“When I was a young, homeschool mother of eight, I placed a lot of emphasis on appearances. You know, grind my grain, bake my bread, read lots of books, attend Bible studies and church,” my friend, Elaine, smiles wryly, brushing her cloud-white hair back from her forehead.
“A great deal of the effort of my life was put towards what was pleasing and acceptable to people, to building my own pretty, little Kingdom, so as my kids grew into teenagers and started having difficulties, it was hard for me to know how to keep up that façade, and I did a lot of comparison with other families, poured a lot of energy into what I thought my family was supposed to look like.
“So, when I found myself with a teenager in open rebellion, a child arrested for shoplifting, a child diagnosed with Diabetes, and a daughter struggling with mental illness, it felt like my whole world was crumbling, and being vulnerable with others about my struggles did not go well at all! I opened up to what I thought was a trusted friend, and she told me: ‘You are doing the wrong things. You need to get your act together.’ Her inability to sit with me in the brokenness just reinforced that I needed to present a persona different than what I was.
“But then my son, Jesse, was misdiagnosed with chronic Lyme’s disease and on increasing medications. He just kept getting sicker and sicker. He lost his senior year of high school and turned to drugs for comfort because he couldn’t find any comfort. We found out six weeks before he died that he had been misdiagnosed, and he went off all his medication, but he had lost all hope at that point. Jesse took his life on November 1st, eleven years ago. He was 19 when he died,” Elaine’s voice splinters, breaks,
“When my son died, it was like the DNA in my body was altered; it was like a tsunami breaking over my life and the ground that held me, I couldn’t trust it to be safe anymore. I lost basic trust in the world and no longer believed that when I said goodbye to my children in the morning, they would be there again at dinner. Heartache! It’s like my heart was in physical pain—smashed to a million pieces, yet still beating. I woke up every day to my worst nightmare,” Elaine pauses, reaching for the tissue on the nightstand behind her.
“After Jesse’s suicide, there was nothing I could do except be what I was, which was broken. I had no energy to pretend that I was anything else anymore. The most precious beauty for ashes moment was that with Jesse’s death, God stripped away all of those years of pretending to be the have-it-all-together Christian Mommy. It was horrible when he died, but it was a relief to be released from the burden of pretending. I learned that all I can do is be real, be broken-open. We do such a disservice in the Christian community when we hide our brokenness and pain because Jesus himself was ‘a man of sorrows and well acquainted with grief.’ I used to believe the insidious prosperity doctrine that if you do this and that, you will get the life you want, but that is not what Scripture teaches.
“I would like to say that my cup of suffering was full after Jesse’s death, that God said, you’ve had enough, but it wasn’t that way,” Elaine’s voice trembles with the weight of memory, of pain-on-pain.
“Just months before Jesse died, Rob fell and tore his carotid artery. The doctors told us ‘It will either heal or he will die immediately.’ So, the weeks leading up to Jesse’s death and for months afterwards I went to bed next to Rob not knowing if he was going to live through the night. For nine months I worried that I would lose not only my son, but also my husband. Then as we waited for Rob to either heal or die, my police-officer son got hit by a car, and another son’s wife divorced and left him.
“It was like each time I thought I was making progress, a new wave crashed in, and then another and another.
“I read this book by a pastor whose son died by suicide. He saw all the reports of levees breaking in New Orleans, levees designed to hold back the floods, and he talked about how we Christians build up all these levees of faith and good works thinking ‘If I serve enough, read my Bible enough, I will be protected from the devastating floods,’ but that’s not how life works. After Jesse died, life got more and more painful—my daughter’s struggle with mental illness became increasingly difficult and I feared for her life. I remember meeting with my friend, Angie, who was writing a book about how Christians should walk with each other through suffering without trying to fix, trusting God in the process, I said to her,
‘If the worst happens, I need you to remind me that God was faithful before and he will be again.’
“A week later, the worst happened—Emilie, my precious daughter, died by her own hand.
“After Jesse died the scripture that says, ‘God is close to the brokenhearted and those crushed in spirit,’ helped me, but when Emilie died, it was different. In the NT the Apostle Paul speaks about fearing for the life of his sick friend, Epaphroditus, “But God had mercy on him and not only him, but also ME, to spare ME sorrow on sorrow,’ (Phil. 2:27). I prayed this when Emilie was getting worse, begging God to spare Emilie, spare me sorrow on sorrow, but he did not answer the prayer the way my heart begged him to answer it,” Elaine’s tears spill, trickling down the edges of her cheeks.
“The crushing answer to that prayer, along with being forced to take a leave of absence from my job at the church I’d been at for almost 30 years, sent me into the wilderness. I wanted some routine, normality, purpose in my grief, so I did not want to leave my job. When they eliminated my position three months later, I did not go back to that church. So, not only did I lose my daughter, but also the Christian fellowship and support I’d relied on for decades.
“These losses drove me into this wilderness where I could not see God or feel his comfort. My mindset was ‘Why pray? God will do what he wants and I have no idea what he will do.’ I could put no hope in anything or anyone. There is this quote from Mudhouse Sabbath that captures what I experienced: ‘In the Christian community we are really good at casseroles and cards for about two weeks and then we go on leaving behind broken and shattered people.’
“God, in his grace, brought my friend, Angie, to walk with me through the wilderness. She often talked about how there are firemen and builders, and in the Christian church we are really good at being firemen when the crisis is happening—providing meals, clothes, doing errands, but then when the initial fire is out, we move on. We need those firefighters, but we also need the builders who are willing to walk through the destruction and mess and help with the rebuilding. That’s what I felt like I’d lost.
“I realized many of the church friends I’d had for thirty years were relationships of convenience based on the fact that we went to church in the same building, but the real friendships are those that stay with you after the fire is out. In my wilderness, I realized I’d propped myself up by knowing so many people, but not on a deep level. You don’t need that many close people—Jesus had his twelve, four, two, and at the center the Holy Spirit, the comforter.
“I’m also learning that it is easy to talk about death, to gloss it over as ‘They are in heaven,’ but that negates the reality that death is the final enemy—we were not created to die, to be separated from those we love. Death is an enemy and we do a great disservice to others when we say things like ‘They are in a better place.’ It’s true, but death is still so wrong.
“I’m learning to say, ‘Emilie suffered horribly and she’s in a better place.’ When I see others whose children are in a good place I am happy and I also grieve. A lot of life is like that, it is not high, high mountain peaks and low-low valleys, but more like twin mountain peaks or railroad tracks—joy and agony together, side-by-side,” Elaine pauses, then speaks straight,
“You need to understand that when someone commits suicide, others tend to define their life by that one moment, rather than all the years they fought hard and lived life. Emilie had a vibrant faith in God, loved Beth Moore, could light up a room wherever she went, had a large circle of friends that she loved. She had this fearless capacity to live life to the tenth degree, but she also suffered with a horrible mental illness. Jesus was very real to her, and so was her agony.
“In a world where agony intersects with joy, I’m learning not to define my God based on my circumstances, which can change in a minute. On Mother’s Day this spring, Rob and I went hiking—Emilie died five years ago, and it was the first sense that this is a beautiful day, a perfect day. And we got a call that our son, who has diabetes, was unconscious, and I drove all the way to the hospital not knowing if he was alive or dead. He lived, but those circumstances—our son’s living or dying—do not change who God is. I have to define my circumstances based on who God is, because God never changes.
“And going back to that time in the wilderness, that moment after Emilie died when I thought, ‘Why bother to pray because God is going to do what he will do?’ I’ve been learning lessons about God’s severe mercy. I don’t know what would have become of my children had they lived. God gives us choice and sometimes he honors the bad choices we make, and I don’t understand why, but I know he is good, kind and loving and works all things together for good. It was his severe mercy on my children to allow them to die when they did. ‘Good often comes wearing a veil of evil.’ I don’t think I can ever say that my children dying of suicide is a good thing, but I know that God’s goodness is not defeated by that evil.
“That God’s goodness is not defeated by evil came alive to me in 2 Kings and the story of the pagan queen Athaliah murdering all the royal princes, trying to wipe out the whole royal family. Unknown to her and most of Israel, an Israelite princess grabs baby Joash, heir to the throne, and hides him away in the temple with his nurse for six years. For the next six years Israel thinks the royal line is destroyed and with it the hope for Messiah. The question becomes—will they believe God’s promises are true? Or will they believe their circumstances are helpless and hopeless and despair? The faithful of Israel cling to God’s promise to preserve them even though they cannot see his provision in the baby hidden in the temple. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, ‘The secret things belong to the Lord.’ There is never an answer to the why: Why not the help my children needed? Why the misdiagnosis for Jesse? Why Emilie’s mental illness? Why didn’t I see more? Why couldn’t I stop it?
“We must remain in the dark about many things. Not that we don’t search for truth, but when I get to heaven and the scales fall off my eyes, it will be “Oh!” It’s a hope that is not realized yet, but it is a hope that is coming. Isaiah talks about Jesus as a man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief—Jesus lived in a world of sorrow and evil in abundance, so I know that on my brightest day and in my deepest agony—Jesus gets it.
“I take a lot of comfort in the life of Joseph, where everything in his life was ripped away from him and it took a couple decades for him to say, fully and freely ‘God had a better plan all along, no matter how painful it was.’ Joseph was slandered and falsely imprisoned for seven years before his redemption. The question is—are you going to trust God in the dark prison or are you going to let your heart feel abused and misused? Life often doesn’t seem fair or right, but if God loved me so much that he sent his son, his only son, to die for me. ‘Will He not give me everything else?’
“When I lost my children, my church, my trust in the world, this sense of ‘I’m building a really pretty picture of what life should be’—I had exactly what I needed even when I couldn’t see it. I thank God that he held me onto my faith. That’s why I have to say this is a story of God, not a story of me, it’s a story of God through my circumstances. I don’t want to be seen as a horrible mom or a mom who persevered through so many hard things—I want to be seen as a mom who knows God loves so much that he promised that he would never leave me or forsake me.
“I started my story talking about trying to build this nice little Kingdom on earth. I have no interest in what my little kingdom looks like anymore. I want to be openly broken so that the surpassing greatness of any of this is the glory of God. If there is anything encouraging or that gives hope in this story, that hope is the Lord Jesus Christ and his power to save. I do feel I’ve been through the worst life could ask of me, and I know it may not be done, but I also know that God is faithful.”
I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things . . . that I may gain Christ.
Philippians 3: 8