As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said in one of my favorite talks titled "A High Priest of Good Things to Come":
"I think of single parents who face all of this but face it alone, having confronted death or divorce, alienation or abandonment, or some other misfortune they had not foreseen in happier days and certainly had not wanted.
"I think of those who want to be married and aren’t, those who desire to have children and cannot, those who have acquaintances but very few friends, those who are grieving over the death of a loved one or are themselves ill with disease. I think of those who suffer from sin—their own or someone else’s—who need to know there is a way back and that happiness can be restored. I think of the disconsolate and downtrodden who feel life has passed them by, or now wish that it would pass them by."
As midsingles some of us are working too much, other not enough. Some of us must carry the weigh of divorce while others have never been married. Some must hide the tears when the kids go to the ex's house for Christmas while other do not know the joy of having children in the house to open presents. Some of us are in difficult relationships and others pray for love to find them before their hearts break from loneliness. Some of us are "firm in the faith" while others of us are finding our way back on the long route home.
The truth is, as midsingles the only three factors we all share in our demographic is that we are single, members of the Church and within a certain age-range. Beyond that, our lives, hopes, fears, joys, pains and everything in between are as varied as the sands of the sea. There are no stereotypical midsingles: just a band of God's children doing their best to serve, to protect, to obey and to grow.
And while our mortal probation can be full of tremendous happiness, it can also be painful, even crushing at times, something I know all too well, as do many of you.
So many people see me as the bobsledder, the author, the motivational speaker, the fundraiser, the leader, the "celebrity" (something I've been called three times in the past week to my amusement), but that is just what the world sees. The truth is that I have faced (and perhaps failed) my own Gethsemanes, experienced my personal Golgotha and somehow survived those dark nights (and days) where I've wondered if the light at the end of the tunnel would ever arrive. Like Joseph Smith, I have cried out (more times than I can count), "O God, where art thou?" (D&C 121:1).
There is a reason I am such an advocate for mental health and suicide prevention: those topics hit close to home. Ever since I was in Junior High I have struggled with anxiety and bouts of depression, and yes, I have been a knife's edge away from suicide. I have spent the night in a crisis center. And believe me, as hard as it is to admit all that and write it, it is a lot harder to spend days, weeks, months and years trying to hold it together. There are libraries devoted to the study of mental health and innumerable studies dedicated to understanding, healing and even eradicating this modern "plague" on mankind.
One of the hardest, and most healing, things I have ever done was speak publicly about my inner battles. It is much easier on the ego and the social bubble to be seen as the athlete, the writer, the public figure. It is scary beyond belief to stand up in front of a crowd and instead of being the motivational speaker to say, "Let me tell you about the time I almost ended my own life..."
Whenever I speak at suicide prevention events or mental health initiatives, the most touching experiences come after the program is over, when I met the audience face-to-face. There are no words to fully describe the absolute naked-soul feelings that speaking with the surviving family members, friends, church leaders, teachers, teammates, etc. bring. For some the wounds of loss are still fresh: "What should I have done differently?" "Why didn't they reach out for help?" "Why didn't I see the signs?" "Was I a bad parent/friend/teacher for not knowing it was going to happen?" Why, why, why?
It is the same question we ask when trials come: why? Why me? Why now? Why is this happening or why did this happen?
In many ways, the why cannot fully be answered in this life, at least not by us mere mortals. Mental health and suicide are topics deeper than the Marianas Trench and more profound then perhaps even mighty Solomon could explain. I do not know where genetics begin and accountability ends, and medical science only focuses on the first. The variables and factors that lead to a person's decision to leave this mortal life and go home to their Father in Heaven are beyond my ability to comprehend. All I can do is tell my story and insights and what science now knows and believes.
But how do we make sense of such loss? How do we find peace when a loved one chooses to go home to God?
First, we must be very careful to not entertain thoughts of failure. Grieving is healthy, but self-castigation is not. So often we blame ourselves, saying, "If only I had done more..." or "I should have reached out..." or "I knew they were struggling, but I didn't know it was so bad and I was so busy..." You're not the Lord; you're human. Chances are you did your best while also managing all the tasks and requirements of your own life. We may (through educating ourselves) see some of the telltale warning signs that a loved one is hurting enough to be in crisis (see NAMI's list here), but sometimes their hurts can seem to be the normal ebbs and flows of life and we simply have no way of knowing which ones will be the one that triggers a soul to say, "I can't do this anymore. God, I'm coming home."
Second, we must remember that mental health is a real health issue. Just like cancer or diabetes, it affects our mortal bodies, in this case through our cognitive processes (and energy levels, etc.) In the Church we focus so much on choices and accountability that we quite frequently (almost subconsciously) throw suicide into that category. We forget that depression and mental illness cloud judgement to a high degree. We must understand that this mental "fog" may make suicide a logical choice to someone who because of their fears, their hurts or their traumas cannot think as clearly, if at all. When a loved one chooses to leave this world for the next, we must be compassionate and judge not at all. In our logic we may not understand the "why", but in their moments of darkness the why made complete sense and we may have to wait for full understanding until they can explain it to us after our own mortal life comes to an end.
Third, to find peace when a loved one leaves we must look at suicide from Christ's perspective. We know that the Lord suffered every temptation, every sin, every hurt, and every illness (including mental illness) in the Garden of Gethsemane. As such, he has the highest degree of compassion and understanding imaginable (far more than you or I could achieve in this life) which means that he cries with every tear shed (ours and theirs) and he will bind up our own hearts when the unexpected pain of loss through suicide floods in. The Lord understands what a person goes through when depression or anxiety or fear or hurt just becomes too much to handle. In the Gospel we are taught to lean upon the Lord, but somewhere in the arithmetic between mental health+personal agency+God's will, in an equation that is far above my comprehension, the fire of adversity can appear to be too much to handle. Whether it is mental, emotional, physical or spiritual exhaustion (or all the above), the weight and darkness can overwhelm a soul. We do our best as loved ones to be aware of such moments, but no living person can be expected to understand every single detail of another's life. We love, we pray, we let our compassionate hearts maintain a vigilance, but sometimes we don't see the evidences of this breaking because they are so well hidden.
I wish I had all the answers, but I am grateful to have faith in a God who does. If you are struggling with now, whether because of the holidays or just the burdens of life, please know that your life is precious and valued by your Heavenly Father. It WILL get better. I can say that because while yes, I have experienced extreme lows in life, I have always risen back up again to enjoy the light of family, friends, talents, and peace. If you need to talk to someone, but are not sure where to start, please consider calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The operators are extremely caring, patient listeners who can be of tremendous support.
Also, if you are feeling down write a list of 5 people you can call day or night (talk to them about this as well) just in case you need support. Don't let your pride or fear get in the way; do it now. Those are your "battle buddies" as the military says as you work your way back to more stable ground. It is ok to be in crisis; there's nothing wrong with you, nothing broken and you're not a failure. You're a human being and those loved ones love you and will help you fight back the dark.
Lastly, I know that this post is barely a scratch on the surface of this very important subject and that it is but a drop in the bucket of the loving support I wish I could give you right now. If you are aching for a loved one you have lost, I wish I could hug you close. Time heals, yes (and this list from the Mayo Clinic can help), and the Lord loves both you and the one you lost. In the here and now, we must accept that as with any individual's choice, we cannot change their decision. What we CAN do is honor their memory, remember the good times, remember what was so amazing about that person, and move forward with our own lives. That is not being selfish, that is doing what they and God both want us to do. Become active in a cause, serve someone around you, and most of all tell those you love just how much you love them. Pick up the phone and call them. Give your kids or spouse or best friend a hug.
Believe that your lost loved one's spirit lives in eternally and that you will see them again and when you next meet they will be free of the pains, burdens and struggles of this world (including mental illness). On that day, they will be a glorious being full of light and peace and joy beyond our comprehension. While your ache will last for a time, your joy with them will last for eternity.
Merry Christmas, my friends.
If you would like to read additional posts about mental health and hope, please click this link.