Three years ago this day, my son Aaron Edward Kimel took his life. At that moment, my life and the lives of my wife and children and all who loved him were dramatically changed. I died on that day. I daily live in the death of that day. I have not been resurrected.
A year or two ago an Orthodox priest, Fr Gregory Hogg, called me on the telephone, first to see how I was doing, and secondly to suggest that I write something about suicide from a Christian perspective. I told him that I probably would never be capable of writing such a piece. I still am not.
But I am now capable of writing this post, however one wishes to describe it. Let us call it a lament.
During the first six months after Aaron’s death, I cried every day. This was a totally different kind of weeping than I had ever experienced, a weeping of sorrow and loss, horror and despair. I have buried dozens of parishioners and have ministered to the grieving; but I never knew that sorrow could be like this. I was totally undone. More often than not I would find myself on the floor sobbing uncontrollably. No matter where my collie was in the house, she would hear my keen and come and lick my tears away. She did the same for Christine. The grief consumed me from the inside, leaving only a burnt-out shell. It is a fire that tears cannot extinguish.
Every morning for the first forty days after Aaron’s death, Christine and I would chant the Canon for the Departed from the Old Believers’ Prayerbook. The soul of Aaron visited us on one occasion during our prayers. I did not perceive him. Christine did. He had his hand on my shoulder and stood by my side while we prayed. I wish I could have sensed his presence. Aaron also walked with Christine on two occasions and visited the dreams of his brother Bredon and his best friend Brian. But he has never entered my dreams. I do not know why.
On the fortieth day Fr Peter Day met us at Aaron’s gravesite and offered a Panakhyda.
After the forty days Christine and I continued to say Morning Prayer each day, using the Holy Transfiguration Monastery Prayer Book. On Fridays we would include this prayer:
O God of all spirits and all flesh, Who have destroyed death, overcome the Devil, and given life to the world, grant, O Lord, to the soul of your servant Aaron, who has departed from this life, that it may rest in a place of light, in a place of happiness, in a place of peace, where there is no pain, no grief, no sighing. And since You are a gracious God and the Lover of mankind, forgive him every sin he has committed by thought, or word, or deed, for there is not a man who lives and does not sin: You alone are without sin, Your righteousness is everlasting, and Your word is true. You are the Resurrection and the Life, and the Repose of your departed servant, Aaron, O Christ our God, and we render glory to You, together with Your Eternal Father and your All-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and always and forever and ever. Amen.
May his memory be eternal.
May his memory be eternal.
May his memory be eternal.
O Christ God, with the Saints, grant rest to the soul of your servant, Aaron, in a place where there is no pain, no grief, no sighing, but everlasting life. Amen.
This continued as our daily practice for the first year. Unfortunately we now find it difficult to pray together the Morning Office. The urgency has diminished, and it is harder to maintain the discipline.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me.
During this time the Jesus Prayer became integral to my being. Except for the formal prayers of the Church, it was the only prayer I was capable of saying. I would walk Tiriel and recite the Jesus Prayer continuously. Sometimes I would weep while walking. I did not care who saw me crying and praying. I was mourning. I had lost my son.
The Jesus Prayer continues to be my principal form of prayer. The interior one-way conversations that I used to have with the Lord I now find … irrelevant. I intercede, of course, for my family and friends, but mainly I seek the communion of Christ’s absence through the invocation of the Name. Is not absence itself a form of presence? Simone Weil once wrote: “Contact with God is given us through the sense of absence. Compared with this absence, presence becomes more absent than absence.”
One discovers one’s true friends in tragedy. On the day of Aaron’s death, Fr Stephen Freeman drove from Oak Ridge, Tennessee to Roanoke, Virginia to be with us. He chanted a Panakhyda for Aaron. I do not remember very much of that day. I remember the terror that ran through my spine when the police officers knocked on our door, and I remember Fr Stephen’s visit. The next day three of my old friends from Northern Virginia drove down to be with me—James Cottrell, Bill Minor, and Don Weaver. And two old friends with whom I had lost touch contacted me and have since remained in touch with me—my closest childhood friend, Gianfranco Fiorio, and my dear friend from my Vanderbilt days, Joel Rice. Alas, some friends withdrew and I have not heard from them again. The loss of friendships compounded my grief. I am told by others who have experienced traumatic loss that this is not uncommon. Many people do not know how to deal with a grief of another. If you are one of my friends who abandoned Christine and me after Aaron’s death, please know that I forgive you—but you hurt me deeply and the wound is still open.
Sometime after Aaron’s death I did a Google search for him. I don’t know why. Perhaps for the same reason I still occasionally call his cell phone number. What I discovered horrified me. I came across a blog article in which the writer publicly suggested that my “church-hopping,” as he called it, may have contributed to Aaron’s suicide. He also intimated that, like many other “children of the manse,” Aaron may have been crushed by an over-authoritarian upbringing. The writer qualified his intimations by stating that he did not know me or my family personally, yet this did not deter him from exploiting our tragedy for his blogging purposes. How dare he!
If a friend of yours should ever suffer a traumatic loss of a loved one, do not go up to them and offer sweet spiritual banalities. Do not say to them “He’s with Jesus now” or “She’s in a better place” or anything like that. Don’t say anything! Just put your arms around your friend, hold them, and tell them that you love them and that you are here for them. Then sit with them wordlessly on the mourning bench. Platitudes diminish the depth and holiness of sorrow. Silence and presence are sufficient.
Aaron is always in my thoughts. Always. Gregory Peck’s son Jonathan committed suicide at the age of 24. His father was devastated and could not act for two years. Several years later he spoke of his son in an interview: “I don’t think of him every day. I think of him every hour of every day.” The same is true for me and Aaron. The grief has not diminished. It can burst forth and overwhelm me at any moment. I have simply learned how to function better within its enveloping grasp. I often think on these words from Nicholas Wolterstorff, who lost a son in a climbing accident:
Was he special? Did I love him more—more than his sister and brothers? When they see my tears, do they think I loved him more? … I love them equally though differently. None is special; or rather, each is special. Each has an inscape in which I delight. I celebrate them all and love them each.
Death has picked him out, not love. Death has made him special. He is special in my grieving. When I give thanks, I mention all five; when I lament, I mention only him. Wounded love is special love, special in its wound. Now I think of him every day; before, I did not. Of the five, only he has a grave.
Aaron’s death impacted my religious faith in one important way: it compelled me to publicly speak my hope for the eschatological salvation of every human being. I had long entertained the universalist hope. Hans Urs von Balthasar had brought me that far. It is but a short step from believing in the unconditionality of the divine love to believing that God will find a way to fulfill his love. But I never preached apocatastasis. I kept it close to my heart, sharing it only with my closest friends. But then Aaron died. Not only did I have to bury him, I had to preach the homily at his funeral. I could have asked a fellow priest to preach in my place, but I knew that this was my paternal task. It was as if all of my ministry had been preparation for this one holy work. I could no longer remain a Nicodemus. How could I? And so I stood before the congregation and declaimed the most important sermon of my priesthood. “I will not be saved without my Aaron,” I declared. Perhaps some in the congregation were scandalized. Who was I to make such a claim upon God Almighty? I am certainly not a prophet—only a grieving father. Yet in this homily I believe the Spirit spoke through me. I occasionally come across the assertion that the redeemed will be so caught up in the ecstasy and joy of heaven that they will cease to think upon the damned and their sufferings. Even holy elders have said such things. I too once offered some such justification for eternal perdition in my early days as a parish priest. But now I hear such words as bordering on blasphemy. My whole being cries out against the suggestion. “Love could not bear that!” (St Silouan the Athonite).
Profound grief is its own asceticism and brings its own insights and revelations.
Suicide leaves a special mark on those who are left behind. There is an inchoate guilt and burden, a feeling that you failed the person who had become so desperate that they could not see any future beyond absolute darkness. I share this burden. I know I will bear it to the grave. So many times I have cried out to Aaron and asked him to forgive me. I knew he was in deep pain. I saw it every day in his eyes. But I did not know he was at risk for suicide. He was in therapy. He was on meds. We talked Redskins, Marvel comics, philosophy and religion. We went to movies together. We discussed poker strategy. And so I did not act.
The night of his death Aaron asked me to join him at a tavern poker game. I declined, thinking that he needed an evening away from his father. He seemed disappointed. I never saw him alive again. I cannot play a hand of poker without thinking of my son. He loved the mathematics of the game. When he stayed in a hand, you knew he was silently calculating the odds. He wouldn’t bet on junk. He wouldn’t chase inside straights. He always had something. He rarely saw through my bluffs, though. But that last night he bluffed me. Why didn’t I see? How could I not see?
I miss my son.
Later today Christine and I will visit Aaron and chant a Panakhyda. I ask you to pray for my son. I ask you to pray for my wife and children. I ask you to pray for me.