Processing reality of suicide

The details are foggy about that morning but the tragic reality never leaves me. I remember the call, the intense grief and the hours my younger brother, even younger cousin and I spent playing in the car as the adults in our family surrounded my Aunt Sybil and Uncle Jim.

The scene was too much for the three of us kids, so our parents tucked us safely away where they could keep an eye on us but not expose us directly to what was happening inside the house.

My oldest cousin, Steve, had committed suicide a few hours before daylight.

It has been about 35 years since that difficult day but I can still sense the intensity surrounding it all — especially the devastation and heartbreak of my Aunt Sybil, who found him that morning. She never spoke of Steve again in public. There were no photos of him in her house. Everything of his disappeared. I’m sure she had it stored away somewhere safe but it was not to be discussed.

My Aunt Sybil held tightly to her faith and served everyone she could with every ounce of energy she had. She took great care of my Uncle Jim, who suffered from several serious health issues.

She grieved hard when she buried him too, but there was something different about the grief she walked through with her son.

Making sense of it all

I remember spending a lot of time at Aunt Sybil’s house, especially after Steve’s death. She loved to spoil her nephews and nieces, and we loved how she spoiled us.

Every once in a while I would actually be the only one there with her. I don’t remember how or why but I treasured those moments because that’s when she would talk about Steve and her relationship with the Lord and how she was surviving each day on the journey.

Her eyes always welled up with the biggest tears and she could never look directly at me as she talked, but she would share until the pain was too much to bear.

She couldn’t understand why he would take his own life, why he didn’t want to live.

She described the pain as having an entire section of her body ripped away with a gaping wound that remained eternally raw.

I’m not exactly sure how I processed all of that as a preteen and young teenager, but I know I hurt deeply for my aunt and uncle as well as our entire family.

There has been another incident of suicide in my extended family and at least two moments when I was the one on the phone for hours talking someone down from threatening suicide.

Overwhelming emotions

It’s truly an overwhelming experience and I found myself angry at times — angry because the person seemed to be acting so selfish in that moment. How could he or she do this to the rest of us? How could he or she hurt his or her parents like that?

As I’ve researched articles through the years, heard people’s stories, talked to experts and learned more about the tendencies of suicide, I’ve realized that a person at that point truly doesn’t see a way out. There are a number of reasons that lead to the pivotal point, but in all cases the person needs professional assistance.

The Alabama Baptist recently published a package of articles on teen suicide — including a report on the Netflix series that gained so much attention earlier this year. I urge you to check out the information and use it as a resource if/when needed. The articles have challenged me to also stay aware of the moods and needs of those in my life and work to help everyone I know realize they are truly valued, and they are not alone.

—Jennifer Davis Rash

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Fighting through the dark areas

“The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict” by The Arbinger Institute

“The Principle of the Path: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be” by Andy Stanley

My brother and brother-in-law both recommended books to me within a few days of each other recently, and I scooped up both immediately. They have different purposes and styles but reading them over the course of the same few weeks reminded me how vital it is to fight through the ugliness and deceptiveness of the world around us and keep our hearts pure.

Both books are quick reads, well-written and convicting. Specific areas, experiences or episodes in your own life will likely surface as you read them, but you also will think of others you want to share the book with as soon as you are finished reading.

A major takeaway from Andy Stanley’s “The Principle of the Path” is: “The direction of your life will determine your destination. … What captures our attention influences our direction. Attention, direction, destination. That’s the principle of the path in three words. And as your attention goes, so goes your life.”

The story in “The Anatomy of Peace” takes the reader through a process to grasp the full picture of resolving conflict but a few key points revolve around seeing others as people, not objects, and how to value others despite having extreme differences.

One passage says, “The people … appeared more concerned with their own burdens than with others’. … It would have been well for them and their cause if they had begun to think as carefully about others as they did about themselves. … What are [their] challenges, trials, burdens and pains? How am I, or some group of which I am a part, adding to these challenges, trials, burdens and pains?”

And a concluding message of hope noted in the book is, “However bleak things look on the outside, the peace that starts it all, the peace within, is merely a choice away. … If we can find our way to peace toward [those who have hurt us], what mountains are too high for human hearts to scale?”

—Jennifer Davis Rash

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Getting pushback? Embrace the opportunity

Pushback

The pastor seemed sad but determined as we talked. His young adult daughters had recently left the denomination and he was disappointed.

They grew up in Alabama Baptist churches where he had always been their pastor — and now they wanted out. Not out of the faith, not out of church activity but out of Baptist life. It was oppressive and narrow-minded, they claimed.

Their decision hurts their dad more than they know and he challenges them when appropriate, but family discussions on the subject tend to end up heated. So he pulls back. He makes his case, reminds them of the benefits and then loves them unconditionally. They consistently advocate for their position and provide justification — at least justification that makes sense to them.

Opportunity to spar

The dad said he counters carefully and wants to make sure they always feel safe to share with him — and even spar with him. He wants to be their sounding board, no matter how much it hurts.

As he talked, I thought of how my dad has allowed me the same freedom to debate with him as I’ve worked to figure out life through the years. We have agreed on some items and disagreed on others but in every case I knew my daddy’s love for me had not changed.

I’ve experienced a similar environment in the ministry where I serve and work. The leader under which I serve has given me the freedom to pushback through the years as I’ve journeyed through various life and learning stages.

Each opportunity to articulate the concept being debated has helped me clarify my own thinking while also gain a better understanding of the opposite side, which reminded me to value the other person as a person even if we disagree.

What a privilege it is for those of us who have mentors who don’t try to control our every thought and opinion. They allow us the opportunity to figure out life and faith and where we fit while in the safety of a loving, godly space — even if it disappoints, hurts or scares them in the process.

Maintaining bond

Finding the perfect balance of helping guide and sharing wisdom while not imposing a top-down, forced directive isn’t an easy skill to achieve. And sometimes conversations do end up heated with lines drawn but if both parties remember the core of their bond, then what better place for those coming up through the ranks to find their way?

I would much rather process and navigate my way through life issues in an environment where I know I’m loved, trusted and respected. And when I make mistakes the recovery rate is so much quicker because of that support system helping me learn and grow from those mistakes rather than leaving me alone and defeated.

And what about all those questions we bounce around in our heads? So many times we need more information to truly understand. Sometimes we need to ask difficult, uncomfortable questions to get there.

Who can you trust?

But finding someone you can trust with the most vulnerable parts of your heart, mind and soul is difficult. Who can you trust to love you anyway, not give up on you, not be harsh and scolding because you asked such questions? Who in your life — outside of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ — can handle watching you wrestle with the specifics of our value system and worldview?

Are we developing ministry leaders, mentors and believers who are secure enough and studied enough in their faith to encourage questions from those searching to find their way? And are we kind enough to embrace the questions as an opportunity rather than shutting someone down for even asking?

—Jennifer Davis Rash 

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A model in ‘finishing well’

My dear friends marked their daughter’s 44th birthday on Saturday, the way they’ve faced it for nearly 20 years — with sweet memories, thoughts of what might have been, a desire to share special moments with her and a deep slice of grief permanently attached to their hearts.

I met this inspiring couple about a year after their daughter’s car accident and formed an instant bond that has only grown stronger through the years.

In February of this year I met a new friend — Janice Pitchford, of Abbeville — who was marking her daughter’s 44th birthday that month in a similar manner.

It was the 30th time for Janice but I found it interesting that the two daughters’ birth years were the same — only two years after my own. And the more I learn about both young women, the more I feel certain the three of us would have found many common bonds if we had had the chance to know each other.

Janice shared about her daughter Dawn’s battle with cancer in 1987 and how she entered her “eternal rest” seven months after her 14th birthday. Journaling the details of that devastating time (January through October 1987) became a therapeutic exercise for Janice, and now she hopes the rawness of those captured moments helps others who are fighting similar battles.

In 2015 Janice pulled her journal entries together, added a section about how their family survived losing Dawn and published a book — “Finishing Well: My Daughter’s Journey Home.”

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Dawn’s sweet spirit, compassionate heart and fierce determination come alive through the pages of Janice’s storytelling. Dawn definitely had an extra dose of grace, perspective and maturity, similar to what I observed in my niece Belle, who fought a five-and-a-half-year battle with cancer starting at age 2.

So much of Dawn’s story reminded me of Belle’s journey and how it impacted her parents and siblings. I connected quickly to Dawn’s Aunt Sherry and saw the familiar faces of an entire community of extended family, friends, church family, doctors, nurses, teachers and so many more as Janice walks us through each step.

The details related to the medical procedures and pain Dawn endured help fully tell the story. The transparency Janice offers in the struggles she faced as mother and primary caregiver keep the story real and relatable.

Janice’s writing style is clean and easy to read but you will need tissue within reach. She also does a good job with the pace. While the book can be read relatively quickly, it took me several months to finish because of the emotional connection to the topic. Janice’s ability to bring the reader into the hospital room alongside the medical staff is definitely what you want in an author — and the reason I could only read for a while before having to step away from it. The experiences Dawn and Janice faced are extremely real for the reader.

Each chapter left me inspired and hopeful despite the sadness of knowing the end of the story.

“As a family we have faced some difficult and painful days,” Janice writes in the epilogue, “but I have to say that through it all we have become stronger and we have grown in ways that I could have never imagined.

“I find that as a Christian, I now see death not as a defeat but a victory,” she continues. “We were dealt a devastating blow by Dawn’s death but our choice was to cherish the memories and reach out to help others through that suffering. In Isaiah 58:10 it says, ‘If you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness and your darkness shall be as the noonday.’ I believe without a doubt that the way through our personal darkness is found by reaching out to others.”

—Jennifer Davis Rash

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Simple act of love or veiled criticism?

My attempt at a gentle teaching moment for a child I’m close to but who is not my actual child wasn’t met with appreciation.

I certainly never intended to overstep. I care deeply about a large number of kiddos in my life, this one included, and think a lot about ways I can assist their parents in developing the good parts of their character.

But the parent took my offering as indictment rather than assistance in what I know is already being taught in the home.

Obviously I have no experience as a parent and don’t claim to have any advice for raising children.

I merely recall how many times I clung to every word and piece of advice offered by extended family members, mentors, teachers, coaches, church leaders, public figures and other such heroes in my life growing up while thinking my parents didn’t have a clue.

Obviously, I discovered how wrong I was about my parents’ level of wisdom once I moved into adulthood myself. And the older I get the more I appreciate the advice, direction and concern my parents provided and continue to provide.

Still it is the rare child who discovers during his or her childhood the value of listening to parents who truly have their best interest in mind and are striving to follow God as they fulfill their role.

Built-in resistance

And because of that built-in reaction to resist and stake our independence, we need a collective force to help us grow into what we hope would be considered responsibile adults.

It’s certainly an extra load none of us have to add to our already overpacked schedules but I’ve found it fulfilling to watch a young person grow and mature, sometimes knowing I had the privilege of contributing to his or her development.

Of course, it can be discouraging at moments as well, like when they refuse to listen to anyone with rational intentions or when they take full credit for something that someone else actually taught them.

I’m guessing parents deal with that scenario on a daily basis.

Trust issues

And, if I’m honest, I can see how another person attempting to share life lessons with a child could upset a parent.

As long as the advice being shared or actions being modeled are in sync with the parents’ comfort level, I’m sure they would normally welcome the reinforcements.

But in a day when criticism is tossed about so freely and flippantly, it is possible the ones who take offense are often times misreading simple acts of love and kindness as veiled judgmental stabs. Then again, it really is hard to tell these days.

I’ve found myself in several day-to-day situations (nothing to do with children) defending a straight-up answer to a question or simple request for assistance in a certain area as being exactly what I outlined. The accusers claimed that what I was saying could not be as simple as I said, that there had to be a hidden agenda.

It hurts a bit when the person saying this to you is someone you thought knew your heart, but it has made me realize the unfortunate degree of how much we as family members, friends, co-workers and believers in general have built walls because of past hurts.

And it inspires me to keep fighting to share God’s love and light, and to remember I desperately need His guidance and strength — and the support of fellow believers — to push through the darkness.

—Jennifer Davis Rash

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Touch of kindness makes a difference

Big Jim

Alabama’s Jacob Tidwell (left) and Kaylee Roth (center) assist Big Jim Salles of Texas as he registers for the SBC annual meeting in Phoenix on June 13. (Photo by Jennifer Davis Rash)

Big Jim didn’t like the formality at all. “James Salles” on his nametag just wouldn’t do.

He promptly requested a Sharpie and took care of it. Now that’s better, he said.

The proud Texan and his wife, Sue, (or Mother, as he called her) were late registering for the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Phoenix. They had car trouble along the way and were exhausted by the desert heat but the sweet southern accents and polite nature of two young Alabama Baptists made everything right again.

Jacob Tidwell of First Baptist Church, Montgomery, moved immediately to creating a new nametag for Big Jim with the approved nickname so he didn’t have to wear the Sharpie-
corrected version.

Tidwell showed the same care for “Ms. Sue” as he made sure she collected her book of ballots, convention program and nametag. Tidwell’s astute observation skills and polite but quick action combined with Judson College student Kaylee Roth’s sweet banter pulled big smiles and lots of laughter from the Salles family.

‘Honey bunches’

And Roth’s warm smile and Cracker Barrel-trained “thanks, honey bunches” sealed the deal — Big Jim and Ms. Sue felt totally at home.

Tidwell and Roth were among 23 college-age young adults from Alabama Baptist churches serving at the SBC registration counters and as greeters and ushers at the doors.

Once I knew the secret code — they were all wearing white golf shirts — then they were easy to spot in the crowds.

As I approached the front door to the convention center the next morning, friendly smiles and warm welcomes greeted me. And yes — white shirts. More Alabama Baptist young adults representing our state and our faith with joyous hearts and gracious spirits.

Alyssa McGee of Hillcrest Baptist Church, Maplesville, and a student at the University of Alabama; Korey Cowart of Central Heights Baptist Church, Florence,and a student at the University of North Alabama; and Rita Pearson-Daley of First, Montgomery, and a student at UAB — all showcasing the Light as they served.

‘Staying with the stuff’

These roles aren’t seen as glamorous like the activities of the platform personalities or the featured presenters at the top-level exhibits but they are acts of service that affect the experience of the participants. They are what a friend of mine calls “staying with the stuff.”

There must be a dependable support team in place consistently working through the routine parts of any ministry, organization or event. Without that team the people called to be out front wouldn’t be able to sustain their responsibilities.

My co-worker Wanda emailed me a prayer as I departed for Phoenix: “May God bless you in your coming and going. May you be so full of the Holy Spirit that He splashes out wherever you walk.”

Her words resurfaced in my mind as I watched our Alabama students in action. What a difference a touch of kindness, joyous heart and gracious spirit make — even in the routine moments.

—Jennifer Davis Rash

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I can fix that, but should I?

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How has life been this week? Working through any disappointments?

It’s hard for me to watch anyone be let down. I tend to take responsibility for reversing such situations even when it’s not my responsibility to bear. I also will carry an unhealthy level of guilt if I discover there was something I could have done but didn’t do to prevent someone in my life from experiencing disappointment.

The desire to serve others in this way includes everything from helping co-workers with daily responsibilities to being there for friends in need to keeping up with all that happens with extended family.

My hubby, Jason, and I have been known to drive five hours one direction to spend Christmas Eve with one side of the family, stay until everyone goes to bed, and then drive seven hours over night another direction to make it to Christmas morning breakfast with the other side of the family.

Difficult decisions

I know, many of you are shaking your head right now and scolding me for that kind of nonsense. But ask any young married couple about the struggle over where to spend various holidays during the first few years of marriage — it can be a difficult season of life transition.

In our case, we couldn’t dream of disappointing either side so we found a solution that kept everyone happy — at least we thought. We soon realized we actually caused anxiety for both sets of parents because of all the travel we were doing with no sleep.

And while it has been almost two decades since first facing those kinds of family-related decisions, I continue to fight an internal battle every day about how I can best serve those around me. The difference now comes with tough life lessons teaching me to work with the information and resources I have to determine what is best for everyone involved, not necessarily what prevents disappointment.

God moments

I still hurt when others are unhappy and I always want to “fix” things but I’m learning to step back, assess the situation and pray for guidance about my proper role. So many times I have rushed to take care of something or someone without working through it with God first.

God has provided several life-altering, face-on-the-ground-grateful-to-Him opportunities to serve since I gave Him my heart and life atage 19. The most profound opportunity revolved around Belle, my precious niece who snuggled her way into countless hearts during her courageous five-and-a-half-year battle with cancer.

So when I can evaluate such impactful seasons such as what God gave me through Belle, why would I dare snatch every random opportunity to help as if they were really all for me? Could I be swiping another person’s chance to serve and thus be stealing his or her blessing?

Internal battle

And why would I not strictly follow Him to the specific areas of service He has in store?

I’m sure part of it is because of the desire to prevent unhappiness in others. Another aspect is likely a need to be needed or the fulfillment that comes with making others happy. And then there is the extreme need for efficiency I have as well as the ability to quickly assess a situation — these two traits allow me to solve problems quickly.

But as one of my mentors always reminds me, “strength overdone becomes weakness.”

Another lesson I’ve learned in recent years is to be mindful of each person’s tolerance level related to frustrations and what is really a call for help versus a verbal processing of anxiety.

My typical response to being overwhelmed or experiencing distress is to focus, prioritize and get to work. I will attempt to chip away at each item, starting with the most urgent and maneuvering my way from there. I intend to handle everything put on me without ever asking for help. Granted, this is not necessarily the right thing to do nor is it always possible but it is where I start.

Built differently

So a lesson I learned the hard way is that while I personally will wait until it is nearly too late to be rescued before I will dare ask for help, others aren’t built that way.

Some are much healthier in their approach and know the proper time to request assistance as well as specifically what is truly needed from others and what they can handle themselves. They know the right thing to ask from the right person at the right time.

However, there are others — none I know of course (eh hem) — who start expressing fret, disappointment, unhappiness, fear, etc., the second anything changes in their day or something doesn’t work exactly right. Combine their immediate screams for help and my innate desire to take care of others and I’m forced back into an internal battle.

How do you react?

For me it is about setting boundaries and learning to hesitate unless I know it is a serious issue in which I need to assist.

For others, if you are one who reacts quickly, loudly and with anxiety to frustrations in your day, please know you are likely taking others down around you without even realizing it. Finding a way to cope through calmer and more productive methods could be your way of truly serving and improving the quality of life for those around you.

—Jennifer Davis Rash

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