In March of 1999, I thought that I had been permanently damaged, hurt, and scarred by the death of my nephew, Michael “Ito” Otto. He had died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He was 17. He was loved and cared for, had friends, a sense of humor, interests, a car, and just about everything a kid could want. He spent most of his time at my parents’ house, living there as his mother had worked lots of evenings and overnight shifts. Then one day he disappeared, and about 36 hours later as I sat anxiously with my aging parents, the Sheriff drove up and we learned that his body was found on an isolated county road near Crescent, Iowa. For about 5 days, my mind experienced a spinning and whirling sensation. My heart actually ached and my stomach was sick. The pain was worsened seeing my 83 year-old father weakened by pain, shaking and trembling, sobbing like I had never seen before. My mother looked sad and shocked, all at once. Years passed, I found myself still crying at the thought of Ito wanting to leave us, and wanting to die.
In my memory, the event was marked as chaos— spinning, whirling, alone… thousands of questions unanswered, outpouring of love and kindness that only served to remind me that Ito was dead. The day after his burial and graveside service was Easter. Easter would forever be darkened by this event. I again remember seeing my father cry, head down, in the back of the church for the Easter service. People looked at us with pity. My father and mother never sat in the back of the church.
I don’t remember what exactly the minister said during this time. Little was helpful and the shame and horror my parents felt at the loss of their dear grandson was never acknowledged. The guilt we all felt was never relieved.
Several years later my 7th grade daughter told me that the pastor said in catechism class that people who commit suicide do not go to Heaven. Two years later my youngest daughter, then in 7th grade catechism, gave me the same report. I could now add anger to my list of unresolved feelings.
Late October 2014, my husband informs me that his brother called and said that their 18 year-old son had disappeared and did not know what had happened and no idea where he was. All the fear, sadness, hurt, and pain re-emerged. I was truly scared for Jason, worried, thinking of the agonizing that his parents were experiencing. But, I was also experiencing undigested bits of the memories of Ito, all still stuck in my gut and brain.
Months pass, and on a Wednesday night in July, at 10:00 p.m., my husband got a call on his phone. He was exhausted from working overtime. He didn’t want to get it and I insisted. His brother was calling to say Jason’s body had been found on the West Slope of the Colorado Rockies. A hiker found his remains. Eight and a half months of waiting, wondering anxiously, half hoping that Jason was living it up on a beach in California and now, realization that he was dead. He was not partying on a beach with friends. He had been gone a long time.
I dreaded the funeral. On the morning of the funeral, a dear friend of mine shared her experience, years earlier, with her mother in laws funeral, following her suicide. She said “it was horrible” and “you wouldn’t believe the horrible things that were said at her funeral”. Apparently the grieving family had been told that she was not going to Heaven, as she had taken her own life. I dreaded the funeral even more.
At the church, the family gathered around each other. There was a supportive atmosphere and people cried, smiled, sobbed, and laughed. The priest, Father John, gave a message that grabbed my attention when he referred to Jason’s time of disappearance as the crucifixion and the waiting period while he had disappeared was the time spent in the tomb. The priest described his funeral as Easter, as his soul was being lifted or released to Heaven. I immediately remembered Easter, 1999, the dreadful, dark experience with people looking at me and my family with pity.
At the funeral for dear Jason, I was anticipating a bad scene; a mourning family and friends spending time in purgatory both during the funeral and for years after. What turned out was that a most amazing priest told the family and friends that Jason left, was in Heaven with God, and that Jason is fine. He also said directly to the family and friends, “Stop feeling guilt,” there was nothing that any of you could have done to change these events. The crying and sobbing was audible, and distinctly a heartfelt sense of relief and beauty for those feeling sadness and pain at the realization that this beautiful young man, full of potential was now gone.
For me, the funeral of Jason had been transforming. He was with God, deserving and worthy of eternal life. And, I felt that the weight of life without Michael was lifted. I was free to think of him as being with God, in Heaven, and that I too could have done nothing to prevent his leaving. The years of unfinished pain had been released, all with the kind compassionate, loving, Christ-like work of a Priest.
As we all learn in the passing of those we love, life goes on. We trudge ahead, some days darker than others. But we learn to go on with the noted absence. The way we respond to suicide effects how we heal. If we avoid, shame, and invoke images of hell, we live that. If we embrace, love, show courage, and believe that our loved one is with God, we live that as well.