed in polite society, or in the church, for that matter. While it is a subject whispered behind cupped hands or alluded to in the form of a prayer request, “we need to pray for that family because of the circumstances of his death,” suicide is rarely confronted openly.
I read that loved ones of the suicide victim desperately need the opportunity to talk openly about the complex emotions they are experiencing. Suicide literally explodes into a person’s life like an earthquake registering off the Richter scale. Life changes in an instant for suicide survivors.. As with the survivors of an actual earthquake, suicide families are in shock, simply existing in the wake of the destruction.
As if the death of a loved one were not enough to handle, suicide survivors must deal with the shame of the social stigma attached to suicide. In general, people do not know how to react to or comfort suicide families. A shadow is cast across the entire family as if something must be wrong with them all. As with any death, people often feel talking about it will upset the family so they avoid the subject. What they don’t understand is the survivors need very much to talk about what has happened. Healing will never take place if the gaping wound of suicide pain is covered over without being allowed to heal from the inside out.
Suppose an earthquake seriously damages the foundation of a home, yet the house appears otherwise intact. There are obvious cracks, but instead of making the necessary inspection and repairs, the owner opts for stuccoing over the damaged foundation. From the exterior, the repairs seem complete. However, one day an aftershock trembles the already insecure foundation and the whole house comes crashing down.
Waiting to address the damage done by suicide only postpones the inevitable. Talking about what has happened is a vital part of the healing process. Huge chunks of unreconciled pain lay scattered in the path of recovery for suicide survivors. While picking through the rubble, the ordinary things of life must go on. Amid the chaos of second-guessing and “what if’s,” survivors must deal with the mundane issues of the funeral, finances, paperwork, probate, and insurance claims.

Many Christians do not know how to respond to suicide, and in their ignorance, often do more harm than good. A lot of what I read written by Christians was about whether the sin of suicide was unforgivable or not. Some felt compelled to pass judgment on the circumstances of the death and speculate about whether the victim is in heaven or hell. God is the only Righteous Judge and the status of the soul of the deceased is in His hands. Many a survivor has turned his back on the church and God following a judgmental statement by an overly pious pastor who preaches that the deceased has gone to hell. When people don’t know what to say, but feel they are expected to say something, their comments can sometimes be hurtful. Instead we should be showing compassion at a time like this.

The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
Psalm 34:18

Here is some good advice I read for friends and family who wish to comfort the survivors. You can be the most helpful to the survivors by being available and listening. Don’t feel you have to inform or justify. Because suicide is an awkward, uncomfortable subject, people are tempted to avoid the truth. Hiding from the truth only makes grief recovery more difficult. Simply be there to listen and comfort with your presence. In listening, you should be prepared to hear and accept a wide range of emotions. You may be uncomfortable with the intensity of expression of these emotions. However, it is important for survivors to express themselves without being silenced. Don’t try to calm survivors down or cut short their expression of emotion. The freedom to work through anger and grief in an individual way will hasten the healing process.

Remember this: The most difficult period for the family is probably still weeks away. During the initial period of shock, the survivors are not feeling many of the emotions they will feel later. You may meet the greatest need six to eight weeks following the death and again as the one-year anniversary of the suicide approaches. Survivors need to know that you care and they need to discuss their feelings and frustrations. Your support and encouragement can make a huge difference.

How Can You Help?
• Don’t be afraid to discuss the subject of suicide with survivors, but temper your comments. Grieving survivors need to be acknowledged, not ignored.
• Let the person know you care. As the well-known saying goes, “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” Sharing your concern for survivors helps them know they are not alone in there pain.
• Be a good listener. Allow a survivor to talk about what he is feeling. It is important for you to listen closely to anything the person says. Much talking on your part will not be very effective because the person is in a state of mind that will not allow him to listen or absorb all you are saying. Do everything you can to let the person know you are there for them and willing to listen without judging or challenging.
• After the shock has passed, you might encourage counseling or support group attendance. If they agree, you could help by making some calls for the person to locate a counselor, clergy, or a Survivors of Suicide support group Maybe offer to drive your friend to and from the appointment or meeting.
• Be practical. What can you do for the person right now? Can you provide childcare, meals, or transportation? Be specific about what you are willing to do.
• Be available. In Hope for the Troubled Heart, Billy Graham writes, “Being available is difficult, because it takes time, but being sensitive to the small amounts of time we can give could reap large rewards in someone’s life. It doesn’t really matter what we say to comfort people during a time of suffering, it’s our concern and availability that count.”
Prayer: O Lord, my heart is sick with grief over this tragedy. Only you know what our friend’s last thoughts were. We feel so sad that he listened to the lie in his head that told him death was the only way out. I pray for his family and close friends as they try to make some sense of this death. I pray that those who are not Christian believers will be drawn by the Holy Spirit to trust in you with their lives. Comfort the widow and the children. I pray for those who this day have lost all hope and want to end their lives. May someone intervene and speak hope and healing into their souls through Jesus Christ our Lord who desires life for us, not death. Amen

HOPE IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS THAT PERCHES IN THE SOUL

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.

So reads the first stanza of my favorite poem by Emily Dickenson. I have done a lot of meditation on “hope”. How many times a day do we use that word? How many times is it the only thing that is holding us together? I wrote the following poem a few years ago at a time when hope was the anchor keeping me from floating away in despair.

HOPE

Hope is a thing with ragged fingernails,
bewildered by silence,
poisoned by doubt,
broken by futility.
It hovers outside emergency rooms,
arrives in crates on cargo planes,
compels our eyes to seek
what’s just beyond the bend.
Hope keeps checking the mailbox.

Hope rests sure in Jesus Christ
whose kingdom has no end.
It is the anchor that keeps
the soul from drifting to despair.
Renewed by mercy,
sustained by prayer,
hope is the steadfast thing
that always meets the last train.

by Cathy Conger
copyright 2007

I thought I would write this D-mail as a meditation on hope. Perhaps there are some out there whose hope is deferred or very weak. For you, dear friend, I send this message of hope from our Lord, Jesus Christ. May these scriptures strengthen and preserve all of you who are hoping for something.

Hope:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29:11

But God will never forget the needy; the hope of the afflicted will never perish.  Psalm 9:18

But the eyes of the LORD are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love.     Psalm 33:18

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.  Psalm 42:5

You answer us with awesome and righteous deeds, God our Savior, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas. Psalm 65:5


Sustain me, my God, according to your promise, and I will live; do not let my hopes be dashed
. Psalm 119: 116


Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him
. Job 13:15

But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. Isaiah 40:31

Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. I Corinthians 13:7

Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 2 Corinthians 3:12

The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help. 1 Timothy 5:5


Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.

Hebrews 11: 1

Prayer O Lord, hear the prayers of those who are hoping. Amen

Scripture: Proverbs 27: 17, James 5: 19-20, Ecclesiastes 4: 9- 12

Fable of the Porcupine


It was the coldest winter ever. Many animals in the forest were dying because of the cold. The porcupines, realizing the situation, decided to group together. This way they would be able to cover and protect themselves from the frigid cold. However, even though they gave off wonderful heat to each other, the quills of each one began to wound their closest companions. After a time, they decided to distance themselves from one another because togetherness was just too uncomfortable. Sadly they began to die, alone and frozen. The wisest of the porcupines gathered them and spoke.
“We must make a choice, my children. Either we accept the quills of our companions or disappear from the earth. What say you?”
The porcupines discussed the matter and, seeing the wisdom of their Elder, decided to go back to living together. They learned to live with the little wounds that were caused by living closely to their fellow porcupines. In exchange, the porcupines survived the outside cold by basking in the heat that came from the others.

Recently, long-time neighbors of ours retired and announced that they were moving to Madison, Wisconsin where their oldest son and his family lived. When my husband and I were out walking, we stopped to chat with them. They told us they were going to establish a three-generational household in Madison. They had purchased a large home where they would be living with their son’s family, who needed someone to provide childcare for their young children, and with her elderly parents, who were still in fairly good health but no longer wanted to live alone. I commented on how much sense that arrangement made but wouldn’t it be hard for everyone to get along? They answered, “We all get along pretty well for the most part, but we’ve all agreed that the nurturing and care that each of us will give each other is well worth the everyday friction we will no doubt experience. And just think, none of us will need to travel farther than up or downstairs for visits anymore!”

While few of us will ever need to live huddled together like the porcupines to keep out the cold, we all belong to families, to the groups we work with or go to school with or worship God with. Let’s face it, among our companions in all these groups, there are some “porcupines” that wound us with their sharp comments, actions, or attitudes. And we wouldn’t be human if we too didn’t have sharp quills of our own. When we are willing to tolerate and forgive these wounds, we find warmth and comeraderie and perhaps even unconditional love as a reward. When our “quills” come up against another’s, it is an opportunity to grow and learn. Moral of the story? The best relationship is not the one that brings together perfect people, but the best is when each individual learns to live with the imperfections of others and can admire the other person’s good qualities.

Proverbs 27: 17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Iron and quills can develop and mold character if we let them. Perhaps the pricks from a brother’s quills can change a sinner’s ways as James says , “My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” James 5: 19-20.
God has created us social beings, designed to live together so that we can help and shelter one another. As Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 4: 9- 12,
” Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”

So what are a few quill pricks now and then when we know how to forgive, when we are humble enough to learn from them? Surely the rewards are worth it.

Prayer: Lord, God, I was pricked this week and felt hurt and angry. Thank you for allowing me to hear my neighbor’s story about living together in love. Thank you for bringing the porcupine fable across my desk to give me perspective. Help me to remember that under another’s quills lies warmth if I am forgiving enough to find it. Help me also to be aware of what my own quills are doing to others and make the effort to heal those wounds. Amen