Editors’ Note: Darla Isackson’s son, Brian, committed suicide on September 27, 2004. Her insights on the gospel perspectives she received after the death of her son appeared as a powerful Meridian article. Her continuing struggle with grief emphasizes that even in life’s darkest moments, there is comfort in the knowledge that God is there.
My friend, Mary Smith, beautifully put into words what I have been experiencing in the weeks since the death of my son: “Grief is like the ocean – calm and peaceful, and then a wave starts to rise [higher and higher until it] breaks over one like a tsunami. The pain, the self-examination, the doubt, the tears all begin again. The wave subsides and so does the power of the grief until the next time. However, each wave gets a tiny bit smaller and the time between waves grows longer until one day you realize you have gone an hour and then two between the pain and the promise.” What is the promise Mary speaks of? I believe it is the power of the Comforter, the light of truth, the power of soul growth.
I was knocked flat by another wave the other night and thought I would never stop crying. But tears are healing; when I can’t cry the pain is much worse – especially in the wee hours of the night when I awaken and feel the need to remind myself that all this has really happened.
Questions flood my mind. Where is Brian now? Can he see my grief? Does he feel my love? Does he know of the huge hole in our family that his passing has made? Can I ever feel complete again in this life? I don’t have a recording of his voice. Will I forget how he sounded? How can I know for sure that he is okay? What is it like for him over there? What kind of experiences is he having? Are my mom and dad and brother with him? Was he immediately open to the comfort and help offered him or did he resist it as he did so many times here? Will he recognize the gospel truths and feel peace and forgiveness quickly or over a long period? Can he hear the voice of testimony from my heart? Will he listen to it now? Surely teachers on the Other Side know far better than I ever have how to share the precious truths of life and salvation. Will my continued prayers for him help open his heart to these truths?
Trusting God’s Infinite Care
Many of my questions cannot be answered any time soon. I must trust God with my son. Why should that be hard? If Brian were my stewardship over there I would shower him with the most tender care and give him every opportunity to learn and grow. God’s capacities to love and understand and succor are not limited, but infinite. So why should I doubt that God will extend his love to Brian and help him in every way to progress and learn from this hard experience? An early Christian writer, Hannah Whitall Smith spoke of trusting God’s care for us in mortality. I think her words apply even more to his care on the Other Side. She said, “I am afraid there are some, even of God’s own children, who scarcely think that He is equal to themselves in tenderness, and love, and thoughtful care; and who, in their secret thoughts, charge Him with a neglect and indifference of which they would feel themselves incapable. The truth really is that His care is infinitely superior to any possibilities of human care; and that He, who counts the very hairs of our heads, and suffers not a sparrow to fall without Him, takes note of the minutest matters that can affect the lives of His children ….“ (The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, p. 152, Fleming H. Revell, 1952) Brian is now totally in God’s stewardship. I have to remember moment by moment to trust him to God’s care.
The Lord Succors Us
The comfort keeps coming; the answers become more clear. I spoke with a friend this week. I had known her only as a fine writer, a woman of great insight. I learned that her mother and her brother had both committed suicide. She spoke matter-of-factly, with words something like, “Of course your son is being given every possible opportunity to learn and progress. Of course he is being loved and healed. Why wouldn’t he be, considering all we know about God’s love and mercy?” And I thought, of course. It is so simple, so sure. I believe it all; oh Lord help thou my unbelief in moments when I doubt and fall into fear for Brian.
The Lord’s whole work is to succor and teach his children to bring about their immortality and eternal life. D&C 62:1 says, “Behold and hearken … saith the Lord your God, even Jesus Christ, your advocate, who knoweth the weakness of man and how to succor them who are tempted.” Jesus is Brian’s advocate. He knows how to succor us here; how much more so there? D&C 18:10-13 says, “Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God; For, behold, the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; wherefore he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him. And he hath risen again from the dead, that he might bring all men unto him, on conditions of repentance. And how great is his joy is in the soul that repenteth!” The worth of Brian’s soul is great in the sight of God. He is included in the “all men” that Jesus suffered for, and I have great hope that my son is this moment being given the invitation to “come unto him.”
I Can Choose How to Respond
I was given a booklet called My Peace I Give Unto You by Hyrum W. Smith (Covenant Communications, 2004). This is a written copy of a talk he had given at the funeral of a friend who committed suicide. Brother Smith told of an admiral named Stockdale who spent about six years at the “Hanoi Hilton” as a prisoner of war. Stockdale documented three responses to that terrible trial:
- The pessimists saw the brutal facts, gave up and died, even though their bodies may have been healthy.
- The optimists had boundless faith and ignored the brutal facts. They believed every rustle in the bush was marines coming to save them and that they would soon be on their way home. When that did not happen, they too gave up and died.
- The realists faced the brutal facts, but had faith they could be dealt with. They accepted the improbability of rescue any time soon and banded together determined to survive anyway.
Brother Smith indicated that in the aftermath of tragedy we all have the same three choices: to be a pessimist and die inside, to be an optimist (put on a smiley face, pretend it didn’t happen, live a lie), and eventually crash. Or we can be realists. We can accept what has happened, gather our support systems, turn to the Lord, learn what He has for us to learn, have faith that we can make it through, and choose to live.
Rejecting the Myths; Clinging to Truth
I have to be a realist. I cannot ignore the facts in regard to my son’s death or pretend it didn’t happen. In the aftermath of suicide I have yearned to know what the reality is in regard to my son’s current status. Hyrum Smith said, referring to his friend who had committed suicide, “Will the Lord allow Lowell to repent? Every natural instinct in your body knows the answer to that question: Of course! … There’s a myth that floats around the Church from time to time. It suggests that people who take their lives have committed an unpardonable sin. I’m here to tell you today that’s just flat out not true.” (My Peace I Give Unto You, p. 5)
I was given a copy of a personal letter to one whose friend had committed suicide. It was written by Elder Mark E. Peterson, who said, “It is certainly unfortunate when people give the impression that a [person who commits] suicide is necessarily damned and that suicide is next to murder in the eyes of God. I have not been able to find any doctrine like that in our Church. It is the understanding that I have always had that the Brethren regarded a person committing suicide as … not in possession of their true faculties.”
The letter continues, “I talked one time in the funeral of a good friend of mine who committed suicide and I told the congregation there that I believed this individual died of an illness, mental illness … People are no more responsible for mental illness than they are for catching Typhoid or some other serious physical ailment …. We all know that God is loving and kind and just, and surely He will take into consideration all the circumstances.”
In my previous article, “Seeking Gospel Perspectives,” I quoted from M. Russell Ballard’s booklet on Suicide; he spoke to this same subject. I also quoted a Brother St. Clair, who taught about the compensatory nature of the Atonement and his vision of a young suicide victim in the comforting arms of the Savior. So I believe being a realist on this subject means accepting that my son is even now being tenderly instructed in regard to the course he must pursue to access the Atonement in his behalf.
On the flip side, I do not accept the myth that death brings instant peace to those who take their own lives (or those who die with unrepented sins of any kind.) Death does not sweep away accountability – though only the Lord knows all the factors that determine degree of accountability for any action (genetics, brain chemistry, knowledge of the truth, etc.) Death does not sweep away consequences or memory of choices made in mortality.
Joyce Brown, in her book Heavenly Answers to Earthly Questions, recounted her near-death experience of seeing the regret and anguish of several who had committed suicide, and how much they recognized in retrospect the value of each moment on earth, the blessings of having a body, and how much better it would have been to stay the course, fight the good fight, finish the race. The experience dissuaded her from suicide and set her on a lifelong quest to help people value life! Hyrum Smith suggested that his friend was suffering deep anguish over his choice to end his own life and all the sorrow that had caused his loved ones, but that the anguish would be temporary, that the Lord would walk him through it, help him repair that mistake. (My Peace I Give Unto You, p. 5)
Practices That Help in the Healing Process
A few years ago I worked on a book with Barry Richards, a clinical psychologist. The book was called, Sudden Trauma! When Life Will Never Be the Same Again: Revolutionary Principles for Healing Emotional Wounds. Two of the practices Richards taught his clients who were attempting to recover from traumatic experiences have especially helped me these past few weeks.
The first, Hour of Power, suggests I start my day with an hour devoted to scripture study, prayer, and exercise. I must admit I’m spending little of that hour on physical exercise right now; my need for spiritual exercise is so intense. I approach the scriptures like a starving man approaches a banquet table. No casual snacking now; I voraciously gulp verse after verse, needing so much the nourishing words, the edifying spirit of the scriptures. The scriptures are truly filled with the bread of life, the fountain of living waters. I also approach my prayers with an intensity I’ve rarely experienced. I feel my need for the Lord’s help so deeply.
The second practice Richards calls the M&Ms of Thought Empowerment. The M’s stand for: Minimize the frequency and intensity of unwanted and intrusive thoughts and Maximize the potential for positive recovery from trauma by filling the mind with uplifting thoughts, memorized scripture verses, hymns, etc. I’ve never been so aware of the power of my choice of thoughts.
A friend recently sent me some of his breathtaking photos to cheer me up. It occurred to me that each photo is a choice to focus on a specific image, when there are an infinite number of possibilities. All of life is like that. The photo in my mind each instant depends on what I choose to focus the lens of my mind on. And since I can focus on only one image at a time, that focus is a true test of my character.
Over and over I experience the difference of choosing to stay in the dark when I focus on the sad parts of Brian’s life and the bleak facts of his death, or break through to the light of spiritual possibilities: of the assurance I have that my son is being comforted, wrapped in the arms of safety, loved in a boundless and incomprehensible way – that in this atmosphere of pure and perfect love he is being taught gospel principles, being given every opportunity to repent and progress as rapidly as his soul desires and is ready to accept, that he finally knows that his strengths count, that his existence has a purpose and he can yet fulfill that purpose.
I know now as well as I know anything, that sorrow over Brian’s death is inevitable (and cleansing), but misery is optional and depends on where I choose to focus my thoughts. Each time the sad thoughts threaten to drown me I have a choice – to focus on the pain or turn my thoughts to hope. In the middle of the night, changing that focus restores my peace and helps me get back to sleep. (I also received a physical hint for getting back to sleep – a nutritious snack, such as a half slice of whole grain toast, tends to pull the blood from the brain to the stomach and decrease the “racing brain” problem.)
God’s Love and Purposes Will Prevail
I have received many helpful e-mails and phone calls from those who have lost a loved one to suicide or been suicidal themselves.
I said to one friend who has more than once experienced suicidal depression, “How could Brian have had the courage to go through with it?” She said, “You have it backwards; when you feel that bad, you don’t have the courage to go on living.” These friends have helped me understand the tormented thoughts of a suicidal person, and how the adversary always tells them that their loved ones would be better off without them. The adversary wins only one battle when a beloved child of God listens to that siren call; I have full faith that the Savior will yet prevail and win the WAR.
The adversary is ever out to destroy the lives of men; but, as Hannah Whitall reminds us, God always brings good from evil, turning even the mistakes of mortals into vehicles to bring about His purposes. She says, “The instances of this are numberless. Take Joseph. What could have seemed more apparently on the face of it to be the result of sin, and utterly contrary to the will of God, than the action of his brethren in selling him into slavery? And yet Joseph, in speaking of it said, ‘As for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good …. Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life.’ It was undoubtedly sin in Joseph’s brethren, but by the time it had reached Joseph it had become God’s will for him, and was, in truth, though he did not see it then, the greatest blessing of his whole life.
And thus we see how God can take even ‘the wrath of man to praise Him,’ and how all things, even the sins of others, ‘shall work together for good to them that love him.’ (The Christian’s Secret, p. 152-153) The Lord is truly our shepherd here and there. He will lead us beside the still waters, restore our souls. We can trust ourselves to his loving care here and on the Other Side. Good always prevails – eventually. Light always prevails over darkness. All the darkness of a black night cannot flood a lighted room, yet one tiny candle can dispel much darkness.
The Veil is Thin
Sherry Hansen e-mailed me, “As a mother who has just gone through the 4th anniversary of a son’s untimely death … I can tell you many things …. I know for a fact that he is doing oh so much more than one could imagine for [his] family on this side of the veil. I cannot tell you the blessings which come to our family through his hands working on the other side …. As it is written in the booklet you quoted, the ones who pass on do have to work and work hard, but after they gain their knowledge and have started the repentance process they [may even be] allowed to visit. I know that Heavenly Father and Mother both have special places in their hearts for those [of us] who are left. That is why we are given these special experiences to ease our terror, suffering and our sense of emptiness – the coulda’, shoulda, woulda syndrome, as I call it. The Veil is thin, I testify of this. Oh the sweet gospel peace, the knowledge that they are there with us, beside us and watching over us. Knowing that when my house is quiet, and being home alone and just listening, I can feel his spirit give me a hug.”
Another mother, who had also lost a son, e-mailed me, “I discovered as you have, that through the pain of it all, the Lord does walk with us. He will continue to help you each step of the way. There are rich spiritual experiences that come from having a child on the other side of the veil. The veil becomes very thin. To this I can bear strong witness. There are things you learn from experiences like these that we can learn no other way.”
My friend Mary suggested that one of the things we learn is “that the Savior is exactly that, a savior of your sanity, a savior of your faith.” He is saving me, and I know He will save each person who comes to Him with faith that He lives, faith that He loves us.
God Shall Wipe Away All Tears
In spite of all the comfort, all the reassurance, it still hurts like a knife in my heart to know my son won’t ever be coming through my door again in mortality. A friend who lost her son last year e-mailed me: “One of the things I have learned is to be patient with yourself as you go through the grieving process. It is like an emotional roller coaster at times – a long and difficult process trying to sort through all of the emotions of each stage of the grieving process. I found that even with faith it is difficult. While spiritually you know where your loved one is, your mortal self misses their physical presence so much.” My daughter-in-law said that her worst sadness is knowing she will never see my face light up as it always did when Brian actually came to a family gathering. I have craved his presence for so many years, and didn’t get nearly enough of it. I will continue to have a moment-by-moment challenge to cope, to reach out to the Lord for strength and understanding. But I will say with Nephi, “Nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted,” and pray each day for the strength to keep trusting. “Blessed is he . . . Whose hope is in the Lord his God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them – the Lord who remains faithful forever.” (Psalms 146: 5, 6)
I love the scripture, “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there by any more pain” (Revelation 21:4). Where there was sorrow, there will be comfort, where there was pain, there will be strength. Where there was darkness, there will be light and love. All the scripture promises cradle my heart with the gentle warmth of heaven’s embrace. What a glorious future we all have to look forward to!
Note: for more information about the book Sudden Trauma! When Life Will Never Be the Same Again: Revolutionary Principles for Healing Emotional Wounds go to www.rosehavenpublishing.com.