The tiniest, simplest books are often the best books.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was one that my Mom bought for me at a library book sale called “Love Is Walking Hand in Hand.” The 1965 book is about as simple as you can get. Written by the famous illustrator Charles Schulz, the book features the Peanuts gang (Charlie Brown and Snoopy and all your other favorites) with simple but practical examples of what love can look like in our everyday lives. Each page features a new example: “Love is walking hand in hand,” “Love is having a special song,” “Love is messing up someone’s hair,” “Love is wishing you had nerve enough to go over and talk with that little girl with the red hair,” “Love is letting him win even though you know you could slaughter him” (There’s more awesome gems from this book at brainpickings.org).
I loved that book because it was easy. I loved that book because it took a complex and nebulous idea, like love, and made it easy for me to see and understand. That book put hands and feet on love for me. That book didn’t just tell me what love was—it taught me how to love other people.
Isn’t it funny how we often come back to those simple little lessons as we age to deal with some of life’s most complex issues?
It’s true, my life after Dad’s death has been vastly more complicated, but the answers to those complicated questions can sometimes be beautifully, wonderfully simple.
Lately, I’ve been reading and revisiting a number of different books and articles written by survivors of suicide. Some of these books resonate really deeply with me, but others describe scenarios that I’m truly unfamiliar with. And it should be that way. The experience of each survivor of suicide is entirely different, and we all struggle with different feelings at different seasons. There’s no manual or “right way” to grieve. There’s no perfect way to do this because each person who suffers is imperfect in their own way.
One thing that we all have in common as survivors of suicide loss, however, is dealing with questions. And one of the worst ramifications of a suicide involves the many unanswered (and sometimes unanswerable) questions it creates in the lives of those left behind.
There is one question in the “life after your loved one” that is particularly haunting. It’s a question that gets to the roots and the motivations of suicide in general.
Oftentimes, whether reasonable or not, suicide survivors often wonder “If my loved one died by suicide, did they ever really love me?”
It’s heartbreaking for me to even write these questions down, mainly because this is a question that I’ve always been able to answer easily. Yes, I know that my Dad loved me. I know that he suffered from a debilitating brain illness that warped his mind and hacked his thought processes. I know that his decision was not a reflection of his love or lack thereof. It was uncontrollable. It was out of his ability to handle. He loved me so much that he couldn’t bear the thought of letting me (and the rest of his friends and family) down.
But even the most rock-solid faith in God and love can be subject to temptation and doubt. No matter how strong my belief, I have to admit…there have been moments in the three-and-more years since Dad passed where Satan has gotten the best of me. There have been moments so sad and heartbreaking that it’s made it hard to function, physically and emotionally. And yes, although I hate to admit it, there have been moments where (even temporarily) the pain of losing my Dad so suddenly and tragically have called into question everything I believe.
Alright, I’ll say it…I’ve always been the guy who rolls my eyes a bit at a wedding whenever the minister says “Our reading is from the 13th chapter of the book of 1st Corinthians…” Mainly, I used to think that people chose this particular passage because it’s the easiest one to understand. It’s easy to reprint on a coffee mug or desk sign. (Don’t act like I’m the only one who’s thought this.)
But suicide changed my life in dramatic ways, and that particular passage of Scripture took on a whole new meaning after Dad died. You’ve heard it before, and just to help you prepare for the Summer wedding season, you’ll hear it again here:
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (ESV)
I think people love this verse because, just like my Charlie Brown book from my childhood, it makes love a tangible thing. It puts hands and feet to love. We can look at any scenario in our life, evaluate it against these standards, and judge accurately whether or not love is there.
For this reason, I often go to the version in The Message (MSG) that I think puts a perfect “Charlie Brown” picture with the original text:
“Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always ‘me first,’ doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end. Love never dies.” 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8 (MSG)
So, like I’ve done so many times when the storms have come upon my soul after Dad died, I did just that to help reaffirm and strengthen my beliefs. Did my Dad really, really love me? Of course he did. Did he love me even though he died from suicide? Yes, undoubtedly. Even though life might have seemed unlivable to him, did he still love me?
Yes, yes, yes. I can answer that question with the firmest of faith. And it’s not just a whim or a feeling. It’s a fact. I can evaluate my Dad and his actions as a father against this beautiful, poetic Scripture, and I can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he loved me…and loves me still.
“Love is patient…” (v. 4) Boy, was my Dad ever patient…with me and with everything in life. All throughout my childhood, my Dad never tired of doing things that I’m sure weren’t all that exciting for him. I think specifically of the hours we used to spend each night wrestling on the floor of our family room. Much to Mom’s chagrin, I would often jump off of the stairs or the arm of a couch and Dad would catch me and body slam me. I think of all the times that Dad would take me to the playground or toss me off the deck of our backyard swimming pool. I’m sure that there were other things he would have rather done as an adult. But he always took the time to let me be a child. He was always patient with my constant pleas for entertainment. He was patient in everything he did, but I never once felt like I was a burden or distraction for my Dad.
“Love is kind.” (v. 4) I remember from a very young age, that my Dad always taught me how to be gentle. He didn’t tell me what being gentle was; he simply showed me in the way he lived his life. My Dad had a heart for other people. In my opinion, kindness is often judged by how you treat people who can’t ever pay you back for your kindness. My Dad had a heart for those people—especially the physically disabled. I remember how special his relationship was with Madelyn, a young girl from our church who suffered from Down’s Syndrome. He loved seeing her and each time, he would bend his neck to let her rub his bald head as she smiled. My Dad also loved pets and animals of all kinds. Dad was never too busy to pet a dog or play fetch with it. He got so much enjoyment giving joy to other people (and many four-legged creatures as well).
Whenever I think of my Dad’s kindness, I think most about the times when I was hurt or injured as a child, and how he could make me feel safe, secure, and steady again. Dad often took me and my friends on bike rides to Rentschler Park when we were kids. My friends and I loved it, because Dad would often take us on the most challenging trails, encouraging us to pop wheelies, ramp small hills, and navigate particularly treacherous trails. One evening, I rode down a very steep hill, and the overgrown grass had concealed a rather large and raised manhole cover. I hit the manhole cover hard, went head over handlebars, and landed on top of the manhole cover on my back as the bike slammed down hard into my chest. I got the wind knocked out of me, and I had a lot of cuts and bruises to show for it. Without blinking, my Dad threw his bike down, came and scooped me up in his arms, and carried me all the way home. He enlisted my friends to help push our bikes so he could carry me. That’s kindness. That’s love. That’s my Dad. I miss feeling the kindness of his hug.
“Love does not envy or boast. It is not arrogant or rude.” (v. 4) The message translation of this portion says “Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head” (v. 4-5). I love that! My Dad was one of the most humble men I’ve ever met, and his entire life was centered around telling people how proud he was of me—sometimes to the point that it embarrassed me! Although he didn’t have much to brag on when it came to athletic achievements, there were the few miraculous Saturdays where I had a good day in the net as the keeper and he would tell everyone about my achievement. Whether it was a great report card, an award I won at the school, or a particularly strong drawing I had made as a child, I always knew that Dad was my biggest fan. He loved me for who I was, and he loved telling people about the things I was doing. It made me feel important. It made me feel special. My Dad’s love was always, always about other people.
“It does not insist on its own way.” (v. 5) My Dad always gave me the freedom to figure things out on my own. He loved me by letting me make mistakes. Ultimately, he loved me by letting me be me. Dad and I were similar in many ways, but we were also very different. Dad was a stellar athlete. I was…less than stellar. Dad was a builder and knew how to work with his hands. I complained about most physical labor and threatened to call Children’s Protective Services if he forced me to work. Dad enjoyed riding dirtbikes and motorcycles, and although he bought me my own to ride many times, I was often too nervous to ride them well. But Dad, in spite of all these differences, always loved me. He never made me feel inadequate because I enjoyed books or puppet shows or coloring or things that I’m sure he didn’t have an interest in. I think Dad loved that I was like him in many ways, but I know that he also loved me because I wasn’t a carbon copy of him.
“It is not irritable or resentful.” (v. 5) I am a lucky child in that I can’t really remember my Dad ever losing his temper with me. I look back on my life, and yes there were times where he was upset with me, but I never felt unloved. For the most part, I was a pretty good kid—but even the best of kids do something every now and then to send their parents into the stratosphere. Even when I made mistakes, Dad never let those mistakes influence how he felt about me or how he perceived my character. My Dad was the parent who could get his point across just by saying he was disappointed in me and the way I behaved. He loved me, and yes he disciplined me when I needed and deserved it, but he never lost his temper. I strive to be more like him in many ways, but especially in this way. I know I need more of his coolheadedness.
“It does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.” (v. 6) In everything he did and taught me, my Dad encouraged me to be a good person. I know that sounds simple, but because he loved me, he wanted me to love other people and do what was right by them. Dad’s actions were always evaluated in the context of how it might affect other people. It might sound like a minor lesson to some people, but my Dad refused to litter. And he also refused to let his son do the same thing. At the time, I didn’t understand how throwing a gum wrapper out the car window could be a big deal, but Dad cared too much about the planet and other people to make his garbage their problem. And yes, if I threw down a candy wrapper or Coke can behind my Dad’s back, he would make me walk all the way back and pick it up. In even the minor, day-to-day actions of life, my Dad taught me to think about other people. He loved me by helping me love others and care for their well being.
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things…” (v. 7) The Message translation from this portion of the passage says that love “always looks for the best” and “never looks back.” My Dad was an eternal optimist, especially when it came to seeing the goodness in other people. I’m thankful that my Dad always saw the best in me, even when I didn’t always show him my best. When it came to emotions and arguments that happen between a father and son, my Dad had an unbelievably short memory. If Dad and I had a disagreement on Friday night, Dad would be completely back to his normal, smiling self by that Saturday morning. He never, ever withheld his love, because he knew love could solve all of our problems. He knew that he could reach me by loving me, not by shunning me. He let love cover every interaction we ever had. I wish I had always done the same.
“Love endures all things.” (v. 7) I can think of few things that could have devastated my life more than losing one of my parents, but strangely enough I still felt that the love my Dad showed me each and every day could carry me through the pain of losing him. Strangely, the love he showed me helped prepare me for eventually losing him. I watched the way my Dad treated me when I was hurting, and in turn I learned how to better comfort my Mom and other family members when they were grieving. My Dad had the uncanny ability to nurture me authentically, and when he died I knew that one of the central callings of my life would be to love people the way he did.
“Love never ends.” (v. 8) My Dad’s life here on Earth might have ended, but I know that his love never has. It’s still with me. I feel it every single day. On certain days, I can still feel him talking to me. I don’t know if it’s Scripturally or theologically sound, but I’ve felt messages of love from my Dad numerous times since he died—especially in the dark moments where I needed them most. I think this is the greatest reflection of a person’s capacity to love—the body may be gone, but the heart and the soul are still here when you need them. When I lack confidence or feel nervous, I can still picture my Dad standing there with a huge smile on his face saying “I’m proud of you, Bub.” That’s all I need. That’s all I’ll ever need.
I’ve often heard that the best way to fight the Devil and the doubt he creates is to attack him with Scripture. This battle tactic isn’t a speculation…it’s directly evidenced when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 4 or Luke 4). When Satan tempted Jesus with food or power, and even pushed him to test God’s love for him by jumping from the Temple and calling on Angels to rescue him, Jesus fought back by quoting the word of God. Satan tried to create doubt, but Jesus relied on the unfailing truth of God’s Word to bolster his spirit. And it worked.
Doubt is, unfortunately, natural in the life of a suicide survivor. When something as unthinkable as a suicide happens to someone we love, it’s easy to question everything that previously seemed to be real or true. “If that could happen,” the suicide survivor says, “then how can I trust anything else I’ve ever believed?” It sounds dramatic, but I’ve experienced it myself…as have millions of others who are left behind with this heartache.
I’m so thankful, though, that in the midst of all my heartache and doubt and confusion I can know without question that, yes, my Dad loved me and that, yes, he still loves me.
My Dad’s death from suicide was not a conscious decision, but one that occurred in the middle of a terrible storm and illness that took over his thought processes. If anything, I think my Dad’s love for us might have been so strong that he didn’t want his illness to be a burden to me or Mom or the rest of our family. I wish that I had told him that he would never be a burden, and that one of the greatest gifts in my life was receiving his love.
Why would I ever let one defeat like my Dad’s death erase a lifetime of evidence that proves he was loving and caring and kind? One moment does not define a person’s entirety. Suicide, although permanent and irreversible in this situation, does not tell my Dad’s story. The love he showed is what defines him. The love he gave made him the man he was. It’s making me into a better man even though he’s gone.
So yes, amidst all the doubt and confusion that a suicide creates, I know my Dad loved me. I know that he still loves me. It’s there in the pages of my Bible. It’s reflected in the moments of my life. It’s in everything I do, and it always will be.
Dad, I hate that the confusion over your death would even lead to any doubt about whether or not you loved me, but I’m glad that I can quickly rely on the truth of God’s Word and the example you gave me each and every day to reaffirm your love. You were the epitome of a loving Father. I try each day to love people the way you did, and no matter how hard I try I know that I’ll always fall short—that’s how high you set the bar. You made love your mission. You made love your calling. You let God show you how to love, and then you showed God’s people how to love in everything you did. I pray that I’m able to become more and more like you as days go by. As those days pass, I rest assured knowing I will get to see you again. I’ll get to feel your hug and see your smile and know that everything about you is right, even though your circumstances here on Earth weren’t. Keep loving me, Dad. Keep watching over me and pushing me to be a better man. I’ll never stop loving you. Until I can tell you in person, seeya Bub.
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13 (NIV)