mental illness on Mother’s Day

Janice Van Wormer Godfrey R.I.P.

Janice Van Wormer Godfrey R.I.P.

This is going to be visceral.  Normally I write in relation to one or more of the Revised Common Lectionary passages for the week, but what I’m writing about today connects to almost every passage I’ve ever read.

Realized this morning that this week’s post needs to be about my Mom.  You will be reading this just after Mother’s Day but I’m writing the day before.  My Mom died on Mother’s Day right here in my own home.  She choked on a meatball and then died in our guest bathroom as I was attempting to give her CPR.  Your immediate reaction might be to think, “Oh, that’s awful!”  Well, actually, it was traumatic, but also a great relief.  The awful part actually  had more to do with the seven years prior.  “How can you say that about your Mother?!”   If you’ll give me a moment, I’ll try to unpack it.  I’m still unpacking it for myself…  Seven years prior to Mom’s death (so 2006) was when we lost Dad and also started to lose Mom.

The story starts the very year I was born, 1964, when my Mom’s Dad committed suicide.  He was the owner of a funeral home business, built big, became overextended, and decided the best way to bridge the gap was to shoot himself in the head (in the casket room no less).  His family would then receive the death benefit on his life insurance policy (no suicide exclusion on the policy).

My Mom was in graduate school at the time at Marquette University.  She was incredibly bright and was double majoring in French and Spanish.  Yet her Dad’s suicide threw her into an emotional tailspin.  She tried to take her own life by cutting her wrists.  I still remember the little yellow paraffin bars she used to treat her scars.  She would put them on the coffee table across from the couch.  I used to have nightmares in which I was sitting on the floor between the couch and coffee table and a large snake-like monster would come and swallow me up.  Maybe that’s why to this day I don’t like snakes?

Mom was hospitalized down at the Milwaukee Mental Health Complex.  We went to see her one day.  I might have been as young as five years old.  She was so drugged up that she didn’t know who I was.  Really scary for a little guy.  It has taken a lot of counseling to work through the abandonment and trauma.  I’m still working through layers of it now at 50 years old.  It’s been a great and redemptive journey, but difficult.

It’s important though for me to tell this story for all those who have encountered mental illness in their own lives, or among their family, friends, or co-workers.  I can’t do it justice in just this one post, so I think I’ll continue with some additional posts through the week.

My Mom’s illness created some of the greatest holes in my life.  Yet as my friend Jerome Iverson says, “It’s the holes that make the music.”   The good news for all of us is that God offers to heal our wounds and use the very healing process to enable us to be a blessing to others.

He leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul” (Psalm 23).  Stay tuned…


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