on forgiveness

This wrestling with grief, this waking up to a reality of grieving, takes a great deal of honesty. With ourselves, with others, even with the dead. The day after Ryan’s suicide I expected to wake up deflated and flattened. I got up, made a cup of Earl Grey tea (strong, with a bit of milk and a healthy scoop of sugar), and sat myself in front of my desk to write. I did not write Shaun’s suicide, at least not much, and it’s something I greatly regret. Or, rather, wish had been different. I couldn’t write that suicide. This one, though, I can. And must. So I started the Morning After. What came out of my pen surprised me: I wasn’t sad; I was angry, furious. Not at Ryan, but at the situation. That anger persists, which is why I think it’s hard for me to cry about this death. Denial and anger are a potent mix.

But slowly, at odd times, sadness creeps in. A few weeks ago I made cookies for my friends, and as I was mixing them, it occurred to me that the last time I made cookies (a somewhat frequent occurrence in our home), Ryan was alive. I had to stop and catch my breath before adding the rest of the flour. I don’t know that I’ll ever make cookies without thinking of him again.

I almost missed seeing Ryan for a last time. I know that sentence is problematic; there would have been a last time no matter what. But this one I came close to missing. It was a family reunion, and I nearly didn’t go. I ended up in therapy about it—because this family in an election year was almost too much for me. But let me back up.

Some of my best family memories are from family reunions: the bear at the one in Colorado; the Alpine slides, where Shaun flipped his sled; SJ putting blue marks on my knee with the chalk from the pool table; sleeping on the beach in Oxnard, California; whale watching in Anacortes; driving to and from reunions with my mom and grandparents; going through Sturgis during the bike rally one time; spending time with multiple generations of Murphys in the same place at the same time; stories upon stories shared. These reunions started with my grandparents’ generation, my grandfather and his siblings gathering spouses and children and spending some days together. Time to be as family but, more important, as friends.

We hadn’t had a reunion for a good number of years. I guess one of the cousins (in my mom’s generation) mentioned this, and Ryan and his wife took the ball and ran with it, organizing a reunion in Bozeman for July 2016. I was already on edge last summer. My anxiety was returning as I started to dive in to some writing about Shaun; work was stressful; the election was looming. Our family—meaning my mom, her siblings, my grandparents, and I—has diverse political views. I am a Democrat; have a complicated relationship with the term “pro-life”; think that we do not do nearly enough to help the poor and vulnerable (here and abroad) as a country; don’t understand why guns are desirable; find education and arts to be some of the most important things we can spend our money on; am firmly against war; and think that Donald Trump is a disgrace to our country. We overlap on some of these things, sure, but there are some big divisions. The biggest one that was on my heart and mind last summer was gun control.

Early on, I knew I would support Hillary Clinton in this election. Bernie Sanders was fine, and, had he been the nominee, I’d have supported him, but I was 100 percent behind Clinton. One reason for this: she wanted to hold gun manufacturers responsible for their products. This seems smart to me. We hold other manufacturers responsible for their products; why not the gun industry? My uncles and I do not see eye-to-eye on this. They have guns. They like their guns. And they have tried, over and over, to tell me that they can be trusted with their guns. I think it’s pretty obvious by now that I just can’t believe this claim. Two of them have now taken their lives with their guns, and I am even more entrenched in my abhorrence of the damn things than I was before Shaun ever sat on that bench and took his life.

Attending this reunion felt unsafe to me. I debated it for a long, long time through several therapy sessions and phone calls with mom, visits with friends and conversations with my husband. Going felt unsafe and staying home felt unthinkable.

I went. I was not at my best. In the photos, I look tired, wary. I stayed on the fringes for much of the time, observing this wild bunch of people that shares some DNA. The older I get, the more amazed I am at how alike we Murphys are. Maybe everyone has this revelation, but being around these folks is like standing in a room of funhouse mirrors: different facets of the self are displayed by different people and I think, “Ah, yes, that’s why I act that way.”

During that trip, I didn’t talk with Ryan about guns or the election. I didn’t want to; I was afraid to. We talked about other things, and, though I wish I’d felt differently on that trip, there were quite a few shining moments of goodness. I am glad I went.

As I started this post, I thought it would be about forgiving Ryan, and even Shaun. But as I’ve written it, I wonder if perhaps I’m really trying to forgive myself. But for what? Talking to Ryan about his guns may not have changed the outcome. He might still have taken his life. After Shaun died, Ryan told quite a few of us that suicide would never be an option for him, that guns are perfectly safe in the hands of responsible people. But what I know is this: none of us is ever always responsible. We stumble.

Suicide is a complicated beast. Multiple things led my uncles to their decisions. They simply had an easy means to make the pain they were in end, and they chose to use it. The circumstances of their suicides were different: Shaun’s was more planned; Ryan’s was impulsive. The aftereffects, however, are the same: we hurt. And here’s the honest part that I’ve been writing around: I don’t blame them for their suicides because they were struggling in a way I’ve never known; rather, can I offer forgiveness for the pain they didn’t even realize they were causing? As I write it, that seems an almost proud question: do I deign to find it in my oh-so-gracious heart to forgive these men for their actions that have ripped through our family? Ah, yes, the anger is there. I do not want to blame the victims here, my uncles. I want to have a heart big enough to see their pain and let compassion wash over all of it. At times, I do. At other times, I wonder if forgiveness is really mine to give here. Maybe that’s not even the question to be asking.

these holy days

It’s Holy Week. The Triduum. Days dripping with the sacred. We’ve made it through Lent and can see the end, the celebration, the joy. In any normal year, I sit comfortably with these days. Not because they’re easy ones; they are not. But I know them; I can find the metaphors welcoming and edifying. I know we have to sit with that cross for a bit before the stone is rolled away, and, in any normal year, I trust that the stone will roll away.

I do this year too, but the odd thing is that I’m not ready for the resurrection. I’m not ready for a season of celebrating new life.

Holy Thursday is my favorite. We get the foot washing, the commandment to love one another, the gospel reading I love. We get Jesus stooping at the feet of not just Peter but also Judas. We get communion and forgiveness, initiation and self-giving all rolled into one beautiful moment. All day today I pondered where I would go for the Holy Thursday liturgy. Options abound. But as the day wore on, I felt less and less Holy Thursday. Despite what we know is coming, Holy Thursday is one of solemn celebration. It is friends gathered to share a meal, to celebrate Passover, to love one another. These are good things, important things. But I am not there.

Tomorrow is Good Friday. The day of the cross, of darkness, of torn garments. In many ways, I am there. This grief for Ryan is odd. It is so internal. On a day-to-day basis, it’s almost easy to forget it’s there. And then I realize that Easter is coming, and my feet drag. I wonder if Lazarus had a similar hesitation when he was called from the tomb. I am feeling Good Friday. Tomorrow I will go to the cathedral and process to the cross to venerate it. After the foot washing, this is probably my next favorite liturgical moment. We people carry so much pain. Some great, some small. There’s a lot to be weary from. On Good Friday, I love to watch the procession to the cross, the people who kneel to kiss it, the ones who bow their heads and touch it. In this moment, we bless that which is most difficult. Tomorrow I will carry this new grieving, now tied forever to old grievings, up the aisle to the cross, and I will lay it down. Not to let it go, but to remind myself that this grief is holy too. This which is most difficult needs blessing too.

And then we enter the waiting, the stillness, the blankness of Holy Saturday. Yes, I’m feeling this as well. What was it like between crucifixion and resurrection? Some days I think I have a fairly good sense. But did the followers of Jesus—those ones who were huddled together in hidden rooms, the ones afraid for their lives because of their association with that rabble rouser—did they know that something was happening in that waiting? It is hard to trust the absence present in the Holy Saturday times in our lives, the ones where we are going from one way of being to another. And yet, I am there now, and it isn’t so bad. This is thin space, sacred space. Something is happening here.

There will be a time when I am ready for the stone to roll away. I will be grateful when it happens. For now, though, in these holy days before that happens, I sit and wait, grieve and bless.

the ones we don’t grieve

Each death is a thread. They get bundled together, tangled, connected. We pull on one and the whole woven mess shudders. We find unexpected parallels, certain deaths knotted together in ways that might make sense or might not.

My uncle Shaun’s death was very closely tied to my dad’s in my mind. As I grieved for Shaun, I regrieved my dad, who had been dead for twenty-one years. Mom and I had conversations that we hadn’t had when I was a child, discussions we didn’t even realize we needed to have about my dad’s death. We’ve always spoken openly about him, but his diagnosis of colon cancer and his death were so quick (three weeks between them) that I always assumed he was perfectly healthy one day and then wasn’t the next. Turns out, that wasn’t necessarily the case. Cancer isn’t exactly an overnight development. It took Shaun’s death, and my descent into anxiety, to bring forward and heal some of the questions about dad.

And now Ryan? His death is connected to Barb’s. Yesterday was the four-year anniversary of Barb’s death. Barb and her partner were family friends of ours whom we met at the neighborhood coffee shop. She was curious, funny, intelligent, occasionally brutal, generous, witty. She was a merciless chiropractor who got me to stand up straight. I have her editing advice taped to my computer monitor at work: “Humility. Humility. Humility.” Sometimes I even follow it. When she said “fuck,” it came from her toes; it was the way a curse word should be said. She loved good food and good wine. The way she held her hands, especially when she had a point to make—well, when I need a boost of confidence, sometimes I hold my hands as she did. She was an extraordinary woman, a force to be reckoned with. I love her and miss her.

She died in 2013, and I still can’t believe she’s gone. There are times when I’ll be driving in the car or reading something or my shoulder will twinge, and I’ll think about her in disbelief. The lack of her washes over me in a way that makes her death seem so new.

I haven’t grieved her.

I’m not sure I’m grieving Ryan either. I think about him every day. I think about his wife and baby, his siblings and parents, my cousins and everyone else he left behind. I think about how we are carrying this loss. Sadness washes over me, through me, but it doesn’t quite stick for some reason. I shake my head in disbelief. Ryan gone? Ryan dead? Impossible.

It’s early. I know that. Grieving suicide takes a long time. I didn’t experience denial with Shaun’s suicide. It was a fact, and I jumped right into the other stages of grief. With Ryan, though, denial seems the only sensible option. It might be self-protection and an unwillingness to “go there.” But I think there are two other things at play as well as straight-up denial. First, in many ways, Ryan, like Barb, was an extraordinary person. He wasn’t larger than life; his personality didn’t overwhelm a room. But he was a gentle and kind soul who made you laugh and feel at ease. That can be extraordinary. And it’s hard to believe that extraordinary people leave this world.

Second, and this is very closely tied to the first, Ryan’s death by suicide is so contrary to he way he lived. Aside from tormenting his little sister when they were younger, and raising a fairly normal amount of hell that a young man raised as he was growing up, Ryan wasn’t a person who brought grief to people. We said it as a joke, but he really was the sweet one. At the family reunion in July, a big crew of us were heading to a river for a float trip. We stopped at a gas station to load up some goodies, and, for a reason I can’t recall, he snapped at me. It wasn’t really anything to worry about; I just got in the car (probably rolled my eyes) and got ready to go. He was managing a bunch of people on a timeline. And sometimes snark happens. But before we left that parking lot, he came over and apologized. Because it was the kind thing to do, the right thing. I can’t reconcile that guy with the one who committed suicide. I’m not sure I ever will. Of course, he didn’t commit suicide to be cruel, and he was in great pain.

But where I’ve landed as I’ve thought about his death these past few weeks is this: Ryan’s life was a good one, a happy one. His death does not define him, and while I wish with everything in me that he were still here, while I am saddened by his loss, for some reason I can’t soak it in. Maybe someday it’ll hit me. Today, I merely shake my head in disbelief and think of the ones I can’t believe are gone.