When I was 18 years old, I was asked to be the Godfather for my cousin, Tabitha. This is a picture of her of her at 5 years old. I was part of her life as she grew up. I saw her at Christmas each year and I visited her during Mardi Gras. She lived outside of New Orleans in Slidell, Louisiana. We would regularly get together at my parent’s home, where all the family gathered for special occasions; she would share some of what was going on in her life. I watched her over the years grow into a beautiful teenager. Every once in a while, when I happened to think of it, I wondered, “What does it mean to be a Godfather; how am I supposed to help her on her spiritual journey through life.” I was no longer Catholic while she was growing up; I had grown away from the religion of my youth, and had become a Unitarian Universalist. My own spiritual journey was varied—affirming humanism and Buddhism as paths to deeper understanding of myself and the world. And I thought Tabitha doing well on her own, spiritually and otherwise. She seemed happy, full of teenage enthusiasms, lots of friends, beautiful and headstrong as only redheads are. She didn’t seem to particularly want or need a God father. And I was very busy with my own life. I was deeply involved in my church as a lay-leader. I was in private practice as a psychotherapist. I had gotten married and had two very young children. My life was full and enjoyable and wonderful—especially watching my two sons growing up. My thoughts about my responsibilities for Tabitha’s journey through life and her spirituality faded into the background, overlaid by Boy Scout meetings, church Board meetings, workshops to earn Continuing Education Credits, dinners with our supper club; you know, with life.
In February 1993, my extended family, my parents, brothers and their spouses, my wife and children, my uncle and aunt, Tabitha and her younger brother got together for another Mardi Gras. Tabitha was 16 years old, involved in lots of school activities. She had a gaggle of friends. She was in the band at school. She was upbeat and excited to see me and all the rest of the family. We ate together; we went to parades together; we even talked a little about nothing in particular in the midst of all that wonderful chaos. A few weeks later, Tabitha had an argument with her parents and, while they were out at a restaurant, took one of her father’s rifles and killed herself in her parent’s bedroom.
The word suffering is sometimes used in the very narrow sense of describing physical pain. But I define suffering differently. Suffering is our negative and persistent response to pain, pain that can come from many sources—from the death of a loved one; physical, mental, emotional, spiritual trauma or illness; and life stresses, such as personal conflict, economic hardship, life’s ordinary and extraordinary changes/transitions. We cannot avoid pain. It is an inevitable part of life. As contemporary Japanese author Haruki Murakami reminds us: “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” As much as I believe this, I have, as probably you have, suffered in response to pain.
Poet Elizabeth Jennings wrote:
…Time does not heal,
It makes a half-stitched scar
That can be broken and again you feel
Grief as total as in its first hour.
My grief over Tabitha felt and feels this way—like a half-stitched scar that will never ever completely heal, that can be broken open again and again and again. Some of this is the normal natural pain of loss, and some was and is my suffering.
For some time after my cousin’s death, I blamed her mother. Her mother was chronically depressed, frequently talked about suicide, and never really took responsibility for her life, her marriage, her children, anything. She drifted through life seemingly always on the verge of suicide; and used these threats to manipulate her family or to get her way or to deal with problems—problems she often created, though she seemed completely unaware of this. Everything was always someone else’s fault. I could not help feeling that somehow Tabitha heard her mother’s threats as permission to end her own life. And yet, I was the psychotherapist in the family, who was called on to help my aunt, Tabitha’s mother, get her life back together. My parents expected me to put aside my own feelings, my own confusion, my own share of the blame, to help Tabitha’s mother and her family find a way, somehow, to face life without Tabitha. I couldn’t deal with my own why’s, because I had to help my aunt deal with her family’s why’s. My aunt, uncle, and Tabitha’s younger brother, came to Houston to live in my parent’s home, too overwhelmed to deal with putting their lives back together; they wanted us to put their lives back together.
Pain and suffering can also cause collateral damage, harm to family, friends, other people who are near those who are in pain or suffering. In other words, in the midst of our own pain and suffering we may not realize that our pain may cause pain to those close to us. Martha and I realized, despite the pain we were both suffering, Tabitha’s death had touched our children. And we realized that it was important that our children be told the truth, in an age appropriate way, as completely and quickly as they were able to take it in. Protecting or shielding them could have created a web of distortions and misperceptions, and a conspiracy of silence. This was especially important, because my aunt, uncle and cousin lived very near us for a long time after Tabitha’s death. My two young sons knew Tabitha, and had a relationship with her. And my sons were exposed to my aunt’s family constantly, to their struggles and their grief, not to mention mine and Martha’s. If we had told them stories or denied their observations, how would that have impacted their mental, emotional, and spiritual development? We decided to be open with them. My four year-old son, some weeks after Tabitha’s death, wrote a letter to her family saying he loved them and wanted them to know that Tabitha had just lost her feelings.
Pain brings up strong feelings, overwhelming feelings. The kind of feelings that feel like they are going to submerge you, maybe forever. We suffer when we try to avoid the pain, but what happens is the pain becomes more intense and long-lasting. Pain can make us question our meaning and purpose in life, our spiritual beliefs, our ability to cope with life, because life continues on even as we are in pain. Suffering keeps us from embracing the pain and moving through, making meaning from, healing from it. Even chronic pain, whether physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual, needs to be faced, not avoided, in order for us to make meaning from it. We may never completely heal, but we can make meaning and find a path forward.
Putting off my own search for meaning, only proved to make the process longer and more difficult for me. My anger and bargaining with myself persisted. When I was finally able to start the process, I had to move through the blame I held toward my aunt, through the fear that I had missed something or I should have known something was going on with Tabitha, through the resentment that I had had to put aside my own feelings and needs. Only after I was able to move through these stages of grief, only after I was able to forgive my aunt, and realize that there was no one who could have really looked into Tabitha’s head or heart and known the risk she posed, only after I was able to accept my own feelings and needs, only then could I begin to make meaning from her suicide.
I have spent time with many individuals and families suffering grief, pain, loss, significant change. I have heard people struggle with long held beliefs in the midst of their suffering. I have heard people say about suffering: “take up the cross and suffer in silence, like Jesus did” “Suffering will make you closer and more like Jesus” “God wants us to suffer to be redeemed” “God will not give us anything more than we can handle” “God did this thing for some greater purpose.” I cannot tell you how many times in my practice as a psychotherapist that people said to me, “What did I do that was so wrong that God is punishing me” in the midst of their pain and suffering. I have seen people struggle with these beliefs, lengthening their suffering.
There was more to my spiritual healing process that I wasn’t as prepared for. I had to forgive myself for not providing the spiritual grounding and support that “might” have helped Tabitha. I was her Godfather. I was supposed to talk with her about my spiritual journey and her spiritual journey. I was supposed to have mentored her, walked with her, helped her to find her own way to meaning and purpose, to embrace mystery, to search for the expressions of the divine in her life. And as a Buddhist, to help her to understand that life is transitory, whatever she was going through would pass, as did all things. Something that seemed world shattering, traumatic, overwhelming at this moment would seem different in the next moment, if she could have just held on to the next moment. If she could have known she wasn’t alone in that one moment when everything seemed too much.
Pain can bring up many irrational ways of thinking and feeling. Some we may recognize as irrational, and we can move through them relatively easily. But when we hold onto the pain, when we choose suffering, the irrational can find a niche within us. And if we don’t give that niche some attention, that is, if we don’t take the time to examine and process that niche, we can find ourselves vulnerable to and reliving the irrational thoughts that bring more pain into our lives. Pain and suffering result in feeling helpless, hopeless, fearful, angry, reacting rather than acting –we make poor decisions, lacking clarity, often not taking the time to reflect on what is happening within and around us.
Iris Bolton, Director of a counseling center in Atlanta, lost her son to suicide. She wrote:
I don’t know why?
I’ll never know why?
I don’t have to know why?
I don’t like it?
What I have to do is make a choice about my living?
As I continued to struggle with spiritual and emotional issues from which there seemed to be no escape, I realized that I had to face the big question of why. Whenever pain happens, the thought of why will inevitable rise up within us.
I didn’t know why Tabitha committed suicide. I never will. And, I’ve come to understand, I don’t have to know why. I will never like that. Tabitha is a half-stitched scar upon my heart. Sometimes, when I see a group of kids walking to or from school, laughing, talking, full of life, I’ll see a gangly red-haired girl, all knobby knees and sharp elbows, and that half-stitched scar will open, and again I feel grief as total as in its first hour. But I’ve made meaning of her suicide and, in making meaning, have made a choice to embrace the pain, but not embrace the suffering.
Tabitha’s death resulted in much soul searching and much bewilderment for me for some time. But today, I hold her in my heart in a loving way. By no means do I tell you this to say that what I went through was a smooth and complete process of dealing with my own pain and suffering; it was not. I tell you this because we will all have pain and suffering in our lives. Yes, perhaps, suffering is a choice, but it is a very easy, seductive choice. And when we are fragile, a choice we often make without ever being aware of it. So be gentle with yourself, don’t think yourself weak if you find yourself in the midst of suffering. Know that you are not alone, know that life will be waiting for you when you are ready to return to it, and know that suffering will pass, if you face it. Namaste