I’m preparing to attend the Oregon Christian Writer’s Conference in Portland next week and have to admit it’s been a struggle to get my head in the game after what turned out to be a tragic July for my family. My brother’s wife, Victoria, took her own life on the 4th of July. She was 39 years old and we did not see it coming. Those who knew her well understood she battled depression and detachment disorder, but we also witnessed her wonderful capacity to love others and her vigilant approach to self-care. She lived a very healthy lifestyle and was pursuing projects that we thought would bring her joy. In the end, it wasn’t enough.
In an attempt to focus my battered psyche and finish my proposals and promotional materials for the conference, I pulled out a file of inspiration pieces I keep with research for my novel, CHASING CURES. I needed to revisit why I started writing this book in the first place. My novel follows a fictional family’s not so private struggle with mental illness as the redemptive power of faith and love leads to acceptance in the midst of brokenness. I am not a stranger to this reality and we are once again facing heartbreak on the heels of Victoria’s death.
CHASING CURES draws on my experience as a mother facing the potential genetic impact of mental illness. Like the family in my book, the family I married into balances brilliance and madness. My ex-husband is the great-great-grandson of Leon Forrest Douglass, a notable American inventor and co-founder of the Victor Talking Machine Company.
In my inspiration file, I found a newspaper article my grandmother clipped for me in 2004. The article was about a Christmas tradition Leon Forrest Douglass started at his estate, Victoria Manor, in the 1920’s. Once a year, the Douglass family opened Victoria Manor to the public and distributed gifts to the children of the community. My grandmother remembered this tradition. She lived in the community at the time. The idea that as a girl growing up in a somewhat disadvantaged home, my grandmother may have crossed paths with the family I married into generations later, planted the seed of a novel in my head. There is a community Christmas scene in my book. It is not lost on me that I am now writing to memorialize another Victoria.
I should mention that my marriage was not an easy one. The aftermath of mental illness that plagued my ex-husband’s family took a toll on our relationship and after years of marching to a mission driven desire to save our family, I finally gave up. I had biblical reasons. But, God is good, and our divorce was amicable. We were married for thirteen years and we are good co-parents to our two beautiful children. I am dedicated to finding a healthy way forward, despite the obstacles, genetic or otherwise. I wrote CHASING CURES with his blessing. I wanted to explore how a family could navigate mental illness well and the book gave me a place to put my research and play out scenarios on a fictional family.
When I re-read the article about Christmas at Victoria Manor, I found new significance in light of my own family’s latest tragedy. The last paragraph of the article reads as follows:
*Personal tragedy visited itself on the Victoria Manor in 1934. That year, the inventor and his wife vacated the big house, preferring to live in a small cottage nearby. The annual Christmas party tradition came to an end that year.
Grief can stop us in our tracks. It knocks the wind out of us over and over again until we learn to breathe through it and carry it well, despite the knowledge that it will never truly leave.
We all have stories. Not one of us is immune to tragedy. Sometimes, the most exquisitely beautiful moments are born from most painful ones. I still struggle with why it has to be that way, but I can tell you that with each new hurdle, my faith grows stronger. God refines us through the fire. Hosea 2:15 essentially says God is the only one who can make the valley of trouble a door of hope: “There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.” I can’t explain why this didn’t happen for Victoria. Perhaps it ultimately did. God knew her heart and we pray he welcomed her home.
In Isaiah 66:9 the Lord says “I will not cause pain without allowing something new to be born.” Victoria’s tragic death has inspired others to face their own truths and that is an encouraging response, but any good that comes of it doesn’t make up for the devastating loss as a result of sin, despite forgiveness. Planning Victoria’s funeral was especially hard for my brother and his pastor because while they wanted to celebrate what was beautiful about her life, they didn’t want to glorify the way she died. They handled it perfectly. I really think everything that needed to be said was. If you or someone you know is struggling to understand suicide in the face of faith, here is a link to Victoria’s memorial service. It might help.
Those who loved her most are pummeled by a range of emotions. They are struggling not to let guilt be one of them. Guilt can be so loud. We did something wrong, we should have known better, we should have seen it coming, we should have stopped her. We need to counter the lie of misplaced guilt with the truth. The truth is that Victoria battled demons no one around her had the power to slay. Though she sought to lay her burden at Heaven’s gate, it is the nature of death that pain passes from the deceased to those who loved them most. Her pain stemmed from a darkness she sought freedom from and she wouldn’t want that darkness to linger. But it does. There is suffering and the only recourse is in choosing to suffer well, choosing a way forward that brings more light into this world. There is no relief in perpetuating the cycle of destruction. These are themes I tried to cover in CHASING CURES.
So, yes, life is painful. But life is beautiful as well and we have to view the path ahead with Kingdom eyes and know that nothing is wasted in God’s economy. The only way I know how to do this is to choose faith over fear, every day. I credit some very wise women in my life for passing these snippets of wisdom on to me. As I make my final preparations for the conference and look forward to Fall, I will honor Victoria by heading into this new season filled with faith and hope. I will find the healthy way forward.
*Photo and article credit: Photos from the Earl S. Douglass Jr. collection as printed by Michael Svanevik and Shirley Burgett in their column, MATTERS HISTORICAL, in the Daily News on Monday, December 20, 2004.