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Viewing Suicide "Through a Glass Darkly"

By: Janet Britton

Our friendship with Ron and Ann began in response to problems. Ann was pregnant; she'd miscarried five of her six previous pregnancies. Her husband, Ron, had just returned home from a six-week hospital stay where he almost died from peritonitis. The hired hand for the dairy farm Ron was managing for his father until their partnership was drawn up quit without notice--at the beginning of planting season, just when Ron needed extra help--not less.

Our church called for volunteers for fieldwork. Each evening my husband, Rex, began going directly from his job at the lumber mill to Ron's farm. I took Rex's supper there and stayed to help Ann with some of the heavier housework while their seven- year-old son, Rob, entertained Liz, their l8 month old, and our year-old son and three-year-old daughter.

Ann had a healthy baby, Suzy, and Ron got his strength and a new hired hand, but for nine years our lives continued to mesh: Picnics at the lake. Barbecues after planting. Watermelon-seed-spitting contests after haying. "Clean-the-refrigerator" pizzas on snowy evenings. Adult Sunday School parties, wedding anniversary celebrations, and projects--reupholstering, sewing, canning. Our children squealed down the swing set slide, giggled in the playhouse over the workshop, peeled bike tire rubber in the lane, carried snakes from the creek, bottle-fed new-born calves, crunched hard candy from the bag in the milk house. Ron's contract to buy or be a partner in the farm never materialized. Always Ron's folks promised to draw it up "the first of the year."

Ron began to neglect his commitment to Christ and family and the church board presidency. Farming--building a new barn and milking parlor, clearing and tiling land, researching soil and registered Holsteins--absorbed his energy. Afraid to fall asleep at the table, he stood in the doorway to eat lunch--but still he dozed off, a sandwich in his hand, his sun-bleached head propped against the door jam. Sunday morning he'd rush to worship service, collapse in the back pew, and drop promptly to sleep. A friend would wake him to stand for the invitation hymn.

Ron said, "I'm investing my life for the kid's future." Ann said, "There's still no contract. You have the rights of a hired hand. You're sacrificing your family's todays to make your parents wealthy."

Ron planned a festive celebration for Ann's 40th birthday, but the tension bobbed close to the surface. That week as Ann poured my tea, she said, "I've lived my life on promises that Ron and I'd have more time. Things won't change. If I'm going to raise the kids alone, I might as well go back to Virginia. I'll get a job and start over before I'm too old."

That afternoon after Rex got home Ron stopped in. He squirmed as he said Ann was leaving him. The straight-backed rocker he slumped in squeaked. But when he pulled himself up to go milk, he set his jaw, determined, steeled to fight for his family. Ron, the perfectionist, never tolerated personal failure.

Ann left that weekend. It was spring. Ron sold the dairy, rented out the cropland and the buildings and followed her to Virginia to prove he'd give his family his time and his attention--not just things.

We wrote and phoned Ron and Ann continually. But we felt so inadequate to give them the emotional support they needed.

Ron asked us to pray with him: "That I will not allow bitterness of others nor a longing for what might have been to drag me down and negate my progress as a Christian, a father and with Ann." That we could do!

After Thanksgiving he called and asked if he could live with us while he built a house on the land he and Ann owned. He'd work the winter and then Ann and the children could return in the summer, after school was out.

I saw Ron's quiet dependence on God--Ron kneeling by his bedroll in the middle of the night. Ron hunched over his Bible at the kitchen table when I tiptoed downstairs to get breakfast. Ron discussing a verse with Rex, searching for its direct application to his life. Ron scheduling evenings around appointments with a Christian counselor, trying to understand his part in building and now breaking down the barriers to family communication. He said, "I know God expects me to do my best to make things right with Ann and the kids." But he felt unequipped to handle relational problems. He said, "When the cows get out you can round them up and finally get them back in. Sometimes I'd be upset and tired but the job was done. You both know I expect to accomplish what I set my mind to do. I'll never change my mind about Ann or the children--but it's discouraging. I love them and I need them." Ron worked for a fertilizer dealer in the day and built the house at night and looked more and more tired. His only social life was meals with us. Several mentioned that Ron seemed depressed at work, but he was always cheerful at our house.

Then came the traumatic afternoon that changed the lives of both of our families: The last Friday of February shortly after I walked through the laundry room door from a day of teaching Ann popped in unexpectedly to sip tea before returning to Virginia. We clung together after almost a year's separation. She said she was homesick and impulsively drove the nine hours to Ohio. But her visit hadn't been pleasant. The tenant of the farm refused to let her get toys from the attic because Ron's dad legally owned the place. Furious, she'd called Ron. He left work but the tenant would not change his mind.

So they left and Ron took her to see his dream house. She said she told him it was lovely, but not to assume that she and the children would ever live in it. Their differences still needed resolved.

A thousand things still unsaid, Ann had to go. I was browning hamburger for chili, when Ron sagged through the door and into the living room to see Rex. Staring into space, he said, "The boss threatened to fire me for leaving this afternoon. I don't think he meant it, but I don't know what I'd do if." He jerked to his feet and darted to the basement to change clothes so he could work on his house in the February cold.

As I cooked, I hollered down the stairs, trying to draw him into a conversation. "Ann will never set foot in Ohio again," is all he'd say.

I told him he was wrong. We'd made plans for the summer when she and the children returned. Ron didn't answer me. I chattered on, attempting to soothe his pain.

I tried to detain him--to get him to eat with us. But bundled in heavy work clothes, Ron rushed up the steps seemingly driven by a silent force. I felt compelled to keep him from bolting away. I reached out and touched his arm. He halted, but did not look at me. "You know we love you, Ron. Things will work out."

He stood like a statue. Without responding, he threw open the door, leaped into his pickup and rattled out the driveway.

I drifted into the living room and perched on the arm of Rex's chair. We couldn't decide if Rex should follow Ron. We wanted to do the right thing. Rex hesitated. "You know how proud he is. I think he needs to be by himself to get himself together. You know how he hates anyone to see him lose control."

Rex did not step across the line of their friendship--the unstated respect for each other's freedom of choice.

Ron often worked late on weekends. We left the door open and went to bed. The next morning Ron wasn't home. He didn't come for breakfast or lunch. I couldn't ignore that thickening mushroom cloud of fear. "Something's wrong."

Ron always isolated himself when things bothered him. But this was just too long to let him stay alone.

Rex took Gary, a mutual friend, to just casually drop by and help Ron "hammer a few nails for the afternoon." To pass time, I patched the wallpaper around the slightly smaller window Rex had just installed in our son's room. Too soon, I heard gravel scattering in the driveway.

My stomach dropped. I rushed downstairs to open the laundry room door. But my craziest fears hadn't prepared me for Gary's words--"Ron hanged himself."

Painfully, I translated those syllables into a horrible unreality. Events blurred. I moved in slow motion. I struggled to wake from the nightmare. Like when I learned of my sister-in-law's death from a car accident and my father's death from cancer, shock, nature's anesthetic, numbed me out to robot-like help orchestrate the trappings of death--notifying relatives, helping Ann make funeral arrangements--service times, favorite hymns, a cemetery plot, a marker--preparing our children for the services, extending and accepting condolences. Numb, I shoved aside the finality of the closed casket.

But then, like with other deaths, those first shock waves ebbed; my mind froze on scenes of pain, and the throbbing doubts rolled in. The "what ifs" list seemingly had no end after Ron's suicide.

Over and over Rex and I asked, "What if" we'd done things differently? What if I'd convinced Ann to stay in Ohio for the evening? What if I'd said something differently to Ron? What if I'd run after Ron and forced him to stay for supper? What if Rex had followed him instead of leaving him alone? What if we'd suspected?

Normally the community jumps to stifle such self- condemnations: "You certainly can't believe you're responsible." But after Ron's suicide, instead of squelching accusations, people added to them. The community buzzed with speculation: Who's to blame?--Ann, Rex and Janet, Ron's parents, Ron's boss, the Christian counselor?

We reached out to our church family for emotional support as we had previously for physical needs. Through my surgery, radiation and now chemotherapy, the church provided meals, transportation to the hospital, household chores, babysitting. Now they pulled back.

In Sunday school class, I asked, "Pray for Ron's family," and silently implied, "And for our family, too." The class lowered stone faces. That embarrassed silence threatened to suffocate me. Alone Rex and I attempted to deal with our tainted grief.

I never will comprehend why Ron, in direct disobedience to Our Heavenly Father, willing tossed aside his life. But reluctantly I admitted that as individuals and as a church family our time to understand and to minister to Ron had passed. Only God could judge Ron. We had to learn from Ron's death and get busy "feeding" other depressed "lambs" (John 21:15).

The needs of people couldn't wait. Ron's desertion stabbed his three children. His teenage son turned to drugs. His elementary school girls drifted into fantasy. His wife settled into a dangerous depression, beaten down by the deadly "what ifs." My husband stared vacantly for hours, grieving for his friend and for his own inability to prevent Ron's act of despair. Our ten-year-old daughter withdrew, unable to understand why Ron "choked himself." Our eight-year-old son huddled in a fetal position, whimpering dreams in the bedroom he had shared with Ron. Our foster teen refused to stay downstairs at night because she kept "seeing Ron's face in the window." Exhausted from cancer therapy and Ron's loss, I turned in desperation to God. And I found that in the moments I relied on Him to give me strength to care for others, my own emotional wounds began to scab over. As I reached out to "Carry each other's burdens" (Gal 6:2), my own burdens lightened.

Philipians 4 brought the deeper healing. One evening as our daughter talked about missing Ron, she confessed she didn't like thinking about how he died. She set her jaw and turned away.

I held her and said, "Then don't think about his death, honey. Think of how much fun you had when you helped him in the hayfield and in the barn feeding the calves. Think of how he held Susan and Elizabeth. Think of how the cats and Barney [his German Shepherd] followed him all over the farm. Think of how he laughed. Think of those things when you think of our friend Ron."

I kissed her. She ran up the stairs, smiling. I sat staring after her and prayed, "Teach me how to think right." Refusing to "think on" the things that are "lovely" would eventually destroy me. Before I could find true peace, I had to let Christ control both my actions and my thoughts.

Suicide snuffed out the future for Ron and for many of his loved ones. But those who asked God for strength were given work to do--purpose for each moment. The frozen death scenes softened. Miraculously instead of death horrors haunting us, the warm core of happy memories with Ron and Ann poked through to bless our lives once again.

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