Archives For First Responder

The Anguish of Suicide

September 2, 2013 — 21 Comments

suicideI was present at the scene of a suicide last night.

In my capacity as a volunteer chaplain with a local law enforcement agency, I was riding with a police officer. We were the initial first responders to arrive.

At the end of a rather uneventful shift, we received an urgent call to respond to a shooting. Naturally, I can’t reveal any details about the event beyond mentioning it involved a firearm. It was probably terribly similar to how you would imagine it to be.

To see a life so sadly cast aside is too sad for words. Contemplating the days ahead for those who loved the deceased is sobering. Their lives will never be the same, and that is the universal legacy bequeathed to family and friends by those who end their own lives. God have mercy on them.

C.S. Lewis understood how despair could drive a person to contemplate this irreversible choice. In a letter to a deeply grieving husband who had lost his wife, Lewis relates how suicide would never provide a genuine resolution to the pain caused by the loss.

One way or another the thing [romantic love] had to die. Perpetual springtime is not allowed. You were not cutting the wood of life according to the grain. There are various possible ways in which it could have died though both the parties went on living.

You have been treated with a severe mercy. You have been brought to see (how true & how very frequent this is!) that you were jealous of God. So from us you have been led back to us and God; it remains to go on to God and us.

She was further on than you [in Christian faith], and she can help you more where she now is than she could have done on earth.*

You must go on. That is one of the many reasons why suicide is out of the question. (Another is the absence of any ground for believing that death by that route would reunite you with her. Why should it? You might be digging an eternally unbridgeable chasm. Disobedience is not the way to get nearer to the obedient.)

There’s no other man, in such affliction as yours, to whom I’d dare write so plainly. And that, if you can believe me, is the strongest proof of my belief in you and love for you. To fools and weaklings one writes soft things. (A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken)

Vanauken, the recipient of the letter, had this response to Lewis’ challenging words: “After this severe and splendid letter, I loved Lewis like a brother. A brother and father combined.”

He continued by explaining how the letter had dispelled any consideration of suicide. “If I had been tempted at all to break my promise to Davy [his wife] about following her by [his] own act, the temptation vanished after one horrified look at Lewis’s ‘eternally unbridgeable chasm.’”

It will take some time for me to “process” my experience last evening. But, having seen death in the past, I found it less traumatic than many others would have.

And, of course, I never knew the person who chose to no longer breathe . . . or smile . . . or dream. I only became “acquainted” with them as I spoke to their spouse in the hours that followed. Sadly, because of a tragic choice, in this world they are merely a memory now.

Naturally, to those who knew and loved them, the vacuum created by their passing cannot be completely filled. Moreover, the wounds caused by the grim nature of their death by choice, will leave permanent scars.

The fact is that during the course of their lives, many people—quite possibly the majority of human beings—consider the possibility that suicide could end the pain they feel. But we must tirelessly remind them, and ourselves, that suicide is a permanent “solution” to temporary circumstances.**

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* Lewis is referring to the concept that the saints (i.e. all believers) currently in the presence of the Lord may have the ability to intercede on behalf of those of us who are still “living.” The best way for Protestants to understand this may be by considering this line of thought: (1) we don’t hesitate to ask our sisters and brothers in Christ to pray for us, (2) we believe that God has already given eternal life to his disciples (meaning that even the departed remain alive), thus (3) it is not illogical that children of God now in his presence would be able to intercede for us in heaven.

Traditional Protestant reticence with this understanding is based in the concept most clearly espoused in I Timothy 2:5. Lewis, of course, was a Protestant himself, but Anglicans are among the minority of Protestants who affirm this practice.

** This is not to belittle the intense agony caused by chronic emotional suffering, but I believe there is a path that leads not to death, but to healing and life. If you have suicidal feelings, I strongly encourage you to seek out a skilled Christian counselor. (Not all clergy possess the necessary training, or the faith itself, to provide an adequate lifeline in these situations.)

If you’re unable to find a pastor in your local area, you can contact me at chaplainstroud at mereinkling dot com and I will attempt to get you in touch with a compassionate minister in your local community.

I spent this morning participating in Major Disaster Response Training at a nearby United States Naval installation. It is connected to the national readiness programs coordinated by FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency).

Thankfully, these plans and preparations have improved dramatically since the tragic events surrounding Hurricane Katrina.

Our “local” exercises will continue tomorrow, with extended brainstorming about a number of scenario variations. They will all be based upon an inevitable 9.0 magnitude megathrust earthquake destined to occur just off the coast of Washington and Oregon states.

The last mega-earthquake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone took place in 1700, and pressure between the earth’s drifting plates continues to build, day by day. When that pent up energy next breaks free, it is likely to affect the volcanoes which run in a fevered band from Alaska to northern California.

The potential for damage and loss of life is great, and barring the return of Christ before the event . . . as I said above, it is inevitable. Geological evidence reveals that these massive upheavals have taken place every 300 to 600 years, for the past three and a half millennia.

Advance planning can help reduce the casualties. More specifically, it enables governmental agencies and other groups to prepare before the event to respond to the crisis as effectively as possible. Better coordination results in less overlap and fewer gaps, especially during the first critical hours when trapped people can be rescued alive from the rubble.

As I sat in the meeting I thought for a while about the other members of the clergy who were in attendance. They earnestly want to learn how to help prepare their congregations for such events, so their church members can recover quickly—and then, in turn, be able to aid everyone else in the community. Everyone attending the meetings here is a volunteer. It’s not their “job” to provide assistance and care to others . . . it’s their calling.

The title for this column mentions a “positive” aspect of disasters. It is this: they provide an opportunity for the very best and most heroic attributes of men and women to be revealed. In the worst of times, the best qualities of humanity shine most clearly.

C.S. Lewis took note of this truth. In his Screwtape Letters, wherein a senior devil provides temptation advice to a junior demon, Lewis addresses this great irony. In horrible circumstances, great good may be manifested.

Now this is a ticklish business. We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. Whenever we have almost succeeded in doing so, the Enemy permits a war or an earthquake or some other calamity, and at once courage becomes so obviously lovely and important even in human eyes that all our work is undone, and there is still at least one vice of which they feel genuine shame. The danger of inducing cowardice in our patients, therefore, is lest we produce real self-knowledge and self-loathing with consequent repentance and humility. And in fact, in the last war, thousands of humans, by discovering their own cowardice, discovered the whole moral world for the first time.

In peace we can make many of them ignore good and evil entirely; in danger, the issue is forced upon them in a guise to which even we cannot blind them. There is here a cruel dilemma before us. If we promoted justice and charity among men, we should be playing directly into the Enemy’s hands; but if we guide them to the opposite behaviour, this sooner or later produces (for He permits it to produce) a war or a revolution, and the undisguisable issue of cowardice or courage awakes thousands of men from moral stupor.

God forbid that natural disasters occur. However, when they do, we can praise him for his acts of benevolence, mercy and healing . . . which are frequently offered through the courageous actions of his children.

May you and I prepare ourselves—physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually—to be instruments of his grace and peace whenever the need arises.

Compassion Fatigue

April 1, 2012 — 6 Comments

Jesus at GethsemaneI just returned from a weeklong gathering with a group of armed forces chaplains. They represented all the branches—Army, Navy & Air Force. (The Navy provides the chaplains for the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard in the United States.)

I retired four years ago, after nearly a quarter century as a chaplain in the Air Force. I miss the people, the esprit de corps, and the awareness of doing something truly important.

On the other hand, I miss neither the innumerable meetings nor the rank consciousness of some chaplains. (Sadly, to some chaplains their rank insignia is more important than the religious symbol they bear.)

I’ve been privileged, in my semi-retirement, to serve my denomination on our national Ministry to the Armed Forces committee. We determine which of our pastors should be allowed to serve as military chaplains. It was in that capacity I attended our annual conference for “our” chaplains.

As always, we offered a first-class program. This one was conducted by Doxology and our speakers were a veteran pastor and a gifted psychologist. They covered a lot of ground during the week, but one of the subjects they began with was helping us assess our own degrees of “compassion fatigue.”

Compassion fatigue is experienced by many people in the so-called helping professions. Medical personnel, first responders and (especially) those in the ministry give so much of themselves without adequate replenishment, that they often end up spiritually exhausted.

It’s easy for critics to judge someone who is genuinely fatigued, because they can become impatient and irritable. People may accuse them of trying to do everything “in their own strength,” rather than relying on God’s grace and anointing.

In his famous prayer, Francis of Assisi asked, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace . . .” This is precisely how most clergy view themselves. But, to more precisely focus the petition, we might pray, “Lord, make me a conduit of your grace.”

If you understand the distinction . . . you can see how even regarding ourselves as God’s instruments or hands or voice in the world, can compel those in the ministry to serve until they drop. So much for the Puritan work ethic. Few of us pause adequately for the rest and renewal we require.

C.S. Lewis described just how costly this love for others can be.

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one. . . . It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell. (The Four Loves.)

You may well be on the verge of compassion fatigue yourself, assuming you care deeply about the suffering of others. If you are, I encourage you to join me in identifying times and places to pause and rest in the presence of God. Scheduling opportunities to meditate on his word and listen for his still small voice as we communicate with him in prayer, will refresh and strengthen each of us.

These precious moments won’t occur accidentally. We need to be intentional in carving them out of our too-busy schedules. But, when we do so, we are spared the pain and numbness of compassion fatigue. We can continue to love others, despite the vulnerability, and still remain healthy and whole.