It seems in the work I do that I am surrounded by irony every day of my life. There’s the verbal irony in the words that hurting people say who are contemplating suicide. The one I hear often “It’s going to be OK.” and that may be true and the person in pain is hopeful and moving toward a positive outcome. But sometimes, it’s going to be OK is an attempt to throw others off on just how bad the pain is and the plan they have to end that pain, and on the other hand it is also a cry for help to those who have ears to hear and are alert to what the person is really saying.
Then there is dramatic or tragic irony. It’s the type of irony you see in the movies or in literature; when the audience is aware of something in the story that the characters are not aware of. Years ago, before I began the work of suicide intervention my second son had a good friend that I was concerned about, but I was not sure what to do. I was aware of the risk in this boy’s life; I could see the signs, but I was like a man reading a book or sitting in a theater. I saw what was coming, but was helpless to do anything about it. That young man died before he was 17 years old.
And this brings us to the third type of irony; situational irony; a discrepancy between what is expected to happen and what actually happens. I have seen this discrepancy often in others and in my own life. It’s a discrepancy that always leads us to a choice. When I was overwhelmed by the situations of life and thought the pain would end me it was through the intervention of my oldest son that I rediscovered all the reasons I had to live. The pain was the catylst that led me to my life purpose and in discovering my purpose my passion for life was restored.
Perhaps the greatest irony of suicide is that it does not end the pain; it simply transfers it to those left behind. For those who thought I was going to offer a theological perspective on the irony of Easter I am sorry to disappoint you. That can wait till another day.
My thoughts today are with the families of three soldiers who died by suicide Easter Sunday at Ft Bliss in 2014. I am thinking of the families of two 13 year old boys who died by suicide Easter 2015, one in my hometown; the other in Atlanta. My heart breaks today for the families of five soldiers who ended their lives last year in the Command I serve. If you are one who is reeling from the pain of loss please know that our thoughts and prayers are with you today. In the midst of your pain may you find comfort .
For those who want to make a difference – I encourage you to take the I WILL INTERVENE CHALLENGE and support the efforts of Armed Forces Mission. Together we can turn the tide on suicide.
God bless you and to the best of your ability enjoy this Easter weekend.
Until three years ago I never considered that I had Post-Traumatic Stress. But with help I have learned better. PTSD is not the exclusive domain of soldiers in war; it can happen to anyone. Mine was cumulative in nature. It began with fire and culminated with fire; with many emotional and financial fires in between. The first incident with fire occurred April 28, 1993 at 12:55. Sherry and I were eating lunch at McDonald’s while our two little boys were playing. Suddenly, a woman screamed “FIRE!” I looked up and saw that a car had collided with a gas tanker at the station next door. I told Sherry to get the boys, get in the van and GO. I ran to the scene, but the vehicle was already completely engulfed in flames and there was nothing I could do. Every store and office within a block was evacuated and we watched for several hours as each cell of the tanker exploded in a massive ball of fire.
Cumulative PTSD results from the accumulation of several events which alone are often benign, but overtime wear away at mental, emotional and spiritual resilience. As an Army Chaplain I am trained in Mass Casualty Triage, as are first responders, emergency rooms and various organizations. The community quickly rallies around those impacted by such events or the personal events of loss. But somehow we have misunderstood the impact of cumulative events overtime. Then we are bewildered when a friend ‘snaps’ over what we perceive to be rather insignificant.
Vicarious trauma can also have significant impact on individuals, especially care givers. Commonly referred to as compassion fatigue; vicarious trauma is typically cumulative in nature from the day in day out hearing of the stories of others. Vicarious trauma goes beyond “burnout” which can often be resolved by a week at the beach or some other get away. Vicarious trauma can have the same impact on the care giver as the one for whom they are caring. At the end of 2015, after an intense year that included 151 suicide interventions, hundreds of counseling sessions and the suicide of five soldiers I was completely exhausted. It was little wonder that one night on my way home from an intervention in Fayetteville, I had to pullover to the side of the road to figure out where I was. What was normally an easy drive home became an unnerving event.
Cumulative and vicarious trauma, as with PTSD in general, impacts upon the mental wellbeing; but it can impact the physical being as well. Left unaddressed it can be the silent killer. In the military we have annual physical and mental health assessments. All care givers do well to have other care givers in their lives that help with periodic check ups, be it a therapist, pastor, or MD. In the military it is often our battle buddy; someone whose got your back.
I am thankful to have an entire team that keeps me in check. If you are a care giver or you are in a highly stressful job such as law enforcement, the military, mental or physical health, who takes care of you? For that matter, regardless of your field, who do you have in your life that helps you take care of you? If the answer is “I don’t have anyone” then do something about it. Don’t assume that others will care when you are in pain. It’s not that others don’t care; it may simply be that they don’t know. The first person on your list of who takes care of you is YOU. Lead the way in seeking help for you and you will find the help you need. As the good book says, “Knock and the door will be opened. Seek and you will find.”
Much thanks to Fayetteville Fireman, Keith Harris for providing the photos
I first began providing chaplain care in the Fayette community more than 20 years ago, serving as the chaplain for the Fayetteville Fire Department shortly after putting together a fireman's appreciation day following the massive fire of a tanker truck just across the street from where my family and I were having lunch. When I began my real estate brokerage firm in 1991 I saw my role as being a broker/chaplain to the agents I served. It was a powerful way of validating the worth and value of every agent in the company. Across the nation organizations providing chaplain services for their employees experience greater productivity and loyalty, and those served experience greater job satisfaction. It was also in 1991 that I was commissioned into the US Army Chaplain Corps, and now have the honor of serving more than 7,500 soldiers as the family life chaplain for the 80th Training Command, US ARMY Reserves. In my role as the Executive Director of Armed Forces Mission I regularly work with veterans and others in crisis. In 2015 I conducted more than 150 suicide interventions; several of those being in the Fayette Community. Being an Army Chaplain, has given me a great appreciation and understanding of the stressful challenges faced by those in law enforcement that operate under a paramilitary structure.
As I write these words, I am here in Chicago training the LE community. Since arriving just five days ago, six officers have been killed in the line of duty and five others have been shot and wounded, across the nation. Needless to say, law enforcement is a stressful job. Even a good day can suddenly become a battlefield. As I prepare to head home tomorrow I look forward to implementing an AFM initiative to provide even more services and programs for our brave citizens in blue who protect and serve our community. We'll begin with Chaplain.care!
All of us have had experiences with bad timing. Sometimes it can be comical. I remember late on a Saturday afternoon eating a plate of my mom’s fresh turnip greens and rutabagas three hours before I was due to be the key note speaker at a conference. I cannot begin to describe to you; nor will I try; but folks, that was the worst case of really BAD timing I have ever experienced. You can probably also imagine that I spoke very briefly and very loudly that night.
Sometimes bad timing is not about what we do, where we’re at, or even what we eat. Sometimes bad timing is about what we say. Sometimes even a good word at a bad time doesn’t really sound like a good word. Such can be the case when we are trying to be an encouragement to those who are grieving.
As we approach Easter in this season of Lent I can’t help but be reminded that Easter is the most highly celebrated day in the Christian church; the single most important event upon which the entire Christian faith is grounded. This one event is so important that Paul told the Corinthians “if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless…it’s futile, it’s worthless; it’s empty. It’s in vain.” Speaking of timing, Paul said to the Romans, “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners.” I am also reminded of what Jesus said in John 8:32, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."
So to the point….We need to always take great care with the truth, especially the truth of the gospel when helping those who are grieving. Proverbs 15 tells us, “it is wonderful to say the right thing at the right time” and Proverbs 25 tells us that a good word in the right circumstances is like “apples of gold in baskets of silver.” But we are also reminded in Hebrews 4:12 that the truth is “Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow.” The fact is that sometimes our words of encouragement to those who are grieving can feel more like a sharp knife slicing the heart; rather than a golden nugget of comfort and peace. In times of grief the truth that we celebrate in the gospel can feel more like a prison than it does the truth that sets us free.
Recently, Sherry and I were eating lunch with dear friends who lost their son to suicide less than two months ago. They are in deep pain; the questions haunt them every moment of the day. Almost two hours into the visit, the father finally said, “Ken it’s not just the questions of why. I struggle with some people when they tell me God understands. I know that; but the biggest struggle is when they say God lost his son too.” He went on to say, “I hope this doesn’t come across as sacrilegious, but when I hear those words I want to respond, BUT GOD GOT HIS SON BACK AFTER THREE DAYS!” The mother interjected at that point, “I have read books on heaven. If heaven is as great as we believe it is, we should just all want to die right now.”
Some well-meaning Christians may be inclined to rebuttal this brokenhearted mom and dad with “Yes but we must see the bigger picture. God loves us, he doesn’t want us to hasten our own death simply to get to heaven, and besides one day you will see your son again.” In this instance and many like it, telling a grieving parent “God understands, He lost his son too” may likely be bad timing. The fact is, God’s son did return home three days later and is now sitting by his father’s side. In any other circumstances, perhaps an evangelism rally, such truth would be a good word, but in moment of inconceivable despair it’s probably not the most helpful good word one can share.
Rather than making those we are grieving the victims of our bad timing with our good words, we would do well to filter the truth that we share with a grieving person. This side of heaven their loved one will never sit by their side again. It’s little wonder that a grieving person may have thoughts of dying. The reality is, that even in the absence of grief, many people of faith long for heaven as they age; the apostle Paul was one. I am not ashamed to say that I am one too. With each new day I feel more and more like a stranger in this world. This is not my home.
Many people worry about what to say to those in deep grief and therefore they refrain from saying anything at all; some may even avoid the grieving person altogether. This couple, like many others, has felt the alienation that often goes with grief, especially when the loss is from suicide. I certainly don’t want would-be caregivers to be filled with fear that they may say the wrong thing. I am simply suggesting that we need to filter our words and be aware of how our words are perceived.
Filtering the truth of the gospel in no way diminishes the truth. If we understand that truth is one of the attributes of the glory of God; we need to also understand that the glory of God is overwhelming; the Bible says, “All consuming.” In other words, we cannot begin to comprehend the fullness of truth even on our best days; much less those days when we are utterly broken with grief.
Certainly in our grief we can turn to God's Word for comfort, but times of great grief are likely not the best circumstances for in-depth theological exegesis (critical explanations or interpretations of scripture). King David in his loss said, “I am dying from grief; my years are shortened by sadness.” The only thing David could comprehend at that moment was his great loss.
So what can we say or do for those in great grief? Sometimes just being there is all that is needed. There is a ministry that takes place in simply being present. When my dad died I was 26 years old. I was trying desperately to be strong, to be the man of the family. My uncle walked with me out to the barn and wrapped his arms around me and said, “Let it out.” I wept on his shoulders for several minutes. It was an important lesson that I learned years before I earned a doctorate in counseling; and one that I have passed on to others many times. Real men do cry!
Over the years I have heard many incredible stories of pain. There have been many times when I have had to say, “I wish I had the right words to say, but I want you to know I care. I am here for you.” Does that in any way discount the gospel? It may to some, but not in my mind. Solomon (considered the wisest man that ever lived) said, “There is a time for everything.”
I have seen over and over that by filtering the truth in times of grief the day comes when those who grieve are ready for greater revelations of truth. Paul told the Corinthians, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory (the Lord’s truth), are being transformed…” It is never the caregiver’s task to transform or minimize an individual’s grief by the words that we say. Such task is way above my pay-grade and yours. The veil of grief has a purpose. Seeing beyond the veil is a unique experience for every grieving person. Through love, care and respect for the grief of others caregivers demonstrate without words the truth that the brokenhearted are not alone. This is perhaps the first stepping stone in rediscovering hope and a vision for the future.
My passion IN life is passion FOR life. It was only discovered through darkness and pain, not pleasure and ease. The seeking of a life of pleasure and ease is no life at all because it is unsustainable. We may have days of overwhelming elation for which we can be thankful, but it is in the difficulties that we find strength. It is there that we discover who we were meant to be.
There was a time when I wondered about Psalm 34, "O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together." Is God so small that He can only be seen under magnification? Not at all. It is because our eyes are so weak. Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system, but we need to magnify it to see it more clearly. So it is that it is only through great difficulty that we see God.