Twenty years ago this month my baby sister killed herself. At age 32, after enduring more than a decade of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, depression, pain from scoliosis, and excruciating migraines, she ended her life.
Amid the chaotic and overwhelming mix of emotions I went through in the weeks and months and years following her death, the most lasting one has been guilt.
- I hadn’t been able to help her.
- I hadn’t been able to stop her.
- my life had been easier than hers.
But worst of all was knowing that sometimes I had wished that one her many suicide attempts would finally succeed. And now it had.
What in the world was I supposed to do with the tidal wave of gut-wrenching guilt that followed?
Well, what I was supposed to do and what I did were quite different. I stuffed them. Instead of going to Jesus with my guilt and sorrow for my selfish feelings towards my sister, I shoved them out of my mind.
Why? Because that’s what I always did with shame… I hid from it.
My sister had suffered unspeakable mental and physical pain for years. In her early twenties she began experiencing PTSD flashbacks that alerted her to the abuse she had undergone years earlier from our father. She then began what became over a decade of dealing with ongoing, debilitating depression.
My sister fought hard with every ounce of her strength, but in the end… it wasn’t enough. And although I saw her suffer and felt badly for her, I didn’t really get it. I couldn’t understand the mountain of overwhelming pain that she had to deal with every single day. As a result, I got frustrated with her.
I didn’t like the fact that she had sought healing the “worldly” way. After all, I hadn’t, and I was fine. I had a wonderful marriage, beautiful children, comfortable home, and was busy in church ministry.
Besides, all of her therapy and hospitalizations didn’t work. All she seemed to be doing was stirring up bad memories, which in turn, provided an endless source of fuel to keep her anger burning.
I didn’t get it. Rehashing her memories of abuse through therapy seemed at best pointless and at worst, narcissistic.
In short, I judged her.
I thought that she was getting what she deserved by not being a good Christian.
I had shared my testimony with her numerous times to no avail. Until shortly before the end of her life she remained steadfastly resistant to anything that resembled religion. She rejected God because the man who had abused her, our father, had been a respected member of our church.
To my mind, all she needed to do was follow my example by first, forgiving our dad, and embracing Christianity. I knew that all her problems would be solved if she would just stop resisting Jesus. I was so frustrated by her attempts to fix herself.
Conversely, on some level, I thought I deserved the many ways my life had been blessed compared to hers. Although grace had been poured out to me, I thought I had earned it.
What I didn’t know then was that we were both very broken women who dealt with our pain in different ways. But where we differed was in that she faced hers and I… well, I didn’t.
Although her mind hid her traumatic memories from her until she was in her twenties, once they came to light, she faced them head on. She didn’t hide from her pain; she admitted that she was wounded and sought out ways to heal herself.
Not so with me. I had forgiven my dad when I was a teenager in a life-changing encounter with Jesus and thought I was all set. More than that, that I was fine.
After her death I went on being “fine” by ignoring my wounded heart out of a false belief that being a good representative of Christ meant denying my pain. It is only in recent years that I have begun to see how wrong I was.
It took a courage that I didn’t have for my fragile sister to fight for herself.
She fought by admitting that she was broken. And because she refused to say that she was healthy when she knew that she was not, she had her own life-altering encounter with her Heavenly Father shortly before she died.
One afternoon, with tears streaming down her pale cheeks, she told me that she couldn’t go on without Jesus. She said, “I can’t do this anymore.” Then she asked me if I had a Bible that she could have. I got her one.
That’s my last memory of my baby sister. A couple of months later she died.
I don’t know everything that passed between my sweet sister and her Savior; that’s between her and Him. But I like to think that before she closed her eyes for the last time that her soul cried out to Jesus in anguish for Him to do what she couldn’t do for herself… to save her.
Because that’s what Jesus has done for me in the years following her death. He has brought me to a place of first recognizing, and then admitting, that I have more wounds. Jesus has broken through the facade of strength that I had erected.
He has shown me that it is not only okay for me to approach Him in my brokenness, it is essential.
So now when guilt and shame flood my heart and mind, I know what to do with them. More and more, I’m bringing them… without fear… to Jesus.