I was presented with many difficult questions in the wake of Sam’s death. Single plot or double? How would you like the obituary to read? Did you have any clue he was in so much pain? Will you stay in the house? What are you going to tell the children? Are you going to change your name? And, of course, the ubiquitous Why?
But the hardest questions come from the children. Usually at bedtime, when it’s dark (in both the physical and metaphorical sense), and we are tired and vulnerable. This is also the time when the world recedes to the background, and we settle into our own space, reflect and breathe. “Mommy,” the little boy asks, looking at me from his father’s brown eyes, “Do you think that if Daddy had loved me more, he wouldn’t have committed suicide?” And then, “Mommy, is Daddy in heaven?”
On the one hand, I feel wholly unqualified to answer these questions. Parenting books and several diplomas did not prepare me for this discussion. Complicated enough for a master’s thesis, but with a six-year old audience. On the other hand, the platitudes and sometimes hurtful responses that we hear in our daily walk are not what I want to feed my kids. I’m not a trained theologian, I’m just a mom. But I do love my sons, and I understand their sensitivities, and maybe these are all the credentials I need to provide honest, thoughtful answers (or at a minimum, a compassionate response) to questions that young children should not ever have to contemplate.
I put aside my own bitterness at life’s unfairness and my resentment toward the kid who told my little boy that his father didn’t love him enough and that people who commit suicide automatically go straight to hell. We snuggle under a blanket, and together my son and I unravel the hard questions.
I inhale slowly and start with what I know.
I know your father loved you with every fiber of his being. You are his delight, his defining moment, his compass. Your daddy was kind and smart and helpful and honest and funny and hard-working and faithful and everything that good people are supposed to be. If, by loving more, Sam could have fended off the Angel of Death, he would have. There is no doubt in my mind on this point. Unfortunately, love is not the deciding factor here. This is hard for me to say out loud, because I really do believe in the power of love to restore, heal and redeem. But love is not enough to stop the cancer from spreading, love alone does not preclude all suffering, and love does not stop death from knocking on the door. Love does not stop good men from dying, it does not keep little boys’ hearts from breaking. Or an adult man’s heart either.
Oh and there’s this, too, based primarily on my experience in the local Urgent Care (and yes, with four sons, this is not an insignificant investment of time). Every part of the human physiology is geared for self-preservation. From the moment an injury occurs, the body begins the healing process. It is no small miracle. Suicidal thoughts and actions are not signs of a normal, healthy human biology; there must be some kind of hormonal, chemical or psychological imbalance. Daddy had to have been sick. Clearly, he was not himself. And isn’t the anguish of depression and suicidal brooding hell enough? If he can be faulted for making a mistake, his mistake was that he didn’t ask for help. But he was a human being, in a human body, with a human mind. The combination of which has been known to result in mistakes.
I cannot believe that a loving God (and I do believe in a loving God) would punish us for being sick (or by making us sick), and furthermore God forgives us for making mistakes. Here’s the thing. I’m a pretty good mother, but I’m not perfect. My children get sick and my children make mistakes and even I — in my imperfect, glitchy state — still love them. I have to believe that God is a more loving parent than I am. At least, I hope so.
So, no. I do not believe that if he had loved you more, he would have stayed. He loved you with all that he had, and he is gone anyway. And yes, yes, yes, I tell my heartbroken little boy, your father is indeed in heaven.
For added theological support, I run the question by our family priest (who also holds a degree in psychology), and he said yes, too. In fact, he added that “God is all the more merciful at such a tragic moment. This is mercy. This is our God.”
To which my son and I both say Amen.
Of course, I might have exercised my maternal discretion to edit the good Father’s version if he had drawn a different conclusion. Believe me, the visual I have created for myself of my late Jewish husband hanging out with St. Peter brings me great joy.
As a mother to grieving children, I do my best to provide authentic answers to all of their difficult questions, and to honor each boy’s unique healing journey.
At times, my words spill out naturally, without conscious thought, and yet I recognize their truth. When the policemen were still in my house, having just delivered the news of Sam’s death, I heard myself saying, with one child tucked under each of my arms, in a clear, unwavering voice, “Your father’s love for you will protect you for your entire lives.” I had not previously considered this idea. After all, I had known I was widowed for about 17 minutes, but in the moment I heard those words coming out of my own mouth, I knew them to be true.
And there are times, when the most accurate truth I can speak is, “I don’t know.” But I will think about it. I will read about it. I might even ask a professional about it. Most importantly, the boys and I will stumble forward in the darkness of not-knowing, and together we will live our way to the answer. We find our own way through this uncharted territory. In this place, we discover that love’s true strength lies in the power of its presence. Love’s tender presence, even in the absence of fairness, logic and understanding. And we become aware that not only my love, but Sam’s love for his children is with them still.
Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the voice to answer life’s hard questions.