Two days ago I learned that my friend Ellie committed suicide.
I am very sad.
Ellie was the secretary in the foreign language department at St. Olaf College, where I went to school. For some reason or another the work study gods smiled down on my blonde head instead of all the others on the Hill (maybe because my name doesn’t begin with Kris-something I got their attention), and they assigned me to her.
It sure didn’t seem like work, and even less so once Liz, Ellie’s sister showed up to secretary alongside her. The three of us did get work done, but had we not enjoyed each other so much, perhaps a few more copies would have been made and letters printed and books delivered.
Other important business was going on. Our lives were touched and changed by each other, and for the better.
Ellie embodied mischief, good-heartedness, orneriness, laughter, principle, incorporated grief, kindness, and safety.
And for the record, I was awfully thankful that I was on her good side.
She died four years ago, and so I’m obviously tardy to the news. I am sure I must have talked to her near the time she decided life was too much, and as I recall the long phone call, we laughed, got caught up, and promised to stay in touch.
So back in the day, the first day of every month, she and I would race to say “Rabbit Rabbit.”
It’s supposed to give you good luck if you say it before anyone else.
I’d never heard of the idea before Ellie but once I did, the game was on. We orchestrated ways to beat the other to the line: leaving post-it notes on chair seats on the last day of the month before the office closed, sending a card in the campus post, leaving a voice mail to be the first one to claim victorious good luck even in absentia.
So when I looked at the calendar on February 1, habit compelled me to say “Rabbit Rabbit” to her, even in absentia.
I just didn’t realize how in absentia it was until I tried to track her down later that day.
I finally got a hold of a mutual friend of ours who broke the news to me via email. This led me to finding Liz again on Facebook. I asked her if I could write about dear Ellie on my blog, and she said yes, and I am so glad she did.
So this is a piece in honor of Ellie M.
She was feisty.
At one level, her suicide seems terribly incongruent with her feisty spirit.
And so when I read that she had died, before I got to the “I believe she took her own life” line, I figured it was those damn cigarettes she smoked (a topic I broached with her tentatively but earnestly….once).
So I’m trying to figure out what the ratio in my reaction of disbelief is: how much of my shock is due to her death, and how much to how she died.
And let me be clear: it is not judgment. Many believe that suicide is the one unforgivable sin, because one can’t request forgiveness afterwards.
That’s hard for me to buy.
Walt Bouman pointed out that if that were true, then someone wanting to do themselves in would be wiser to jump off a bridge rather than shoot themselves, because at least one could bank on the time between the bridge and the water to ask for forgiveness.
It’s an almost obscene analogy, but it does beg the question, doesn’t it?
And really, how many sins do we commit with no knowledge of them? Systemic evil, unintentional slights, consequences of addictions or abusive behaviors that we do not acknowledge or perceive? Can we ever confess and repent of all of our sins?
Again, there is a reason we have the word, “grace.” It means something bestowed when it is not deserved, not earned, not expected. The moment that you earn it you receive something and it is not grace. It is a reward.
So no, I am not angry with her, and I do not fear for her soul.
But I am perplexed. I am aching for those who knew her and loved her more than I. I am sorry that I didn’t know of her pain and sadnesses. I am wishing that she had not died alone.
And I am reminded of Camus, who said that suicide is the only important philosophical question. Something must say “YES” to you to choose to live, for otherwise a “NO” is more powerful than the “YES,” in which case there is no longer any reason to live.
And so of course I am so grieving that she felt compelled toward suicide as a solution.
That said, I don’t believe that it is always so very conscious, when it gets to the point of “choosing” suicide. I know enough of depression and brain chemicals and of unspeakable pain to know that sometimes the line between choice and desperate instinct is blurry.
I do not know many details of what lead up to Ellie concluding that the NO was more powerful than the YES. She clearly felt that the NO was a NO to pain, to suffering, to grief, and the YES would have been to the same.
(Maybe, I say wryly to myself, she took Rabbit Rabbit to the extreme, and wanted to say it first in heaven. I would have preferred a rented billboard into perpetuity, and would have conceded.
And anyway, Ellie, the last shall be first, so there.)
I wish I could have been there to say “YES” to her, knowing that I am not alone in my wish, and wondering if a chorus of YESes would have made the difference anyway.
And I am also led to acknowledge, albeit ruefully, that to one facing great pain, “YES” seems trite, seems to overlook the real suffering that one is enduring, seems as obnoxiously helpful as “Just say no” is to an addict.
So Ellie has morphed from friend into symbol of the persistent presence of pain in our world, and how sometimes, despite protestations and heads in the sand and repeating-after-me’s that life wins, sometimes it doesn’t.
And that is sad.
And so today for me, four years ago for others, Ellie died, and so did a bit of the life in the world. I have to give a win to the reality of NO, dammit.
But enough life is left in this world of ours to say YES to Ellie’s memory: her feisty kind mischievous funny sad warm memory, and to the memory of all those others who found themselves in the same dark spot as she.
And in that memory, I intend to steward those yeses, strewing them about like seeds, even into frozen tundras, in hopes that a bit of YES can melt a bit of NO.
So, in honor of Ellie, YES YES YES.
Anna, a pastor friend of mine, student of Walter Bouman like you and I, had to deal with this when his father committed suicide some years back. My friend still has the letter that Walter Bouman wrote him in act of comfort and as an offering of hope. I think we’ve all been irreparably (and wonderfully) altered by Walter’s wonderful way of framing things. And in that letter was phrasing that went something like, “…stepping out of the World’s NO and into God’s future, God’s YES. Because of this, this was not an act of cowardice. This was an act of courage.”
Obviously Bouman’s very pastoral phrasing isn’t an invitation for us all to step out of the world’s NO. But I’ve been struck ever since conversation wtih my friend over the death of his dad by what it means to believe….deep down…that God has the future. That God has ME in the future and not just today.
I don’t know that I wanted to go here today, but as you remember Ellie, I remember those conversations with my friend, and I remember friend and colleague Tim Stoica who took his life (another Trinity grad) entirely too early.
And while I’m sad, I’m also so very glad that because of the one who does his best work on crosses and tombs, that they have a future IN God. And we do too. -NathanSR
Thank you to both of you (Anna and Nathan) for your blog here and for passing on the wise words of Walter Bouman.
We are seeing suicide thoughts on the rise at the hospital and words cannot express how helpless I feel in reaching out to someone that is in that dark, dark, hole. But that won’t stop me from trying.
May we all give thanks (and prayers that it continue) that our Yes outweighs our No.
Such a nice piece. Thank you for sharing this story. Your “yes” seeds matter.
Courageous response to tragedy, and to your memory of Ellie. May your seeds sprout and make more seeds that can be flung all over creation.
Hi, Anna: I just read your blog entry. I touched home on so many different levels. First, I have grown up saying Rabbit, Rabbit on the first — my entire life. I have no idea why we do it. It has been a race just like you described, and this Feb 1st was no other — my parents and I texting and emailing trying to beat each other. When I was a kid, before technology, we were much more creative. I remember one morning when my brother and mom went out (and no one had remembered) my dad and I made rabbit ears and we wearing them, chewing on carrots, when my mom and brother returned. It was fun stuff. I am glad to think of others sharing in this. At some point I will research the origin.
I have a lot of thoughts about suicide, having dealt with depression for most of my life. So sadly it is one of the few ways people die that leaves the survivors wondering why why why (compounding the already unbearable grief), but I consider it the natural end to a disease process that tricks your brain. I think of suicides as people dying of the disease of depression, rather than people choosing to end their lives. Your brain — with its depression- clouded misinformation campaign — is really trying to kill you, and, unfortunately, in about 1/4 of the cases of people, it wins. It doesn’t mean those people didn’t want to see another day, a major organ malfunctioned and they died instead. I am terribly sorry for your loss.
Anonymous, thank you for your insights into the brain’s role in suicide. I find that perspective very helpful. Anna, you are a gift. Thank you.
Thank you, Anna. How sadly beautiful; how beautifully sad.
A couple years ago a close friend of mine attempted suicide but survived. His reflections in the months following his dramatic event contained some of the most profound revelations I have been privileged to hear. Foremost was his clarity about one thing…he attempted the suicide to escape his pain, he did not do it to die. Previously I had always made a rather simplistic linear assumption…suicide=wanting to end life.
Your dear friend made a choice to end something, whatever that may have been. That ending does become a Yes of sorts. There can be no judgment in that but rather an open door to compassion for the depth of despair many of us will never know but which only God can embrace.
I am sorry for your loss and I am grateful for the sensitive humanity with which you have addressed her story.
Yes, and unfortunately, your linear thinking is not unique! It is a very easy progression to make, and what sacred space you inhabited to have someone talk from the other side of that line.
I have often say that the easiest thing to do is to see that something happened. It is far more complicated and effort-laden to identify why something happened.
We don’t often have an opportunity–either for obvious reasons, or in the case of suicide survivors, for more difficult reasons–to ask the whys. It seems to me that if there ever were a case for compassion and grace, suicide would be it, a real opportunity to demonstrate what the last word is: life.
Thank you for sharing, Mary.
Anna, thank you for this message. My Dad took his life on June 1, 2001. It was a week after Don, Katie and I had moved into our new home, and he had been here visiting just 4 days earlier. Life took such a drastic turn for all of us when we got Mom’s call, and raced to be with her and my brothers. In my parish, there had been 3 suicide related deaths within my first 6 months of ordination, and a number of people who had lost loved ones through suicide. Pentecost Sunday was three days after his death, and we were having Confirmation. As difficult as it was to lead worship that day, I knew I had to be there with my church family – with so many others who were “suicide survivors” – it was like we were there to hold each other up, because we all kwhat that pain was like. In the years since, it is still so painful, but I have used it many times as a teaching moment with my confirmation students. Thank you again, Anna!