The mother is heroic at the viewing. She comforts the disheveled tweens who swell in mass to the casket’s edge. She thanks them for being a good friend to her son. She hugs each mourner in their slipshod clothes. Her son has died, but she inoculates them with the relief that someone is bearing the unbearable.
I first notice the camouflage wireless controller while waiting in line near the wreath of white lilies and tropical bromeliads. Around the casket is a display of items showcasing his life. A jacket from his favorite sport’s team. A baseball bat. The TV playing a slideshow of a dark-eyed child with a carnival smile. The wireless controller near his hands. A ballcap folded into fourths and placed over the wound.
“Just a tiny hole,” his mother explains to the pockmarked girl in front of us. “Just a tiny hole so we covered it up with his hat.”
I’m fighting the disheveled crowd and the thick greyness of the room. Something is missing that I usually feel at such events. Something sacred, something cathartic keeping the heaviness away like sandbags against a rising river. There is only thick greyness here. I look at the controller once more before I greet the mother I barely know.
Near the funeral potatoes, a lady whispers to me that he’d been bullied. There it is: the lacquered answer we can run our fingers over and find no roughness or scratches. He was bullied. Kids can be so unkind, she says, her eyes bright and wrinkled.
My chest narrows around my heart. Surprised, I realize I find this explanation petty and calculated. Bullying is the buzzword these days. I’m anemic to acceptance, I’m furious with the excuses. It all begins to feel like excuses. Nothing makes sense.
“The human violence we abhor and fear the most, that which we call ‘random’ and ‘senseless’ is neither,” Gavin de Becker writes. “It always has purpose and meaning, to the perpetrator, at least. We may not choose to explore or understand that purpose, but it is there, and as long as we label it senseless, we’ll not make sense of it.”
I form my own theory. Because of the camouflage controller, I suspect the boy was influenced by video games. My husband confirming that this boy played the violent ones only adds weight to my suspicions. He talked about them at weekly scout meetings. He spent hours in the cyberspace tunnels with the bark of gunfire and the blood. Day after day, disappearing into an unearthly world of violence, fading from the pale remains of daylight, the smells of reality. This is what I picture in my mind.
His parents failed him. This is what I think and there is shame in accusing two strangers ripe and raw in grief. His parents failed him by allowing him to play those games. I’ve summed it up in one airtight ideogram.
My assertion salves the shock of the tragedy. It pencils in the lines between the dots to reveal the hidden picture. If his parents failed him than all I need to do is avoid the same trap. If violent videos games are the culprit than I simply need to ban those games from the life of my children. There. I’m immune to such raucous grief.
I’m passing judgement like a New York Liberal on Ben Shapiro. These parents breathe and love and fear like me. Yet, I cannot let it go and there is research to validate my concerns over the violent video games. I am driven to interpret, to understand the why and the how. Why did his parents allow him access to those games? How does a young kid fixate on suicide? What is the source of the darkness that paws at the brain and canopies the light?
My outrage builds when the time comes to explain the situation to my eleven-year-old son. He asks me the unanswerable.
Why? Why would he do it?
I say that sometimes people feel really, really sad. They lose all hope. They might have a mental illness that hinders their ability to be happy. It’s a disease and maybe this boy couldn’t think clearly. I say all these things to my son, but my words yawp hollow as a windchime.
I want the reason to be violent video games. It makes perfect sense—the bloody images, the assault on the spirit, the way killing can be rewarded with points and popcorn. I’ll dig with clenched fists for proof, for conclusive evidence. I want it to be true because it reinforces my world view.
The truth is I’m trying to avoid the pain.
Teen suicide may be a reality in our world, but it takes a brave person to touch the devastation with tender and open palms.
And I remember. I remember my own precious nephew filling empty Powerade bottles with gasoline one autumn afternoon before biking into the hills behind his house. There, next to a patch of scrub oak, he set himself on fire. He was fifteen. When the pain became hysterical, he ran down the hill, tumbling and rolling, the fire extinguished before it scorched his face. But his heart was lost for a while. He fought to get it back for days, weeks. Years.
I sat with my sister in the waiting room at the hospital’s burn unit. He was going to live. Together we worked to make sense of it, to figure out the why. At first, he claimed someone else did it to him. Two delinquent kids on bikes. Next, he blamed a shadowy figure, a hallucination, for bullying him into using the gasoline, the lighter, the flame.
We considered schizophrenia or a psychotic break. Maybe his chronic depression had finally slipped into the dark river of suicide. Or his anxiety had revved up, banging inside like a crazed ping-pong game until something snapped. And what about his gravitation to emo music, dark comedies, and yes, the horror video games?
All we knew for sure was he wanted his feelings to vanish with a flick of a match.
“I can’t believe he felt bad enough to do this,” my sister whispered.
I would never blame her for this tragedy or accuse her of failing her son. Why would I narrow the complexity of the situation to a video game? I was too close this time. To close to avoid the grief, the helplessness, or to disregard the strength and vulnerability of the people involved. Why do we seek to find blame whenever a tragedy happens? It requires courage to accept the ambiguity, the grief.
And the pain, pure and driven.
A harsh winter storm rolled in a few days before the suicide. A storm pregnant with so much snow that driveways filled up minutes after they had been cleared. The snow lingered in drifts and mounds around streets and sidewalks. School was cancelled, kids frolicked in frigid backyards. Then came an ice storm, freezing the rain on the ground, a glass sheen over the wide-eyed beauty of the snow. A simple grocery trip turned dangerous when my minivan failed to navigate the icy incline on my driveway. Slipping about, I managed to carry the bags into the house where I hibernated the remainder of the day.
The world felt treacherous for weeks afterwards, a mixture of the icy roads and the chill of the tragedy. I recognize now I shielded my heart in the beginning with slapdash icy assumptions. Assumptions that missed the point whether they proved true or false. I failed to look beyond the reason why to the pure undertow of human suffering. The place where empathy thrives.
I hope to be more cautious next time. Not abandoning the search for answers but treading more deliberately in His footsteps. I hope to find my heart more like fresh snow—soft, pliable, and resilient. Strong enough to hold up the skiers. Soft enough to make angels in the snow.
To learn more about my nephew’s story, please check out his memoir on Amazon: https://smile.amazon.com/Phoenix-Flame-Memoir-Mental-Illness/dp/1692102257/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=phoenix+flame&qid=1569874198&sr=8-1