Learning How To Live From The Dying: Part I

A few months ago I learned that my dog Billy has skin cancer.  To pay for the cost of his care I decided to go back to work.  Since I had long experience as a hospice volunteer in several states I decided take a job as an in-home hospice caregiver. 

My first assignment was to give care to and 89-year-old woman who I will call her Molly.  Her regular caregiver was on vacation for a couple of weeks so I was filling in.  She has  a rare form of  Parkinson’s disease that has attacked her  throat and her ability to speak.  Her husband Harry who is 82 is her primary caregiver.  He is a difficult man who is very critical but is attentive to his wife’s care.  Molly also has a daughter who lives in a distant state.  She is very angry at and suspicious of Harry and the two of them can’t get along. Neither the husband nor the daughter are able to express much affection to Molly.

Each day when I arrived Harry would have already given Molly her breakfast and I would try to get her up for the day.  She didn’t have much to look forward to since she would spend most of the day in front of the television watching reruns of Bonanza and Matlock.  So I looked for things that would make her the day more interesting.  First, after getting her dressed I would take her for a walk in the streets outside her home.  We would stop and look at flowers or an interesting bird or even a new car.  While I pushed her wheelchair I would recount tales of my life especially foreign travels and tell her about the people and funny or unusual experiences.  Sometimes she would try to talk with me but she could only manage a hissing sound.  At first I found it difficult to talk about myself but I realized that it was comforting for her to hear these stories and it built a connection between us.

One day I decided to take her out to a local restaurant that offers a free slice of pie on Wednesdays.  It was a difficult a project to get Molly into my car with her wheelchair but she was happy to get out of the house. Molly had a piece of strawberry rhubarb pie with ice cream and a cup of coffee.  It took over an hour for her to eat it and she ate every bite. When she had finished and I started to get her ready to go to the car she looked at me and smiled and said the only word she ever spoke to me, she said “good.” 

An unfortunate incident occurred  her husband put her in her wheelchair in the yard to get some sun.  Somehow she fell over into a cactus plant. She went to the emergency room for treatment as she had reacted to the poison in the plant.  A few days later I was filling in for her regular care giver and took her to a new doctor to look at her throat.  While we were in the waiting room I asked her how she was and if the cactus wounds were painful.  She shook her head and held out her arm to show me the large bumps that were a reaction to the cactus.  Impulsively I kissed the spot and told her that it would make it well.  She laughed!  Never before had I seen her laugh or have any instinct to mirth so we laughed together.

What I learned while caring for Molly is how important it is to find moments of joy in the life of those who have lost so much.  Neither her husband nor her daughter were capable of giving her much affection so I would lavish hugs and kisses on her, telling her she looked pretty after I had combed her hair and she had put on lipstick.  How much she needed the affirmation and how good it felt to give it to her.

The funny thing is that being able to help her helped my soul heal.  Being old and without family means that I rarely find moments in the normal course of my life when I am able to help someone.  What a joy it is to do so.

Because Molly and Harry aren’t believers the most important thing I could do was to pray for them and I still do.  I ask you to pray for them as well.

How Prayer Helps With Suicidal Thoughts

Does God answer prayer about suicidal thoughts? Not in the way I wished he would. I wanted him to take away the anguish. I wanted him to stop the Whisperer when he was telling me to just go ahead and do it.

I imagine that Job felt pretty much the same. He also had to deal with friends telling him his problems were his fault. At least I didn’t have people sitting around telling me I am the cause of all my problems like poor Job. Or if I did I coud just leave. But Job had nowhere to go. His house was gone, his fortune was gone and his children who might have defended him were dead. His wife wasn’t on his side either. She just told him to curse God and die. Job was sitting on an ash heap which means he was in the city dump.

So, why pray when we are suicidal? First, to offer our suffering to God. He tells us we are to make up in our bodies that which is lacking in the suffering of Christ (Col 1:24). Now how could there be anything lacking in the suffering of Christ? There couldn’t be unless God intended to leave some aspect of redemption for us frail humans to make up for in our own sufferings. Therefore God is letting us participate in helping another person be saved or helped by our sufferings. Think of that. That puts my anguish in a different perspective. If my sufferings are somehow used by God to help some lost soul find his way to God then I will suffer more willingly.

Second, God allows us to go through trials and he does. Then suicidal thoughts are certainly a trial. To find out if my suicidal thoughts were a trial, the first thing I did was ask God if this suffering is because of sin. Each day I asked. I couldn’t just assume because they were yesterday that today my suffering is a trial. It may be. but It also might be caused by sin. Keeping a clear conscience with God is vital. I make sure I confess my sins every day and ask forgiveness. Then if I have suicidal thoughts I can attribute them to a trial by God. I have Abraham and Job as my heroes in this.

Finally our fidelity in trial gives God glory. This is hard to understand. In the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to his upcoming passion as giving glory to the Father. In Jn 21:19 Jesus refers to the future death of Peter, which was crucifixion, as giving glory to God. Job’s suffering without cursing God also glorified God. The glory is the faithfulness of the follower when there is no benefit for him, quite the contrary when everything seems to be against him and God seems distant.

So there are three reasons to endure the temptation to suicide. I found that I could just say no and the Whisperer was impotent. Praying helped me to endure the temptation. Once I understood that the temptation wasn’t punishment but it was a trial I God strengthened me to endure it.

Friend, don’t do it. Just get through the next hour, the next 5 minutes. Get out of the house. Go anywhere, call a friend. Send me your email with your phone number and I will talk with you. Pray and God will answer. He won’t necessarily take away the temptation but he will help you get through it.

Rain in the Desert: God’s Gift

Right now in Albuquerque, New Mexico it is raining and raining hard. It has been several years since we have had real rainfall. I understand how the Biblical people who lived with the torments of drought must have felt when it finally rained.   Our crops are blighted.  Our forests are dry and sere where they should be green and luxuriant in a high desert sort of way.   Farmers have not sown their usual crops.   In the second poorest state in the country, a drought is something that impacts the lives of all.   The beasts of the forests come down to the cities and try to find food and water.   They eat any pet whose owner is careless enough to let them out unguarded.   God seems far away.

The doors to my house are open as I listen to the glorious sound of the rain which runs down the driveway and joins the river in the street.  I see my neighbors standing and watching at their doors.  The look on our faces is one of relief.  It isn’t like we think of the drought every minute like the farmers probably do.  But it is there.  A terrifying reality we can’t control.

The other day I heard on the radio that La Niña was gone,  El Niño was back.  These cold and warm currants in the Pacific so far away control the weather in this southwestern state so distant.  I have thought of El Niño as Jesus who brings good weather.  To me La Niña is the goddess, the primitive one.  I am so glad she is gone and that our benign El Niño has returned.

Thank you Lord for your goodness and your kindness.  Thank you for caring for us.

Coping with Suicidal Thoughts

Most people have had thoughts of ending their life.  When you are grieving the loss of someone you love, or when you are lonely or afraid, it is common to think of it.  But it is one thing to think about suicide and quite another to feel a compulsion to kill yourself.

Since my husband killed himself nearly two years ago, thoughts of suicide have been my frequent companion.  Several times these thoughts have resulted in my going to the hospital for evaluation.  Sometimes, but not always, I am also depressed when I feel this terrible compulsion to kill myself.  I call these compulsive thoughts of suicide the Whisperer because it feels like someone is urging me to kill myself.

I have worked out a strategy to handle suicidal impulses.   It isn’t a sure-fire solution but it does help.

First, I pray.  I can find comfort and assurance in prayer.  Reading the Bible and reading authors whose work I can trust also fall under this dictum of prayer.  I  find especially helpful a couple of books by Patrick Reardon, The Trial of Job and The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth About the Humanity of Christ.  Understanding that Jesus  was really human, that when he underwent temptation he felt tempted.  When Satan took Jesus into the desert at the beginning of his ministry and told him to throw himself off the mountain because God would save him, we know that Jesus was genuinely tested.  He wasn’t walking through it like playing a part in a film.  He felt the temptation.   This makes him a savior I can relate to.  If you search back through my other posts you will find that Job’s trials helped me to understand the impulse to kill myself as a trial by God.  God isn’t standing aside being repulsed by my urge to kill myself, he is loving me and giving me the spiritual strength to endure.

What if I can’t pray?  Then I ask the Holy Spirit to pray for me as described in Romans 8:26.  I also ask friends and fellow Christians to pray for me that God will comfort me and strengthen me.  Send me a comment asking for prayer and I and others who read this site will pray or you.  Not just once but every day.

Second, I do the things I love even though I don’t want to do them.  This takes tremendous will.  I love to hike and since I  live in New Mexico near the Sandia Mountains I am able to hike when I want.  It always helps.  I come back restored to who I really am.  Sometimes I go every day.  Just knowing that I can go hiking the next morning gets me through those terrible nights with the Whisperer.   I also take photographs when I hike and sometimes I  go out in the city to take photographs in the evenings when the Whisperer afflicts me.   Seeing through a camera lens changes my perspective and cleanses me of my own preoccupations with age, loneliness and fear.  In the evening  I go to places where people are shopping or eating in restaurants and take photos of faces and grouping that catch my eye.  Amazing how purifying that is.

Third,  I seek out people.  Since I don’t have many friends, I usually go to a restaurant where I know the servers and talk with them.  We just talk stuff.  None of them know my problem.  They tell me about their kids and problems with jobs and sick parents.  Somehow caring about another person helps me to forget myself.   It always takes an effort to get beyond myself but when I do I find it liberating.

Fourth,  Send me an email at msscholz@aol.com and I will respond as soon as I get it.  Let me know your telephone number if you want me to call you.  Maybe we can pray and talk and that will help.  If you don’t want to email me then call the national suicide hotline and they will connect you with local help.  The number is 1-800-273-8255.

Just remember, Friend, that if you can make it until the morning or for a couple of hours you will see things differently.   Whether you are lonely or afraid, abused or old.  Whatever the problem, it won’t go away but it can get better.  There are people who care.

I care and want  to help you.  I will pray with you, listen to you and give you a shoulder to cry on.  Just don’t take that final step.  You will be glad you didn’t and so will I and a lot of other people who read this blog.

How I Miss My Husband

It has been only in the last six months that I have missed my husband. He killed himself almost 2 years ago. At first I was frozen in disbelief and confusion. Only later did I begin to feel anger and despair.  At last I am able to love him and miss him.

I took this picture of him 3 weeks before he died.  At that time I insisted  on taking day trips every weekend because  his mental decline was so rapid.  On that weekend we went to see the pueblos in the salt plains area of New Mexico.  Early Franciscan churches were built in three pueblos in the late 1400’s.  This picture I took at Gran Quivera, the largest pueblo.  Rich was singing the ” Salve Regina”  in the ruins of the church there.  The acoustics are still fantastic in those old ruins and Rich’s soaring tenor gave glory to God that day.

It had probably been ten years since Rich had sung the Salve.  For the first few years of our marriage we would sing it most nights.  I usually stopped singing just to listen to him sing alone.  That day, at Gran Quivera, Rich said he wanted his ashes scattered there when he died.  I guess he had already decided what he was going to do but I had no real intuition of his intention.

I was pretty much on my own taking care of Richard.  His psychiatrist was unable to regulate his medications that  were no longer giving him relief.  We tried several psychiatrists but because of our rather poor health insurance  none of the psychiatrist with a good reputation would see him.  His psychotherapist was telling Rich what he wanted to hear, not what he needed to know.  We had a pastor that I later learned felt suicide was inevitable and I don’t think he really tried to help.  He felt Rich’s salvation was secure and that was enough.   Rich’s family had always been in denial about his condition.  His father killed himself at age 53, the same age as Rich.  Both he and his father had bi-polar mental illness.

This is pretty familiar story to the families of people who kill themselves.  Often it is bi-polar disorder and good help is hard to find.  I was seeing a therapist who thought I should leave Rich.  I was angry with Rich and often unable to respond to him emotionally  but I couldn’t break a vow I made to him and to God.  Nor could I have lived with myself if I had left him.  I thought he would have been lost without me although he blamed me for many of his problems.

The funny thing was that we could always talk in the mornings over our coffee.  We would spend a good half hour just talking and being together each morning until the day he died.  What I would give to have coffee with him now.  I am glad I miss him and cry for him.  How much better than being frozen in confusion and anger.

God’s Final Word to Job

Presuming on God is a dangerous business and I wish not to be guilty of it. By comparing my trial with that of Job I don’t compare myself to the great Job. But I believe we are given the story of Job to understand what it means to be tried by God. Right now, I wonder if my temptation to suicide is subsiding and may not continue. What am I to make of this trial? What lesson am I meant to learn? What is the meaning of this experience? Of course, this may simply be a lull in the Whisperer’s attack.

God addresses Job who is silent before God. Why? God hasn’t answered Job’s questions about his suffering. Yet God has satisfied Job because God has spoken to him and that was what job really wanted. God then asks Job who is more righteous God or himself based on the evidence.

In Job 40:8 God asks:
“Would you discredit my justice?
Would you condemn me to justify yourself?

So what did Job gain from this trial? According to Fr. Patrick Reardon, “One observes in Job’s repentance that he arrives at a new state of humility, not from consideration of his own sins, but by his experience of God’s overwhelming power and glory. When God finally reveals Himself to Job, the revelation is different from anything Job either sought or expected, but clearly he is not disappointed.”

The modern world does not greatly value humility. Certainly it is rare for parents to stress humility as a virtue for their children. You need self-confidence is a common dictum to children. I am no different. I have valued my independence and self-reliance as much as or more than most modern people do. My husband’s suicide and the subsequent deterioration in my mental state with suicidal ideation has certainly caused me to reconsider my reliance on self. In my current state self-reliance seems delusional. In my temptation to suicide God’s power and my weakness are exposed to both me and all the world. Fr. Reardon says of Job’s trial “Instead of pleading his (God’s) case with Job, as Job has often requested, the Lord deals with him as with a child. Job must return to his childhood sense of awe and of wonder. It is the Lord’s last word in the argument.” Certainly as a result of my temptation and trial I am more aware of my complete dependence on God. Every breath I take is because he wills it. This is something I have always known intellectually but it now has an immediacy and actuality that is more real than all my human concerns.

In wisdom literature the doubling of Job’s fortune and life and God’s direct interaction with Job are definitive. In my life I learn more slowly and I must wait to see if this trial is ending or if it is simply an interlude. In either case I am grateful for the much-needed rest.

Aging and Suicide

Today a release in the Albuquerque Journal Staff Wire headlined “Brother, Sister Die in Likely Murder-Suicide.” Police identified the victims as Kenneth and Shirley Robson, both of whom were in their 60’s. The brother was a caretaker for his sister and they lived in a mobile home. Police detectives speculate that either health or financial problems prompted the murder-suicide.

Perhaps their problems might have been spiritual. I wonder if loneliness and fear were the motivating factors. Our society is one that promises a “safety net”. But what is the safety net for despair? Did the brother in seeking help for his sister get handed a lot of forms with stern admonitions about qualifying for help. Was he met with hard faces at the agencies where he went for help? Did he belong to a church? Did the church look beneath the surface to see the despair? Or were they just overlooked by all these organizations of help as a an unnecessary impediment to their mission.

People over 80 have the highest rates of suicide in the country. Why? They are too often left alone to cope on insufficient incomes and illness without people who befriend them.

While there are many people genuinely trying to help people like the Robsons, I don’t think that government agencies or even churches are the best way for them to get help. Neighbor’s who look out for warning signs, who visit even though they have busy lives, who try to understand the neglected and desperate are the foundation of help. It is so easy to turn a blind eye to the desperate.

How often when I have tried to help someone who seemed needy have I been rebuffed or perhaps my help was abused; the need was feigned. As a consequence I have found myself looking away from problems and letting myself grow cynical. When I do this I miss the chance to help someone genuinely in need that God is calling me to help. I am sure that what I have done is a terrible thing in th<a
Let's look around us and notice those in need. Those who aren't visited, who remain alone day after day and remember what our Lord said about helping our neighbor and the widow and the orphan. Let's not wait for the agency to step in but get them the help they need.

Please let me know what you think about the Robson's. It may be that nothing could have been done. Yet again something might have been done and wasn't. God forgive us if that is true.