Recently, I was engaged in conversation with a well-known public figure that had obviously done his homework on Armed Forces Mission. As I shared our mission and goals he quickly, cut me off saying, “I know what you do, I got that, but who are you?” It was actually a rather refreshing question. After all, when was the last time someone asked, “Yes, but who are you?” It was refreshing not only because I was prepared to respond, but because it is a question that I often ask of others that are struggling on the edge of the abyss between life and death. While I know there are many circumstances that create risk of suicide, I am also convinced that one of the fundamental issues is often a crisis of identity. Thus, the reason I often ask others, “Who are you?” Everything we think, say, and do is somehow related to identity.
Most the time we focus on the “do” part of that last sentence. Men are especially notorious for doing so. We find ourselves in a group of men we don’t know; and the question is inevitably asked, “So, what do you do?” The question may be a sincere desire to learn, relate and build a friendship; yet many men, would acknowledge that it is often a question of stealth to quickly ascertain perceived value; our place in the food chain. Perhaps women do the same, but I can only speak as a man.
Many of the veterans I work with struggle over this issue that in their mind, what they are doing now, is not as important as what they used to do. Adding to the issue is the fact that often there is a lack of harmony or congruence between the three – THINK SAY DO. We say one thing and do another; or we say we want to change – we want to be a better husband, wife, parent, employee, but we continue to ruminate on negativity and failure. Where is the harmony?
As the conversation with the celebrity continued it became clear that he was at odds with a certain element of society that perpetuates an ongoing sense of brokenness and entitlement. He made it clear too that he was not interested in being part of any organization that fosters the idea that veterans are broken people. Was that a personal challenge? Sure it was. But I assured him that was not who we are and it is certainly not who I am. I may be a chaplain, but for good or bad, I’m not a softy or a pushover and I am not a broken veteran. However, I do work with broken veterans every day and the fact of the matter is that veterans take their lives at a rate two to three times more than those who have never served. So, there is a problem, whether we want to admit it or not.
I am very much aware that there is a certain unavoidable tension in the work that we do at AFM. It is a tension that I personally must deal with every day in my life. I accepted the celebrity’s challenge because it gave me pause to think about the congruence of my own THINK SAY DO. So, for the sake of those who want more information than simply knowing about my mission, I share my own personal beliefs. Knowing my Board at AFM as I think I do, I would have to believe that the majority would also say the following is consistent with the heart of the AFM organization. I suppose you could call what follows - a Chaplain’s Manifesto.
When we talk about veteran suicide, we are simply stating facts. This is the real world that we live in. We don’t do so as a bleeding-heart organization spouting sob stories intended to elicit a sympathy that perpetuates the never-ending cycle of brokenness and despair. That’s not who I am and that is not what AFM is about even though we deal with broken people every day.
Our vision statement is clear. “AFM is a Veteran led and Community supported organization focused on the elimination of suicide in our community.” We are veteran led – We are leaders; we operate from the position of strength. Our vision informs our mission and that is to build resilience and restore hope. You can’t do either by staying broken and filled with despair.
When I share the reality that 8,000 veterans a year take their own lives, I am not looking for sympathy. Rather I am seeking to rally courageous battle buddies who willingly engage in the battle to save lives. Such battle buddies may be fellow veterans or compassionate civilians that want to make a difference. And believe me when I say You Can Make a Difference! The fact is that after more than 600 suicide interventions, everyone that I have worked with is still alive. Their hope is being restored. University research out of Berkly reveals a similar result.
When individuals at risk have someone who intervenes in time of crisis there is a tremendously reduced risk of suicide. In one study, 94% of individuals who were stopped from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge during a 40 year period are still alive or died of natural causes, not suicide. In every workshop, I teach participants that suicide is not about people wanting to die so much as it is about hurting people not knowing how to live anymore. Intervention demonstrates to the hurting person that someone cares and that knowledge is the first step in rediscovering hope and the courage to reengage in life. When I share the stories of hurting people it as much for the person who can help as it is the one who needs help. We will continue to do what we do regardless of who is willing to help, but we could accomplish the mission so much faster with battle buddies willing to take the training that saves lives.
Psalms 84:7 reads, “They go from strength to strength…” The context is important. They were in the Valley of Weeping, but they turned the dark and heavy place into a place of flowing springs and life. They refused to allow their circumstance to define them. When we allow circumstances to define us the outcome will always be a crisis of identity. We will never find resilience or be able to hold on to hope. We will always be at risk; subject to another round of brokenness and despair when circumstance defines our identity.
Look, I get it. Circumstances cannot help but influence us, but they do not have to define us. Too many people allow their circumstances to become their identity. From my own experience I have learned that those events in life which have most shaped me, most influenced me have been the breaking events of life. It is not the times when I am sitting on the mountain enjoying the view, but when I am down in the valley, and things appear hopeless. Those are the events that have most shaped my life and strengthened my soul. But the suffering itself is not my identity it is only the means of rediscovering my identity. It is the means of moving from strength to strength. Strength begets strength, courage begets courage. It is only through challenge that we discover this truth.
Nearly three years after the Bataan Death March a mission was embarked upon on January 30, 1945 to liberate more than 500 POWs that remained in the prison camp at Cabanatuan in the Philippines. At its peak more than 8,000 American POWs had been held there. With the enemy realizing defeat was near, there was fear that these POWs would soon be executed just as hundreds had been in December at Palawan.
LTC Henry Mucci, Commander of the 6th Ranger Battalion was tasked to lead 121 Rangers in the liberation. In advancing to the camp the Rangers evaded more than 1000 enemy troops just across the river. They also knew that there was an entire division of more than 7,000 enemy troops just a few miles down the road in Cabantuan City. That mission is known today as the Great Raid. It stands as one of the most successful extractions of all time. Because of that raid 500 warriors lived to return home to their families; their bodies broken and diseased, their minds shattered by the atrocities they endured; nevertheless, alive. It’s also an incredible story of love. The mission was clear. We must save these men. Against great odds 121 brave Rangers did what they had to do to save the lives of their brothers in arms. They are a shining example of selfless service and ultimate love, because the Bible says, “greater love has no man than this that he lay down his life for a friend.”
One of the interesting points of this story is the reality that many of those POWs no doubt felt forsaken. Their hearts filled with fear and hopelessness; their bodies emaciated to half the weight they had been when they donned the uniform. Many had to be carried out; their bodies so light that one soldier could carry two men on his shoulders. When the raid began and they heard the barrage of fire many who heard the Rangers calling them to come out refused to come. They thought it was a trick of the enemy preparing to execute them. They didn’t recognize the new uniform of the Rangers which had changed since they were captured. The liberator had come but they were hard pressed to believe. And so it is today. I have done more than 500 suicide interventions in the past five years. All that we have worked with are still alive and moving toward renewed hope, but many continue to struggle with the war within their mind. Many have a hard time believing that they can be liberated from that battlefield of hopelessness and in despair many end their lives. Since September I have received word of 11 suicides of individuals that were at risk and I didn’t know it. The Warrior died on the battlefield of personal despair.
But death is not the focus of my message today it’s life. I have people all the time that come up to me and say, “Hey aren’t you the suicide guy?” Lately I have learned to respond by saying “NO I AM THE HOPE GUY”. The other is a burden too heavy to carry. We can overcome suicide, but without hope we perish, and the best place to find hope is in the Word of God. Matthew 17 is the story of the transfiguration of Jesus and it reads:
“Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; 2 and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. 3 And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. 4 Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” 6 And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. 7 But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” 8 When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”
I work with individuals every day that struggle to find hope and confidence or they wonder what the purpose is anymore. Just this week I sat down with a friend struggling with his identity and another with thoughts of suicide. Another friend, a decorated warrior, posted that he had lost that sense of pride that he had known all his life. He had spent over half his life fighting or training to fight but is now questioning if it was really worth it. He said, “I don’t like this feeling.” I see this all around me. Since 911 more than 120,000 veterans have died by suicide and even more just like those POWs at Cabanatuan are afraid that they can’t speak up. I have learned from my own experience that it was only when I faced my fear that I couldn’t go on that I found the strength to declare the WARRIOR LIVES and I did that because of the love of my Air Force son who came calling my name, just like those Army Rangers did with the POWs.
Many of the veterans I work with from the Vietnam era remember well the way they were treated. I have found that many of them struggle more than our more recent warriors when it comes to asking for help. The number of Vietnam vets who have died from suicide is twice as high as the number that were killed by the enemy – over 100,000. If that is where you are today whether you are veteran or civilian, a woman or a man, young or old, I remind you of the truth of the ancient text – WHEN I AM WEAK THEN I AM STRONG. I have learned in my own life that it is my weakness that compels me to press on toward the City of Hope and to carry as many as I can with me. Each one of us will travel down many painful roads. In those times press on and keep in the forefront of your mind the truth that the Warrior lives and like the old hymn says, “Because he lives I can face tomorrow. Because he lives all fear is gone and yes I know he holds the future and life is worth the living because he lives.” The warrior lives!
Get a battle buddy in your life and hold each other accountable to the truth of God’s Word like iron sharpening iron. I have Warriors in my life that spur me on and together in our sufferings we’re blazing a trail along the way. We’re marking the path before us, so that others too may know the Warrior lives! AND we learn this truth when we allow the grace of God to work in our life through all the hurt and the pain. Not long ago I got an Iraq War veteran out of jail for the second time. The judge said, “Chaplain I can’t keep showing him grace.” I used the judge’s words as an opportunity to share with the veteran about the grace of God. His first response was I don’t deserve grace. That’s actually a good response by the way, because that is the whole point of grace. But he felt that way about all of life. I don’t deserve to be happy. I don’t deserve to be blessed, I don’t even deserve to be alive. I praise God to share with you that in that prison parking lot the veteran prayed to receive the grace of God. My friend the WARRIOR LIVES!
I have had more than a few veterans ask me the question in one way or another, “What does God think of me?” I think the Bible makes it clear. God loves warriors. Many of the stories in the Bible are stories of warriors. Joshua is best known for the siege of Jericho, David for defeating Goliath, Gideon along with an elite force of 300 Warriors overcame overwhelming odds and defeated their enemy. In the New Testament Jesus commended the incredible faith of the Centurion saying that he had never seen such faith in all of Israel.
Then you have the passage from Matthew 17. Jesus is soon to face the greatest battle of his life. In his human flesh, he even prayed, “Father let this cup pass from me.” That’s what any good warrior would do. My son much to my chagrin got a tattoo after his first deployment. But I must admit I do like it – “Pray for Peace -Prepare for War” That’s what warriors do. In their right state of mind, they do not relish the idea of war, but they do prepare for it.
To prepare Jesus for this battle God sends two battle buddies, Moses and Elijah. Moses the great liberator of a nation fought many battles on the way to the Promised Land. Elijah the Warrior-Prophet defeated 450 servants of Bail. Matthew doesn’t give us the details of what they talked about, but Luke tells us, “They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.” They were War gaming, encouraging Jesus who in his human flesh did not want to face the battle. They were assuring him of victory and reminding him of who he is. God says in Isaiah 43, “Put Me in remembrance, let us argue our case together; State your cause, that you may be proved right.” That’s what Commanders do in preparation for battle they look at the courses of action and they choose the one that leads to victory.
So, God sends his top Generals to his warrior son to remind him that in the end the WARRIOR LIVES! Perhaps they reminded him of what he had said in the temple only days before. "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.”
I can’t help but think that Moses may have even sang a war song to Jesus just as Exodus 15:3 tells us, “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord:
“I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea. “The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name.”
Did you catch that last verse? THE LORD IS A WARRIOR! So, I have a sneaking suspicion that God looks with great favor upon those who are warriors, because He is a Warrior.
To our nation’s sons and daughters who have sacrificed so much in service to our nation I salute you. The Warrior Lives!
By Kenneth Koon, DMin.
Over the past 20 years in Fayette County there have been 179 confirmed suicides. The high was 14 in 2004. The low was 6 in 2013; a year in which Armed Forces Mission (AFM) was highly focused in Fayette County on direct intervention of those at risk and training of caregivers to do the same. In 2014 and 15 request for training in other communities and extensive service to the US ARMY Reserve took us away from a focus on our hometown community. Sadly, recent data from the Georgia Department of Public Health revealed 12 confirmed suicides for 2014. Obviously, building a culture of health takes time. One year of focused training is not enough; it’s a flash in the pan. A sustained culture of health requires ongoing training and a wide participation from all segments of our community.
On May 24 and 25 AFM will offer the 2-Day Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) workshop in association with the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office. ASIST is an interactive workshop in suicide first-aid. Participants are trained to recognize when someone may be at risk of suicide and work with them to create a plan that will support their immediate safety. The workshop will offer 13 hours of POST credit for law enforcement and is open to all who want to learn the skills that save lives; no formal training or experience is required to attend —ASIST can be learned and used by anyone. ASIST is recognized as the world’s leading suicide intervention curriculum; and is backed by numerous evaluations including independent and peer-reviewed studies. A 2013 study that monitored over 1,500 suicidal callers to crisis lines found that callers who spoke with ASIST-trained counselors were 74% less likely to be suicidal after the call, compared to callers who spoke with counselors trained in methods other than ASIST. Callers were also less overwhelmed, less depressed, and more hopeful after speaking with ASIST-trained counselors. Individuals wishing to participate in the ASIST workshop can register at www.NoMoreSuicide.com. The May workshop will be held at Fayetteville First United Methodist Church.
On August 15 and 16 Georgia’s inaugural LOSS Team Conference will be held in Fayette County. LOSS is an acronym that stands for Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors. The conference theme is Hope and Healing. On day one national LOSS Team founder, Frank Campbell will be the keynote speaker. On day 2 AFM will offer the Listen Learn Lead Suicide Intervention Training. Individuals who have experienced loss and those who want to help make a difference in building a culture of health are invited to participate in this conference. Early bird registration for the conference has been extended through the end of May. To learn more or register for the conference visit www.LOSSteams.org.
Both the May workshop and the August conference are strategic efforts of AFM to return to a stronger focus on our hometown community for the purpose of building a sustainable culture of health. Year to date more than 200 individuals have participated in workshops and awareness briefings in Fayette County. Our goal is to train hundreds more before the end of the year and continue the work as long as it takes to make Fayette County the safest community in the state of Georgia if not the USA.
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.
Care givers come in many forms. Some care full time for little children while managing a home and even working other jobs, some take care of spouses that can no longer remember their names, some care for those battling cancer, or other physical challenges. Some work with those battling addiction, loss, and various mental and emotional health challenges. Some work in churches, hospitals, hospice, counseling centers, gyms, schools, law enforcement, airports just to name a few. You will find them in those places where hurting people are; and hurting people are everywhere.
You may be that person. Thank you for what you do! The world is a better place because of you and someone's life is better because of it. With all that is on your plate, please take the time to take care of yourself. Don't be afraid to take a time out or ask others for help. You are too valuable to those who need you not to take care of yourself. As you are being good to others, also be good to yourself. You don't need permission. It is part of your responsibility.
To borrow from the Soldier's Creed... You are disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient in your warrior tasks and drills. Therefore, take the time to maintain your arms, your equipment and yourself. In this way you will always stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of hopelessness and despair that so many experience. You are a guardian of freedom and hope...the freedom that hurting people need to live life with dignity and the hope that someone does care.
To my fellow care givers who have been such a great encouragement in my own mission, I salute you...THANK YOU for who you are and all you do!
"WHOSOEVER PRESERVES A SINGLE SOUL..., SCRIPTURE ASCRIBES [MERIT] TO HIM AS THOUGH HE HAD PRESERVED A COMPLETE WORLD." Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a
can go. So here we go first question. PTSD with suciadal thoughts were does someone turn to get help? 2nd question is the idea in turning to get help has a fear factor to it with most people that they will be thrown in a psych ward for 72 hours for evaluation 10-13 or criminal charges might be brought to them. In that case the idea of maybe loosing a job or having a title lached onto them that they tried and might be used against them at a later time would put most in fear in seeking help. How do you change the perception? I would consider this part the core of the issue and this would be the first step in this to make a differnce. Let me set the record as well straight here as well most people do not want to say what I just did due to them seeming insensitive. Without questions like this and answers to these questions there can not be solutions. So just to pick brains here figured I would ask. What I think you are doing here is great Ken!
Hi Chris thank you for the questions; you are not being inconsiderate. This is actually what I love; it doesn’t harm the cause; it opens it up. I am glad to see others are thinking. In fact I have engaged many in this very line of thought for several years all across the country; more than 25,000 soldiers and civilians from MI Command Conference in DC to Army MED COM Conference in Florida and as far away as Camp Parks, CA. We are also engaged in raising awareness within the faith community and with all others who are willing to engage. On our website we have links to resources that address the issues of PTSD with suicidal thoughts. There is a huge body of research that indicates there is a correlation between many types of trauma and suicidal behaviors; PTSD is one of them.
While we are on the subject of PTSD, let me just say that for some there is the idea that only deployed soldiers suffer from PTSD. For years I refused to think that I had PTSD because my stressors were not related to wearing the uniform. But PTSD is not the exclusive domain of the military. A woman who has been raped, a child who has been molested, a man who has seen his father murdered at the age of 10; these are just of the cases I have worked with over the past few months. None had anything to do with war. War is just the “icing on the cake”. My own Post Traumatic Stress was not one event, but cumulative over several years that culminated in witnessing an explosion in my backyard that burned my son over 90% of his arms and half his face. He had to be air-lifted to Grady burn center. Believe me it’s not the way to make the front page of the local newspaper. The additional stressor being that at the time I was between jobs and the medical bills bankrupted me. It was the most challenging time in my life. But it is also the reason I do what I do now.
At Armed Forces Mission we have done Courageous Weekend Retreats with veterans; all of them having some form of PTSD. During the retreat we discussed the concept of Moral Injury (MI) which is not in the DSM for Mental Health Professionals, but is a very real condition. If PTSD is the scrambling of the mind with it's 100 billion neurons, then MI might be called the breaking of the heart. MI is what happens when an individual sees, does or knows about an action that violates their personal moral code.
In layman's terms PTSD could be described as "Fight, Flight, or Freeze" syndrome. I was walking into Walmart one day in PTC. A young man in his mid 20s was coming out the door. Suddenly a car backfired and the man hit the asphalt. I discovered in talking with him that he was a veteran. Another veteran I worked with was awakened every night by the two children that were killed in a fire fight in Iraq. Did he have PTSD? Absolutely. He also had Moral Injury. Through the Courageous Project weekends we seek to re-frame the voices. By opening up without fear of getting a 1013 and 72 hours under suicide watch, these individuals are able to find a safe place for processing the brokenness. As one colleague calls it; "Moral injury is about heart and soul repair."
As for the stigma that one might loose their job; yes there is that fear for some. I have seen it in the covert messages of NCOs when they tell soldiers how to complete their annual health readiness assessments. Within law enforcement we see the same issue and it is a stigma within the general population as well. I can only speak from personal experience, but as I have mentioned, I have shared my story publicly in various settings and have not been forced against my will into the "psych ward". Additionally, out of the 151 suicide intervention that I conducted in 2015 only three were placed under 72 hour watch, the remainder sought on their own to make contact with the resources we referenced or they continued to work with me through pastoral care and other chaplain support services.
I truly do understand the thoughts you raise that some will not seek help because of the fear of loosing their job, I just don't think it is the "core issue". The reason 1495 people perished when the Titanic sank is not because they weren't screaming for help, but rather it was because they had no one who could help them. When help finally arrived it was for many too late. As I see it the core issue is that very caring individuals don't know how to help. I have pastors calling me every month asking for my help with someone in their congregation. I have surveyed pastors in church leadership conferences; nearly 100% say they received NO training in suicide intervention. Yet basic skills in suicide intervention and mental health first aid can be learned; just as CPR skills can be learned. The big difference is that you are 20 times more likely to come across someone who needs the suicide intervention skills than you are the person who needs CPR. (a statistical reality).
In 2012 and 13 we were heavily focused on the training of individuals in Fayette County. In that year suicide dropped to a 20 year low and was 50% lower than the previous year. I was personally involved in several interventions that year in the county as were many of the people we trained. The level of awareness went up for the 300 individuals we trained. The next two years I was on the road most of the time and spent very little time in my own backyard. Some would say the numbers are an anomaly. But the reason I have made the decision to come back to a focus on my hometown is because I want to prove that it was not an anomaly. I believe that training saves lives.
The first place where perception needs to change is not with those who are hurting, but with those who can help. The higher we raise the banner and the more courageous we became in asking the suicide question; the more lives we will save. I have seen it in my own circles and in the stories that come from the more than 4,000 individuals we have trained. Chris I need battle buddies like you, who are not afraid to ask the questions. You can help me raise an army of people who will boldly come on board in support of a mission that is making a difference.
I use to call it the impossible mission; there will always be someone somewhere who is thinking of suicide and ultimately ends their life. My vision is that it doesn't happen on my watch, in my town and among those I love and live life with everyday.