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Love in the Time of Suicide
Linda S. Clare
That day, my friend was too exhausted to cry anymore. She sipped her tea and picked at the banana bread I’d made, but she hardly looked at me.
Her husband had tried it. Again.
She stared at the floor, describing the local hospital’s beige and dreary psychiatric ward. When she’d visited, my friend’s husband had chatted about the hospital’s dinner menu. “I think I’ll order the mashed potatoes,” he’d chirped. He seemed to bask in the attention, as if suicide was the best way to spice up a dull morning.
“Did he say why?” I winced.
Her words stung. “When they asked him, he shrugged and said he just decided.” She’d already told me about her husband’s anger problem, and that she was his favorite target.
Then, her voice pinched. “Two attempts, both with weapons, in one year,” she said. “The doctor says he can’t come home this time.”
She paused while I gazed at the potted pink geraniums soaking up sun on the back deck. He was the family gardener—who would tend to the plants? My friend’s pretty face had taken on a grayish cast, even in the warm afternoon light. Should she walk away from this troubled relationship, or stay? She said, “I have some decisions to make.”
My mind had already leapt to the conclusion reached by the doctors, her family and her pastor. “Wanna know what I think?” I blurted it out as I pictured plucking my wonderful friend right out of this terrible situation and whisking her to safety.
“Wait.” She asked me to listen. “Through all of this, I’ve been thinking about your “just love” writing.”
Weeks earlier, when the county jail chaplain told me he didn’t believe in Tough Love—defined as ending relationship with addicts unless they got clean—I’d felt so validated. No, what I needed was a Just Love—the capacity to grant every person, addicts included, dignity and hope without judgment.
Just Love also calls for relationship—meaning both parties are required to offer the same humanity to one another. In a Just Love world, we dare to see addicts or any marginalized persons, as more than something they’ve done or not done. Just Love extends God’s patient, loving attitude to the least of these. Simple.
Most importantly, with Just Love I don’t necessarily have to turn away from my addicted/alcoholic sons. My friend hasn’t always seen it my way, asking if my addicted loved ones are getting the better part of the deal.
But on this day, my friend and I had switched places. Instead of her patiently tolerating my heartfelt belief in supporting my addicted/alcoholic sons, refusing to kick them out until they achieve sobriety, now she was the one who contemplated hanging in there for her husband.
“He had a knife,” I countered. “He could have killed you!”
“But I love him,” she said quietly. “How can I give up on him?”
The week before, she’d raised questions: What did Just Love look like if an addicted or mentally ill loved one acted out violently? Should we accept her even if she endangers lives? How about if he’s verbally or emotionally abusive?
I still wanted to protect my friend, but I had to admit: this is what Just Love looked like from the outside. And watching her suffer, love wasn’t simple at all.
While I was quick to want to separate my friend from her spouse, now she grappled with the same heartbreaking ideas that have dogged me: Do I cut bait and save myself? Which is better—Tough Love or Just Love?
I knew which option I’d choose for her—get the heck out of there before something terrible happened. But to be fair, I tried to see the situation from her vantage point. Suddenly things looked much different.
First, I had to admit that my friend seems to understand things about her husband that I don’t. She loves him for reasons that I can never know.
By that standard, I can’t stop loving my grown children, addictions and all. When it comes to the marginalized—people at the bottom of society who are kept down by punishment, shunning or fear, our knee-jerk reaction is to turn away. But according to the Bible, love is the best response, the response God requires of us.
But it’s not hard to love your own flesh and blood. When I viewed this same belief as an outsider, I began to understand why so many friends (and some who are just tired of my point of view) insist I adopt Tough Love with my sons.
They want me to be safe and happy—exactly what I want for my friend. And I’ve always said that I draw the line at violence—my sons’ or anyone else’s. From where I sat, the whole suicide scene must have been dangerous: she’d removed the knife from her husband’s hand as he sat nearly comatose. He’d swallowed a boatload of pills, too. But what if he’d played dead, only to attack her with that knife?
“He’d never do that,” she said.
Only a couple weeks before, I’d said the same thing when my meth-fueled son made menacing gestures at a big pot of boiling water on the stove just inches away from me. I didn’t know for sure, but because I’m his mom, I bet that I knew him better than most. I gambled that he wouldn’t hurt me.
She insisted her husband would never lift a finger against her, either. We both sensed our loved ones wouldn’t harm us. You might say we each relied upon a kind of deeper knowing that helped us through it.
This deeper knowing sometimes backfires. Domestic violence sometimes does turn deadly. I hate that. And I would never sentence anyone to a lifetime of abuse from someone who supposedly loves them. Sometimes the hurt is too deep and the bridge is too far and the best thing to do is walk (or run) away—Tough Love as survival.
But in other cases, like mine, Just Love feels more appropriate. My sons aren’t bad or trying to inflict abuse upon anyone but themselves. When my sons have been violent against one another I’ve seen it as the logical end to a bunch of rowdy boys’ drinking bouts. They haven’t shot up the neighborhood or tried to off themselves—well, not that often—and I keep nudging them toward treatment. I’ve allowed them to stay in my home long past what Tough Love recommends, but in my opinion, not past what God recommends.
Right or wrong, I refuse to give up on them. Now my friend must make the same decisions about her marriage even as the docs work to have her husband committed. To Tough Love him to the curb or keep Just Loving him?
Over and over, God shows us the way of love. Even though we tend to associate love with warm, fuzzy feelings, in practice we experience love as the most dangerous place to be—love settles us in the crosshairs of vulnerability. In moments when we’re already down for the count, love can hurt, reject or abandon us. Anyone who dares to keep loving a misfit, who won’t give up hope even when the rest of the world has walked away, is either angelic or a darned fool. Practicing Just Love isn’t for everybody, but I still believe it is for me.
My friend may decide that detaching with love is her best response to her husband’s problems. Or she may extend the relationship with Just Love. She’ll invest in the hope that the marriage can heal and he’ll promise to work through the issues.
When her husband is released, I hope he never again attempts suicide. And I hope Just Love helps her stay safe and happy in her marriage just as I hope my sons will seek treatment for their addictions.
To keep this kind of hope alive, we must consider the dangers, and ask ourselves again and again: Dare we risk it all for Love? Live dangerously? For me, God’s answer is always simple. “Just Love,” the One who is Love says, “Just Love.”