Recently, I have been meeting with a friend who is struggling with depression and mental illness. Bill has been diagnosed as Bi-Polar or Manic Depressive. The illness is characterized by extreme mood swings of euphoria and then extreme depression. Counseling such a person is very difficult and fraught with risks and much anxiety. In my friend’s case, I have seen him cycle through extreme highs and lows in a single day. Many nights I have gone to bed not knowing if he would survive through the night because he was suicidal. He is under a doctor’s care and sees his psychiatrist on a regular basis. Although he has been prescribed medication, he often fails to take them.
Sometimes, all you can do for a person is to just be present, listen to them, ask questions, provide suggestions, and pray for them. That is what I have been doing with Bill now for some two weeks. So far, it has been working. But with mental illness, there are no guarantees. People make their own choices and sometimes they decide to take matters into their own hands. That was the unfortunate case with the son of one of my former inmates.
It all began with a phone call I received from the shift supervisor at the Lane County Jail. I dread getting calls from the jail because it usually means bad news for someone. This time, I was being asked to give a death notification to a man whose 22 year-old son had just committed suicide.
One of our former deputies presently working in Douglas County had called the jail requesting that “Chaplain Dan” give the death notification. Turns out, he found the deceased young man in what he thought was an abandoned pick-up truck. The young man had shot himself in the head. It was a gruesome sight.
I then had the unpleasant task of calling the mother and verifying the details of the death while at the same time I was trying to comfort her in her grief.
I learned that the young man had recently gotten a DUI and because of it, he had lost his job. As a result, a snow-ball effect ensued. He then had a fight with his girlfriend and she left him. That coupled with his drug addiction and knowing that he was going to have to do some jail time on outstanding warrants was just too much for him. Without hope, he loaded up his dog, dropped him off at a friend’s house and then drove until his pickup truck ran out of gas. That’s where the officer found him, parked along the side of the road, slumped over in the driver’s seat.
Death notifications are always hard but this was to be the most difficult one I have experienced in 37 years of ministry. First off, the dad was in Max Custody. That alone alerted me that this could be fraught with some risk. I am gong to call him “Fred.”
I had asked the officer on duty to stand by in the event things didn’t go well. That proved to be a wise decision. When he called Fred out, he immediately knew something was wrong when the Chaplain was waiting to talk to him.
Fred was a middle-aged man in his early 40’s, with a stocky muscular build, sporting lots of jail-house tattoos. He looked like he could be a real tiger if he wanted to act out.
I will never forget the look in his eyes when he begrudgingly sat down at the table, asking me what this was all about. It was a combination of fear, anger, and suspicion.
We were sitting at a small, round table, with two chairs, facing each other about 2 feet apart. The officer was milling about nearby, trying to act inconspicuous doing various reports and inventory for shift change.
I introduced myself and told him I was sorry that I had bad news concerning his son. Immediately his body stiffened and he clenched his fists. When I told him his son had passed away, he began to cry, “My boy, My boy!” His whole body was shaking with emotion from his head to his feet. I could tell he was about to blow, so I moved my chair back a little.
That was when the officer came near and addressed him suggesting that he could have some yard time to himself to enable him to collect himself before he returned to his cell.
Together we walked him down to the yard where he stayed for about 45 minutes. I waited and watched him until he was ready to return to his housing area. During this time, he continued to weep, crying out, “My Boy, My Boy!”
Upon returning to the housing unit, he asked if he could call his wife. She gave Fred all the sad details. We returned to the table. At one time, I thought Fred was going to hit me. He jumped up, made a fist, and shook it at me. I stayed steady, but the officer made two steps our way, just in case. Afterwards, he wanted to know what God thought about suicide and if there was any hope for his son’s soul. I explained that theologians had different views on that subject and that it wasn’t for me to judge. When I told Fred that God was merciful and understanding of mental illness and depression, it seemed to give him some hope for his son’s eternal soul. I told him, “If the thief on the cross could receive forgiveness just before his death, why couldn't your son? In his dying moments, he could have cried out to Jesus asking for forgiveness.”
After nearly 2 hours of intense ministry, Fred calmed down and sadly returned to his cell.
When I came home from work that day, my wife Marilee asked me how my day was. I told her: “It was one of the most difficult days I have ever had at the jail, but I am glad I was there today.”