On the morning of December 21, 2017, I got a phone call from my Mom. My younger brother Yonatan had taken his life at 25 years old.
It was a day off for me. I was home alone in our basement watching an episode of—of all things—The Great British Bake Off. As I received the news, the episode continued to run on mute in the background. As I hung up, I slumped on the couch. Numb.
I didn’t know what to do; didn’t know how to feel. Overwhelmingly, the question in my mind was “what am I supposed to do now?”
I was outside of myself looking down. What would be the proper demonstration of grief? What had I seen in movies or read in books? How would I want to tell the story of this moment in the future? No good answers came to mind. So, I called my wife, who picked up our son from daycare and started on her way home.
Then I sat down, rewound the part of the episode I missed and finished it.
That question “what am I supposed to do now?” doesn’t go away quickly. It lingers over the days, weeks and years that have passed.
Suicide is tricky. That probably goes without saying. The suicide of a loved one is filled with tension and paradox. It can be profoundly secretive—spoken about in hushed voices in the room over; and at the same time intensely public and exposing—deeply personal things in their life (and yours) get processed, asked about, talked about and picked over by the world around you.
Others try to piece together the narrative and find the patterns; try to make sense of this senseless choice and create a narrative out of the crumbs and clippings.
Suicide, for so many, is a black mark on the family; something that must not be spoken about or acknowledged. It’s not so long ago that the funerals would be held with no coffin in front of the church, the body not allowed to be buried in the church graveyard. The individual is scrubbed out of the family as best as they can—“out, out, damned spot”—but of course the stain, and the question, remains.
There are more contrasts that come up. In grieving Yonatan there was the temptation to zoom in to a microscopic level. To pore over every moment, every joke, every family gathering, every missed phone call; to become lost in a sea of “what ifs”?
But then, there is also the temptation to zoom so far out that all you can see anymore is the ending. To believe that his final choice now defines the rest of his life; that it was an inevitable tragedy that now casts a shadow over every memory. He must never have been truly happy. He must never have been fully honest.
There is also tension between the total finality of it, and the deep feeling of it being unresolved—cut off mid-sentence. I remember gathering in the back of the church after the closed casket funeral, being suddenly overcome with a desperate need to look inside. To see him. It felt so unfinished, so unreal.
The answer to “what am I supposed to do?” sometimes feels like a high-wire act, balancing between all these different tensions. For a while you may forget you are balancing, but it doesn’t take much to bring back the vertigo: the right or wrong question, a book, movie, song or simply seeing someone out of the corner of your eye in the shopping mall that absolutely must be him. Many in my family have caught themselves staring at someone across a restaurant or grocery store aisle, almost convinced that the man we see will turn, give a knowing wink, and then carry on with his life.
The day of The Call, in those first moments together as a family (well, part of a family), we wrestled with that question together: “what are we supposed to do?”
The best answer we could come up with, and one that has coloured the way we think of and talk about and process the life and the death of Yonatan, was this: Be real.
Simply be real.
From the first public announcement of Yonatan’s death—a Facebook post my dad made—we decided together to speak plainly and honestly. His statement read, “for reasons that only made sense within the complicated and carefully scripted life of Yonatan, he chose to end his story on earth earlier this week.”
Quickly, response from our communities began to pour in, and in amongst the tears and the flowers and the questions was a gratitude for our openness. My mom still has a voice message saved on their home phone from a former pastor thanking us for the simple gift of being honest.
The thread of being real continued through Yonatan’s obituary, and the tributes and statements our family made at the funeral. In all this, we made a clear choice. Yonatan was not a hero or a villain, not a martyr or a murderer. He wasn’t a cautionary tale or a morality lesson or a neat, finished story. He was Yonatan. His life was messy, complicated, funny, beautiful, nuanced. All of those things.
For me, one of the clearest opportunities to be real came two weeks after the funeral, my first time back behind the pulpit at my home church where I now pastor, Pleasant Valley EMC in Rosenort, Man.
We were walking through an Advent series where I had been scheduled to preach—looking at the regular cast of nativity characters and what they teach about worship. My subject was the shepherds, looking at worship in the midst of brokenness. That specific assignment now felt providential. It was a healing thing to begin putting my thoughts down on paper.
The church held my spot until I was ready to speak and, on January 7, I gave my Advent message.
What would have originally been a fairly straightforward sermon became a wandering with my church family through my own process with brokenness, grief and Jesus’ role in these things.
I asked the question in that sermon —what happened to the shepherds there at the manger? Were they elevated beyond their poor social status? Made kings? Given wealth? Had wishes granted? Nope. They entered as shepherds, and they left as shepherds.
By society’s standards they were still unclean, still untrustworthy, and still broken, but they had met Jesus. So, in their brokenness and imperfection they left, glorifying and praising God for what they had seen and heard. Still shepherds, but shepherds who had seen the King. Shepherds who understood the Kingdom.
The shepherds have been close to my heart in the last three years. I think about them a lot. About their lives after meeting Jesus. Exactly the same, yet completely and totally changed. I think about the parallels between joy and grief; how, after my experience with Yonatan’s death, I am exactly the same and yet totally changed. I wonder if as they left the manger they asked themselves “what are we supposed to do now?”
Though the answers are not always easy or clear, Jesus—through his life, death, and resurrection—gives us the perspective and the permission to be authentic in our questions both with God and with others.
The family-like community created out of these moments has given me just a taste of what Jesus must have meant when he called the poor in spirit and the mourners blessed. Over and over, I’ve found that openness in this journey of grieving has opened doors to conversation and connection with others who have experienced loss. It’s amazing how honesty creates space for two-way conversations. Amazing, too, how a recognition of our own brokenness draws our eyes back toward Jesus.,
Though it’s hard work, the fruit of “real” is very good.
Jesse Penner serves as Lead Pastor at Pleasant Valley EMC. He lives in Rosenort with his wife and two sons.