It’s been a long three weeks since we learned that our estranged, adopted daughter, whom we haven’t seen nor heard from in fourteen years, took her life. There’s a reason I haven’t been blogging for a while. This kind of information takes some processing. Sarah was the last of our two children. Jason, her natural brother, went first, in a jet ski accident, in 1991, when he was fourteen. Sarah lived to be 36. Before she left home we had issues we could not resolve.
I began this late last night. It occurred to me this morning that in my exhaustion I left out the picture of the delightful little girl Sarah often was — the young girl you see to the left. She delighted in animals, in helping to make our home orderly, in playing the piano, and, most of all, in her relationship with her brother. She had a lot of artistic talent. She simply had trouble trusting adults and being honest in her relationships with others. That’s why many of us had so much trouble understanding who she really was, and which of the selfs she presented to others was genuine. She may have been some of all of them. I often wonder if she herself knew.
I believe she spent a lot of her life searching for her identity. She was very interested in her roots in her natural family, and that may be why she decided to cast her lot with them rather than with us in her later years. I have heard that for many years she had blamed her mother for some of what happened to her as a child. It is interesting to note that one little envelope in the package of pictures her husband sent to us contained some inspirational clippings and bookmarks, two of which were the “Footprints” poem many of you are familiar with, a “God Made Us Friends” verse by Rebecca Barlow Jordan, and a verse I will save for the end of this. Also in the envelope was a picture of her with Jason and a yellow sticky note with these words: Mother: I blame her for nothing — I forgive her for everything.
Sarah came to us at the age of nine through the foster care system, along with Jason, whom we had met first because he lived in a foster home next door. Unlike Jason, who had merely been neglected by his birth parents, Sarah had been sexually abused by her birth father. Though she was in counseling almost her entire eight years with us, she was never able to bring herself to confront the issue and work it through. This resulted in some unresolvable problems when she was almost 17, and that put her back into the foster care system, by her choice. After that she was in three foster homes, at least two of them with people who had especially requested her because they had known her when she was still living with us.
In the first home, she functioned pretty well at first, though she still would not obey the rule of the county that she could not be alone with the 37-year-old man(whom I will call M) she had been secretly meeting while she was with us and for whom she ran away. M falsely accused the foster family of abuse and they almost lost the foster baby they had been planning to adopt. Naturally, Sarah was removed from that home.
Sarah was next placed with a “real” foster family. That means that this family already had other foster children and had been fostering for a long time. They were on a budget, and Sarah complained she had actually had to drink powered milk instead of the bottled milk she had been accustomed to at home and in the first foster home. At her request, Sarah was moved after two weeks into a home that had gotten a license just to take her in.
This third home should have been an ideal match. The father of the family was a professional musician, and Sarah was also a talented pianist. The family, although not extremely wealthy, was more economically well off than the average family in the community. They had a large home in one of the better sections of town and a landscaped yard with a custom swimming pool. Sarah was definitly able to live the good life there, above what she was accustomed to, and probably considerably above the lifestyle of the average foster child. This home was tailor-made for Sarah. Unfortunately, she continued to break the rules, and the family had to send her back to the county system.
From there she went to a group home, where she discovered that what she considered restriction when she was with us was nothing. Now she really couldn’t do those things she told the county she couldn’t do when she was with us. She really couldn’t go anywhere without supervision, she couldn’t sneak out a window in the middle of the night, and there were other restrictions she never had at home. She discovered the hard way that if you will not accept reasonable boundaries, the time will come when you will have stricter boundaries enforced you cannot get around. After spending some time in the group home, Sarah finally agreed to visitation with us — in fact she called and wanted us to bring her home for a visit when she had refused to see us before.
We had had hopes she might finally be ready to come home and work on resolving issues, but that wasn’t what she wanted. She wanted to come home simply because she thought she’ have more freedom since we couldn’t keep 24-hour watch as the group home did. She wanted to make phone calls that she wasn’t allowed to make from the group home and use us to evade their rules. When we didn’t bend, she asked to go back and then tried to get us to drop her off an unmonitored location instead of where we were supposed to take her to meet her social worker. (The group home’s location was supposed to be a secret, so the workers would meet their wards in public parking lots and take them back to the home.)
When Sarah was 18, she was released from the county system. For a time she worked as a live-in aid to some elderly people, but none of these elder care positions lasted long. She occasionally called me for a recipe or to help solve some problem during that time, but we never were able to talk about much of substance. During part of this time she lived with M but she also lived for a time with my brother’s family, and then with her half-brother’s family. She did not stay very long in any of these living situations. We last heard from her after we moved to Paso Robles in 1992, while she was staying at a ranch not too far away. She mentioned she might come visit, but she never did and she never called again. We later heard from her half-brother that she had moved to Colorado to be with an aunt (birth family). Later she moved from there into a common-law marriage that lasted for 14 years, until her death on May 13, 2009.
We got the tragic news from Sarah’s half brother. He had been contacted by the aunt, and she had been contacted by Sarah’s husband. We were immediately thrust into issues such as who was next of kin by law so that we’d know what part we would have in planning for burial and the memorial service. We were given the number of the funeral home in Texas, and we were able to contact the husband. We learned from him that Sarah had made known at the beginning of their relationship that if anything were ever to happen to her, she wanted to be buried beside her brother in California. All of the California family had already wanted to comply with those wishes, but we didn’t want to act against the husband’s wishes, whatever they might be. He wanted to comply with Sarah’s wish, and gave us permission to arrange everything, since he could not afford the tremendous expense. We have spent the last three weeks trying to see that Sarah’s wishes were carried out.
Yesterday was the culmination of this. The memorial service was held around the grave Sararh now shares with Jason at Forest Lawn Sunnyside in Long Beach on June 6, 2009. It was an informal service where the message was split between Bob, Sarah’s half-brother, and my husband, Kosta. Bob began by putting Sarah’s life as he had witnessed it since her birth into context for those of us who had only seen part of it. Around the grave were Sarah’s mother’s mother and sisters, her father’s mother, Bob’s family, my brother and his family, and some close friends. (Sarah’s parents had preceeded her in death.) After Bob shared the stages of Sarah’s life on earth, my husband tried to give the mourners some encouraging words and offer some hope from his unique perspective as to where Sarah was bound. He focused on Romans 8: 28 through the end of the chapter.
Many people simply can’t deal with the spiritual issues surrounding a suicide. It is our contention that no one but God truly knows the heart of a person or what drove them to such drastic action. People like to make rules about what God will or won’t do in some situations, But God cannot be put in that sort of box. Some people think that suicide is an unforgivable sin, but nowhere in the Bible is it judged so. We are told that when someone belongs to Christ, no one can snatch him or her out of his hand. In Romans we are told that nothing can separate a believer from the love of God. There is always room for hope.
Sarah had a very difficult life journey. As a child she had to face what most of us never have to. These early experiences made a lasting impression. If a child is physically crippled, we don’t expect her to be able to perform athletically as well as a child who was always physically healthy. Yet we seem to have the same moral expectations for children who are spiritually and emotionally crippled as we do for children who have lived normal emotional lives in intact and emotionally supportive families. We tend to look only at actions and judge a person’s heart. God sees it all. He has always welcomed the captives and loosed their chains. He died for us while we were yet sinners. Not a one of us is righteous in ourselves. All of us must be dressed in the righteousness of Christ. At the gate of Heaven, it is not our good deeds that will gain us entrance, but our faith that Jesus took our sins upon himself and met the standard we could not meet to bring us to the Father.
We have reason to believe Sarah believed that. There was evidence, according to her husband, that even in her life with him she believed that. We know that Sarah was being treated for depression at the time of her death. Depression, like cancer, is an illness. Like cancer, it can lead to death — this kind of a death. We believe any judgment should be left in the hands of God, who knows all the details and what they mean.
After the service, most of us went to Bob’s home to share our memories, including a big box of pictures Sarah’s husband had sent to me. (He was, unfortunately unable to attend because of the travel expenses.) All of us had been hungry to see what Sarah had looked like as an adult. Except for her grandmother, Bob, and a couple of other relatives, none of us had seen Sarah since she was about 20. Even Bob and her grandmother hadn’t seen her for a couple of years, when she made a visit to California.
As we looked at pictures in small clusters, we exchanged information, as each had different experiences with Sarah at different points in her life. All of us pretty much agreed that although we loved Sarah, she had trouble receiving it and being able to feel loved. We told her often that we loved her, but she seemed to have a wall up that kept the message from getting through.
Bob and Sarah’s grandmother had known Sarah since birth. But Sarah’s best friend through her high school years was also sharing her perspective, which as a confidante, was quite different. Three families Sarah had lived with at various times were also in the room, including us, so we all shared the pieces of the puzzle we had — all hoping for a better understanding.
In these situations, no one of us will ever fully understand why Sarah found it necessary to end her life — including Sarah’s husband, with whom we talked on the phone for three hours. All of us have a unique grief experience. All of us will take some time to work this through. Our parenting journey is over now, but our love for our children is not. Here is that other clipping, from a newspaper, whose author we recently found to be Julia Napier.
If you are ever going to love me,
Love me now, while I can know
The sweet and tender feelings
Which from true affection flow.
Love me now
While I am living.
Do not wait until I’m gone
And then have it chiseled in marble,
Sweet words on ice-cold stone.
If you have tender thoughts of me,
Please tell me now.
If you wait until I’m sleeping,
There will be death between us,
And I won’t hear you then.
So if you love me, even a little bit,
Let me know while I’m still living
So I can treasure it.
If you would like to know more details about Sarah’s life story and see pictures of her growing up, please check here: Sarah: The Suicide of a Child It deals more with the living Sarah, her problems growing up, and what factors might have contributed to her fatal choice as an adult. It also contains useful resources for others dealing with this kind of loss.