“Look to the living, love them, and hold on.” ~ Kay Redfield Jamison.
“O God, who gave us birth, you are ever more ready to hear than we are to pray. You know our needs before we ask, and our ignorance in asking. Show us now your grace, that as we face the mystery of death we may see the light of eternity. Speak to us once more your solemn message of life and of death. Help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are ended, enable us to die as those who go forth to live,so that living or dying, our life may be in Jesus Christ our risen LORD. Amen.” ~ Book of Common Worship Daily Prayer
from CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE: denise on a mission
The best opportunities I had to serve in ministry together with youth and adults was mission trips. Thanks to the tireless efforts of such leaders as Priscilla Smalser, Pat & Betsy Sayer, Dean & Patti Arcangeli, Jim & Marcia Klue, Ralph Reigle, and others, I was able to go on two youth mission trips to Washington, D.C. and one to Philadelphia. Leaving behind familiar masks, we joined God at work in the world and learned how much we desperately depended on our Father in heaven.
The number of details required to make for a meaningful mission trip for over twenty persons boggled my mind. Partnering with an agency. Recruiting, team building, fundraising, communication, transportation. Even one aspect of these would have overwhelmed me. But it never came to this. All I had to do was focus on my role in providing pastoral care and counsel. I could do what I was called to do and it would be enough.
We faced tremendous challenges those three years. Perhaps the most traumatic was when the friend of one of our youth had come along on the trip. I’ll call her Denise. Things had been going awry early in the week and tensions were high. The girls were all sleeping on one floor of an old building that was quite dingy. Given the parameters of our contract, there wasn’t much we could do about it. The pressure kept building. Relationships were strained. Emotions were high.
One morning Patti took me aside. Denise had been up all night scrubbing floors with a toothbrush, humming hymns. The other girls were spooked. Patti tried to comfort her, encouraging her to rest, but Denise was in a trance.
We agreed on a strategy to surround her with caring attention and monitor her behavior. It was good Patti was a school nurse and Priscilla a psych nurse. Between the two, they saw Denise was safe and the others were not impacted more than they had to be. Thankfully, Denise calmed down and rejoined the group.
About a year later I received word that Denise had taken her own life. She became so fixated with being clean that her mind convinced her death would be the only pure sacrifice acceptable to the LORD.
As I share this story, my hands shake. Was there something more we could have done? Should we have stopped her from going on this mission trip? Should we have taken her to a psych hospital where she might have gotten a diagnosis to prevent what would happen a year later? Should we have done some sort of spiritual intervention?
Yet, even with shaky hands, my mind says for certain that given the situation, there was nothing more to do. As much as we want someone to choose life, we can’t always prevent suicide. It is a tragedy and a truth that someone whose mind has betrayed them may take this extreme measure to stop the pain. It’s not your fault. IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT! Tell yourself that over and over again until it sinks in. And rest assured that nothing in life or in death separates us from the love of God in Christ, not even death by our own hands.
Studies show that suicide rates among young people have skyrocketed over the past decade. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15-24 year olds. If we are to offer hope, we need to share purpose. Our OFC trips did that. Youth engaged in meaningful missions alongside caring faithful adults. We did the best we could do.
Until there is a cure for mental illness, no amount of infused hope will be able to prevent suicide. In our actions, we can support scientific research toward this end. By faith, we carry and share the hope that life is worth living and that death is not the final word.