I was asked to write something about spiritual comfort after shocking sudden death for the HuffPost Religion channel, and only had a few hours to do it. Here’s what I came up with:
It took me all weekend to get used to hearing the name Gabrielle Giffords reported in the tragic context of the Tuscon shootings. Not only was the event horrific, but I also couldn’t shake the similarity of the congresswoman’s name to that of my late son Gabriel Gifford Scheller. The endless stream of news triggered a wave of memories from when police showed up at my door in the early morning hours of March 29, 2008 to report that Gabriel had killed himself. The horror of an event like that is so vast that unless you have lived through one like it, you can’t truly comprehend it. One moment, life is mundane, ordinary, perhaps even joyful. The next, it is torn to shreds so completely that you believe with every ounce of your being that it is over. At least I did.
And I was right, in a sense. Everything I thought I believed was called into question and everyone I thought I trusted was placed into one of two categories: safe or unsafe. Safe people didn’t say much and if they did, they most certainly did not speak in spiritual platitudes or pronounce judgment on the situation or on my son. Unsafe people did and do pretend to understand, minimize the horror or its impact, express some perverse need to identify with it, or otherwise just creep me out.
My husband had absolute peace that Gabriel was with God, but he really struggled with flashback images of how Gabe killed himself. I didn’t wrestle as much with our son’s final moments as I did with where he is now and why he did what he did. A friend who is a psychiatrist counseled me early on to give up the second battle because, he declared, “Suicide is inherently an irrational act; it will never make sense.” (Likewise, random acts of public violence.) A Lutheran pastor comforted me by saying that how we die doesn’t determine where we spend eternity.
Over the past couple days, I have heard the tragedy in Tuscon blamed on irresponsible political rhetoric and mental illness, neither of which provide satisfactory answers. In situations like these, we long for some kind of solace, for someone to tell us we and our loved ones are safe. In D. Michael Lindsay’s book Faith in the Halls of Power, former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson is quoted as saying, “When people are presented with entirely unfair and unreasonable suffering, the president of the United States has to assure them … that the universe has meaning, and that the universe is not an emptying, echoing void.” Gerson goes on to say that complaints about politicians’ use of religious rhetoric don’t often emerge in the context of public tragedy. Thus we waited for our president to speak.
We don’t want just anyone to tell us that everything will be okay both in this life and in the next; we want someone with authority to say it. My husband, a former pastor and longtime Bible teacher, was too paralyzed with grief and shock to attend to the practical details of our son’s funeral, but he was able to get up and spontaneously preach a mini-sermon that comforted many, including me. I couldn’t access my faith, but I was able to take comfort in his. Conversely, as he struggled with those terrible mental images, I shared with him something that had helped me when I kept mentally replaying the final moments of friends who had died in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. I realized one day as I was praying that they had only lived through the horror of Flight 93 crashing to the ground for an instant and then it was over. The same was true for Gabe’s final moments.
An old friend also sent me a note encouraging me to take solace in beauty wherever I could find it. As I took her advice, the beauty around me ministered to me and reminded me, as Gerson suggests, that order coexists with chaos. The universe is not an emptying, echoing void. A glorious California sunset would break through the kitchen window as tears flowed over the dishes I tried to do. The bougainvillea came into bloom despite my grief. My other son, who had been suffering from clinical depression for five years, finally received a correct diagnosis and the help he needed. We moved home to New Jersey and to the warm embrace of the family and friends we had missed so much when we lived out west.
There was good to be found, but none of it made up for, or brought meaning to the loss. It co-existed (co-exists) with it. Violence, whether it be self-inflicted or directed outward, teaches us that ours is an undeniably broken world. Yet even in this horrible moment when one young man walked into a crowd and shattered the lives of so many, another ran toward the bullets to provide triage to his wounded boss and to others around her. Three people conspired to stop the gunman as he struggled with his weapon. In a split second everything changed again. For him, for the people present, for their families, for his family, for the Congress, and for us. As we haggle and fight over what happened and about what needs to be done in light of it, may we not forget the sustaining beauty that exists in every moment we are privileged to live on this earth. Even the dark ones.