The young people seeking a pastoral presence and some structure for their candle-light service were adamant: Their friend, who had grown up in a Presbyterian Church down the road from mine of many years and died far away last week-end, did not believe in God, and they did not want to dishonor her memory with a gathering framed in religious terms. One of the dads ~ a neighbor and my daughter's grad school advisor, in fact ~ a Mennonite member of my home Presbyterian church, asked me as he arrived whether that particular message had been relayed to me.
"Yes, yes," I said.
And so here's what we did:
I offered some opening remarks. I started with Emily Dickinson ~ "After great pain a formal feeling comes" ~ and reminded them that we were in that time frame, and of the essential demands that grief makes before celebration can ensue.
I shared a bit of information about suicide:
That it's a consequence of an illness, depression, which is every bit as insidious and devastating as cancer or heart disease.
That they might find it helpful to dispense with the phrase "She committed suicide'" and to replace it with "She died of suicide." We would never say that someone committed cancer and, while suicide can appear to be an intentional, thoughtful act of a rational mind, things are not always as they seem.
That they are not to blame. That, as the literature tells us, "If you had been responsible for this death, it would not have occurred."
They shared stories and memories.
Outside the small and dark picnic shelter, sheets of rain poured down, and the wind whipped across the lake. The candles they lit as they played recordings of "For Good" and "Hallelujah" repeatedly sputtered and blew out. Finally someone had an idea: Huddle closely together and hold a bundle of candles as one. They were able to watch the light flame up in silence as they listened to their last piece of music (one they had assured me, correctly, that I would not know).
Perhaps the most moving statement of the night came from the aforementioned dad, who noted that "The candles tell you: You shine when you come together."
As they dimmed their candles, I told them what I always tell people: Choose a date on next year's calendar, circle it, and fill the circle with the name of your friend. When that day rolls around, sit down and write a letter filled with your memories ~ a letter to her parents, to her brother or sister, to each other. It will be the most important thing you do that day.
And then I ended with another poem of Emily's, "Hope is the thing with feathers."
I don't know whether I was of any help. I think that mostly they helped one another, with their memories and their music and their candles.
It felt odd to me, leading what was essentially a memorial service, without any mention of the God who watches over them and has welcomed their friend into wherever it is that we go and whoever it is that we become. But it felt honest, as well, to try to offer them a sense of peace and hope in the context of a friendship that meant so much to them.
In Florida, there are two parents and a brother and a sister whose torment has only just begun.
Lord, have mercy.
I posted only yesterday's photo of the light on Facebook, as I felt that it would intrude on the young people's privacy to publish an image of their faces. But here, where the readership is a small and fairly private group, I want to give a sense of these beautiful young people and the generous and giving spirit which they share.