Hillside Gardens is beautiful in the fall. The sun shines through the leaves of the trees, and the trickling water of the fountains scattered throughout the property offer a welcome calm. We needed that calm as we lined up to sign the guest book. The day I sent out my last story for my blog, a story about sitting in the darkness with people, some friends found themselves in a darkness I couldn’t imagine facing as a parent. Their 16-year-old daughter took her life.
It was standing room only at her memorial service. A woman played a harp as people stared up at the mountains, searching for answers that weren’t there. The fountains trickled, and the sun lit up the flowers, but it wasn’t enough to shake the sadness. My friend walked up to the podium carrying a folded piece of paper, wiping away tears. He was strong, talking about a memory of his little girl waking him up to play as soon as the sun came up. “She’s with Jesus now,” he said, “tugging on His robe and playing with Him.” He looked at us, pausing, as if someone in the audience might say something to make the pain go away, and then he sat down. The pastor spoke about the beauty of this girl’s life and the comfort of a God who is with us in the midst of our hurting.
One of her friends got up. She read from her paper, sharing the memories they made, and when she was done, she wanted to share something “unscripted.” She put down her paper and said, “The day after I found out, I was confused. I didn’t know what to think. A friend of mine invited me to go on a hike.” Her eyes filled with tears as she looked at us. “You might think this sounds weird, but while we were on that hike, there were some white butterflies, and I felt her there.”
Standing in the back, I was skeptical about the butterflies. It was a teenager’s attempt to deal with pain, but even if there’s nothing to it, I thought, at least it comforts her.
She continued. “I knew something special happened, but I didn’t know exactly what it meant, so I did some research.” She smiled as she finished her thought. “White butterflies mean someone in Heaven is thinking about you. . . and that they’re okay.” We smiled back at her as she sat down, and the pastor got up to finish the service, but there was one more person who wanted to speak.
It was the mother, my friend. Holding Kleenex in her hand, she walked up to the podium and said, “I wasn’t going to say anything, but I think we’re missing something.” She waited, trying to finish without crying. “My daughter battled mental illness, and now she’s gone.” Holding on to the podium, she continued, “More and more kids are deciding to take their lives. Mental illness is an epidemic, and it’s being ignored.” Now she was leaning forward, pleading with the kids, “If any of you are in hard places, thinking about suicide, please talk to someone.”
After the service was over, people moved through chairs and the food line, offering hugs and talking about the service. There were a few teachers I knew, and one of them was with her daughter. I told them how much the parents’ words meant to me. “People just need someone who’ll listen,” I said.
“That’s why I’m thankful for this lady.” Emily was pointing at her mom, Sue. She was probably ten when we first met. Now she’s 25, and somewhere along the way, she too considered ending it all. “If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here today,” she said, smiling at her mom. I asked what that moment was like, hoping I hadn’t crossed a line.
“I just wanted to end the pain. It felt like too much. It was just all dark, like there was no way out, no hope for things to get better.” The loss of a friend sent her reeling into a tunnel where she felt surrounded by darkness. It felt hopeless until her mom spent the day with her, unpacking all the pain she was feeling. Someone was there to listen.
We talked some more, gave some hugs and parted ways, but as I thought about Emily’s words, the idea of being surrounded by darkness made me think of Elisha and his servant. The servant walked outside, saw enemy soldiers surrounding them, and freaked out. Elisha calmed him down and then prayed, “O Lord, open his eyes so he may see” (2 Kings 6:15-17). When the servant went back out, he saw an army of God’s angels riding chariots of fire, all sent to protect the two of them. When everything looked bad, that servant found hope.
A few days after the funeral, watching my own teenage daughter play soccer, I talked with my mom about the girl at the funeral who saw the butterflies. “Maybe that was God,” I said. “Maybe he saw that girl’s broken heart and reached out to her.” Mom agreed. God loves symbols. He uses rainbows, lambs and crosses. Couldn’t He use white butterflies to move toward a girl desperate for comfort?
One of the pastors of my church, Jonathan Cleveland, talks about the “good news” that Jesus spoke so much about. Last Sunday, he said, “Jesus was talking about something that’s fundamentally good, a message that God is moving toward us in love.”
That grieving mom was right. We face an epidemic of mental illness. Like Elisha’s servant, we get stuck in those hard places, surrounded by darkness, and we can’t see God reaching out, offering hope.
So much in this world doesn’t make sense. The questions pile up, and the answers aren’t always there, but one thing we can be sure of—there’s a God who loves us, so let’s pray. Let’s pray like Elisha that our eyes, and the eyes of our friends, will be open. Let’s pray that in the midst of a dark world, we’ll see Him moving toward us with His chariots of fire and mom’s who are ready to listen. Maybe then we’ll see hope does exist, even in a few butterflies flying together on a trail.