I would have fainted, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. (Psalm 27:13)
On December 9, 2014, I found my wife dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
On December 20, 2014, a minister’s words, as my sister said, “took the elephant out of the room.” Prior to the start of Clarissa’s memorial service, the first four friends I met in the church entryway asked, “what happened?” After all, she was only 56 years old, in apparent good health, and in their memories, a vibrant, beautiful, bright, talented, outgoing woman. No one who asked was aware of her longstanding battle with alcoholism, depression and although we remained married, the subsequent estrangement during the past two years.
“She took her life,” I replied four times, and it felt like my shoulders slumped another inch or two with each response. God, and a call for a short family gathering prior to entering the sanctuary, rescued me from probable collapse.
Suicide, to this point, was a subject only whispered among immediate family and friends or perhaps gossiped about by others, but seldom, if ever, addressed in a Scandinavian Lutheran church in the Upper Midwest. The previous day, a visiting pastor, who was my friend and Clarissa’s boss in her previous profession as Dean of Students at the University of South Dakota, was urged by other family members not to address suicide in her sermon the following day. At that point, I walked Jean to her vehicle.
“Steve, I’ve got to talk about suicide,” she said.
“I know you do. You and the Lord will figure it out,” I replied.
They did, indeed. I am sharing some of Pastor Jean Morrow’s words below.
“Just a little over two weeks ago, no one could have predicted that we would be here this afternoon. But we are here…and this we know…on this we can agree: life is so very fragile. When you stop and pay attention, it can seem as though everything around us makes life dangerous. Sometimes the things that endanger us the most are sneaky and unimaginable.
A sudden heart attack from lingering heart disease catches us off guard. An ever-so-slight moment of inattention while driving can cause disaster. For Clarissa, it was likely a moment of despair associated with the sometimes fatal illness of alcoholism that caught us all by surprise. This illness caused ups and downs and unpredictability for Clarissa. It also caused those same ups and downs and unpredictability for those who knew and loved her best. Though she took her own life, we know it was the darkness of alcoholism and the despair it brings that led to her final moments.
It is impossible to know the kind of darkness Clarissa lived with. She hid much of it…except, perhaps from those who were closest to her. It seems to be human nature to look for explanations…to try to make her death make sense…and so we grab at any reasonable logic to figure it all out. But there is a big problem with that. This sometimes fatal illness of alcoholism changes how we think and turns rational logical problem solving upside down…which means that there are going to be no real answers to our biggest questions about Clarissa’s death…and we either have to live with that or we have to make things up.
Yes, you heard me right. Our choice in coming to grips with Clarissa’s sudden death is to either live with the reality that we will never have some real answers or we make things up. Without realizing it, each of us here may have been making some things up already.
Resist, my friends. Please resist the temptation of making assumptions and filling in the blanks. When you find yourself beginning to speculate, stop and remind yourself that sometimes we have to accept that we don’t have the answers. And when you find yourself filling in the blanks…again, stop…then remind yourself that we don’t have the answers…and we may never have the answers.
If you’ve been feeling guilty or questioning what you could have done to help Clarissa more, that’s quite normal. The problem is that you either have to accept that you will never have any real answers or you will make things up and will then have to bear the ongoing weight of guilt. Please know that you did the best you could. Clarissa didn’t die because you failed. Clarissa died because of this sometimes fatal illness of alcoholism. Please hear me. You did the best you could. Clarissa didn’t die because you didn’t do enough. Any guilt you have is the result of you making things up and changing the truth. Please don’t do that.
The sometimes fatal illness of alcoholism leaves more questions than answers. And though it is challenging, we must work to accept that many of our questions will never be answered.
Over and over again this past couple of weeks I’ve been remembering times with Clarissa…and this too I know…knowing and loving Clarissa has shaped who we are.
Knowing and loving Clarissa has helped to shape who you are. It would be impossible for me to summarize who Clarissa was in your life. But, that is your job… the work of your heart in the coming days and weeks and months…remembering who Clarissa was and how she shaped your life. If at all possible…by phone, in person, texting, emailing…if at all possible, share your stories. Let them lead you to big grins, tears, amazement, sadness, nostalgia and even laughter. I dare say, you will discover something about yourself and something about Clarissa as you share your stories. And as you listen, be grateful…be especially grateful to God for placing Clarissa in your life.
We know Clarissa was a person of faith. She was confirmed in this very church. As a confirmation kid, I’m fairly confident she heard and knew these words from Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 8:
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? It is Christ Jesus who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? No…for I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Did you notice there were no exceptions? The passage doesn’t say…well, except those who take their own lives. And, I can assure you, there are no footnotes in this passage…but I’d encourage you to look for yourselves if you don’t believe me. It reads quite simply “nothing”…I repeat “nothing…can separate us from the love of God we know through Christ Jesus.” (Jean’s words end here)
After the service, Clarissa’s cousin – whose father had committed suicide 26 years earlier – introduced herself and said, “For the first time in 26 years, I have closure.”
Nearly three years after Clarissa’s death, I have not gotten over my grief, but through the love of God, family, friends and grace through faith, I am getting through my grief. Certain times of the year bring highs and lows, the lows on her birthday, anniversary of her death, and holidays. I have found strength, peace and reassurance in the scriptures, notably Psalm 121, most fitting for this beautiful region of West Texas. I lift my eyes to the hills, from whence does my help come. My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 121: 1-2)
Stephen Lang is Director of News and Publications at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas. He has become a supporter of Warriors for God Ministries and attends church at First Assembly of God. He enjoys traveling and hunting and spending time with his children and grandchildren.