God in the Midst of our Community Tragedy

24 04 2010

I’m struggling with how to possibly start explaining the events I’ve been through in the last week.

To begin with, I was already swamped. Our gigantic confirmation banquet is this weekend, so my schedule was packed every day with meetings with confirmands and more things than I could actually do in a workday (i.e. I didn’t eat lunch every day this week). Add to that the fact that all of the pastors and two-thirds of the rest of the staff were out of town at a conference, and you begin to see where this is going.

On Wednesday afternoon, one of my confirmands came in from school with the news that his cousin–a seventh grader named Chelsea who attended school with him right down the road from our church–had committed suicide.

I was shocked. She was only 13 years old.

In the ensuing hours, my cell phone buzzed with texts and phone calls. All afternoon and all evening–until 11:00 at night–I fielded phone calls from parents and students, Facebook messages, and texts. Students were incredibly shocked, and many didn’t even know how to process.

No one understood why…and no one had a clue that it would be this girl.

As I took a moment to breathe, I heard the church bells from the chapel across the road ringing out one of my favorite hymns: “Abide With Me.” I listened to that song, with a fresh understanding of what it meant. Abide with Jesus. Be in constant communication with Him as you go through something like this.

In the most chaotic moments, and in the moments in which I was comforting upset students, I truly think He was guiding me–without me even realizing it.

In the course of that evening, an idea began to take shape in my head. I felt compelled to open up our student center, the Hangar, as a safe place for students to come and grieve together. After a few phone calls to the staff in Florida, we set things in motion. I posted a message on my Facebook page, inviting students to come to the Hangar after school the next day.

By the time I woke up the next morning at 6:00 am, several of my students had reposted that message on their own page. I hastily sent several emails to staff members, explaining what was going on, and sent an email to my confirmation leaders, asking them to come pitch in that afternoon. I then headed to the middle school to see if they needed any extra help.

I hadn’t even pulled into the parking lot when I saw one of my seventh grade boys sitting on the playground, bawling his eyes out. I rolled down my window and talked to him, and then parked and ran inside.

As much as I had steeled myself for what I would likely face, I wasn’t even prepared.

The school was like a war zone. Students were sitting on the floor, standing, draped in stairwells–all sobbing. Some kids were just blindly wandering around, crying by themselves. I ducked into the office, and could barely squeeze in the door with the number of students congregated there with tears streaming down their faces. The secretaries were frantically answering call after call.

I sought out one of the adults standing in the office and managed to say, “I’m Cassie, I’m here from Faith Luth…”

They didn’t even let me finish. I was immediately grilled for information about the after-school open Hangar time, and then led downstairs by the guidance counselor.

As we were walking down, she quietly said, “This is nothing, upstairs. We’ve told everyone to come downstairs to process, down here in The Pit.”

I walked into The Pit, and was floored. All I could see was a sea of middle schoolers in this cafeteria, all in various stages of grief and distress.

I barely made it in the door before I heard, “Cassie’s here!” and had a whole swarm of Faith kids launch themselves at me. Even my eighth grade boys threw themselves at me and hugged me fiercely.

Literally every kid who had ever stepped foot at Faith or attended a youth event there came up and hugged me. Several wouldn’t leave my side.

I cried with them, seeing how devastated and heartbroken they were. In my mind, I pleaded with God to give me the right words to say to these kids.

I spent most of the school day there, comforting not only the Faith kids, but plenty of total strangers. The school was doing a great job handling the chaos. Everyone I saw, from the teachers to guidance counselors to the school police officer to even the janitors, were busy talking and counseling kids.

All day, I heard kids talking about coming to Faith that afternoon. Before I left school, the principal actually got on the intercom and made an announcement about it. I was stunned–not only that an announcement about our church was being made in a public school, but what I pictured as a small gathering of students was turning into something the entire school was talking about.

That afternoon, we had hundreds of students pour into the Hangar, and dozens of parents come in. Some arrived even before school had ended. In the end, Chelsea’s father and one of her brothers even came.

I was so thankful for our incredible staff and amazing leaders. The tiny staff that was left–Mary, DeeAnne, Andy, Steve, Wayne, and Dave–pulled together and made signs, slides, assembled tables and chairs, and prepared the Hangar for the giant onslaught of kids. The preschool sent over all of their staff to pitch in. Pastor Tim Wesemann came and brought tons of helpful resources for kids and parents. Randy King came and was our in-house counselor, and was able to give me some great advice on handling the kids. We had tons of middle school leaders–and a few high school leaders–come and spend time with these hurting kids. With little notice, they did an awesome job and were a great help.

I was drained–but so strengthened and appreciative of the many leaders who came up to me and whispered, “I’m praying for you!”

It was an amazing event, and we were able to pray for and connect with so many kids. God was so clearly working through so many people, and a lot of hurt kids were able to hear the saving Gospel message–straight from Chelsea’s grieving father himself.

To me, one of the most powerful ways God worked through this whole experience was how He prepared me. Several weeks ago, the editor of the LCMS youth ministry publication, the ESource, asked me to help her out and write a resource for suicide. The person who was going to do it apparently backed out at the last minute, and she needed it done in a week. She actually offered up two different topics I could write about–either suicide or handling grief in general. For some reason, even though I knew it would be the harder topic to research and write about, I was drawn to choosing the suicide topic. I researched like mad for a week, talking to every expert I could get a hold of to write this piece.

Originally, it was only supposed to be a Bible study on suicide. Instead, I opted to write an additional resource, a guide for parents and leaders to help youth cope with suicide. At the time I was writing it, a few weeks ago, I remember thinking that this would be the most helpful resource I could picture handing out to parents and leaders, if I were ever to encounter a suicide situation.

Amazing how God works, isn’t it?

I wrote the resource, and ended up being the very first one to use it.

Just a few weeks earlier, and I would’ve been wholly unprepared as to what to say and how to answer the “tough questions”.

We printed off copies of that resource, and every single parent I saw walk through the doors took one. Just being able to offer something to confused and emotional parents was evidence to me that God was so powerfully at work through this whole experience.

As I write this, exhausted and emotionally drained, I still marvel at how I’ve seen God work through all of this–in our leaders, in our staff, in our students, and in the situations that have played out. I know this is just the beginning of a long healing process for many kids and families, and my heart goes out to them. It’s no easy thing to handle suicide at any age, let alone when you’re as young as 11 or 12.

As I write this now, the church bells are softly ringing out, “O God, Our Help In Ages Past”. I know from memory the most poignant lines of that song:

“O God, our help in ages past,

our hope for years to come,

our shelter from the stormy blast,

and our eternal home.”

As one of my leaders said simply yesterday, “God is good.”





The Ugly “S” Word

16 03 2010

About a week ago, I was contacted by an editor to do a youth ministry resource for her website. It was a bit of a last-minute thing, as someone else had planned to do the article but backed out at the eleventh hour. Still on a high after they published another piece of mine (check it out here), I eagerly agreed to the one-week deadline.

The topic? Suicide.

Oh.

Cue the heavy curtain of depression, crashing down on me.

Let’s be honest…no one wants to write about dark topics like that. At least, I don’t. I’d much rather write like Dave Barry, rambling on about random things like squirrels and the driving habits of illegal immigrants.

I’ve had a few personal connections to people who’ve committed suicide. The brother of a high school classmate and teammate of mine committed suicide when I was a senior in high school. That grief was raw at our school for a long time, as even my band instructor broke down and sobbed about how guilty he felt because he yelled at the boy and told him to stop messing around with the drums the day before he strangled himself.

A few years later, the father of one of my  high school classmates killed himself–after his wife had miraculously survived breast cancer, and his youngest daughter had just scored an incredible full-ride athletic scholarship.

In college, a girl a year older than me committed suicide in her dorm room during Easter break one year. As a Resident Assistant that summer, I was expected to go into rooms before the students arrived and make sure they were in good condition. Not a single person on our staff would go into that room alone; half our team crowded around and peered cautiously in the door. The indentation left by the rope marks were still visible.

My most nerve-wracking brush with suicide came that same year, my first year as an RA. We had an excellent resident assistant program at CUI, complete with hours of practice “crisis situations”. Our program director brought in actors who acted out all sorts of scenarios we could potentially face as RAs–everything from handling fires, drug and alcohol problems, fights, and threatening situations, to depression, homosexuality, and attempted suicide.

I handled all of those situations well, with the exception of the “fight room”, where I thoughtlessly charged in between two large seniors actually smacking each other–one of whom actually ended up in the emergency room later that night, due to their zeal for realistic fighting. But, the situation where we had to talk down a student from swallowing a bottle of pills was definitely the most stressful, to me.

Just a few months later, I was awoken in the middle of the night by a call from the campus security guard. He had just received a call from a student’s frantic mother, who was distraught because she thought her emotionally unstable daughter–a student on campus–was about to commit suicide. The guard dialed my number first, as I was the closest RA in the building to the girl. His next call was going to be to my boss, our assistant director.

 The one phrase he uttered, “This is, like, a serious emergency” rattled around in my brain. I stumbled out of bed, pulling on a sweatshirt and shoes, and ran down the hall, searching the building for this girl.

I finally found her, sitting silently in the student lounge. I sat down next to her and asked her what was going on–all the while, frantically scanning her body for signs of self-mutilation and sneaking glances around the room, looking for a hidden weapon. I didn’t really know how to bring up the topic, so I danced around it, asking her how school and life were going, and how she was handling the stress. My assistant director showed up a few minutes later, much to my relief. Together, we sat with this student and asked the tough questions–Are you suicidal? Do you have a plan for killing yourself? How long have you been feeling like this? Does anyone else know what you’re feeling?

We got her some help. And, to my knowledge, she’s fine to this day.

This memory was vivid as I considered how to write a resource that would help youth leaders dealing with this same issue. I threw myself into learning all about the facts of suicide–what mindset those are in when considering it, how to help students cope with it, how to handle it as a youth leader.

After I finished writing it, I shared it with several other people to get their opinions on it. After reading it, one of my friends confided to me how he had had a very real struggle with suicidal thoughts recently.

There’s nothing quite like being faced with the startling thought that the person sitting right in front of you–the friend or family member you love–very well might not have lived to see another day. That you could be attending their funeral. That they could be nothing more than a picture on your desk and a memory.

Suicide. An ugly word, and a depressing topic to think about–but a reality.

But, there’s always Hope.

“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” Psalm 46:1

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39

 “However, as it is written: ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him’”. 1 Corinthians 2:9

 “’For I know the plans I have for you’, declares the Lord, ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.’” Jeremiah 29:11