Missing His Shoes

This week I’ve been struggling.   Can I admit that to you?  For 11 years of my life I poured my heart and soul into the Vermillion First United Methodist church.  Much of that time was spent developing a growing youth group there in “the loft” of that church.  All 4 of my children ended up being a part of that ministry.  We spent countless hours painting the loft, staying up late at lock-ins, going to camps, planning ski trips, putting on haunted houses, and more.  And in the process, we became a go to place for youth in the town of Vermillion, SD.   One time, at the request of my youngest son, we had a dance in the basement of our parsonage and had 50-80 youth down there.  We took a picture of the shoes left at our doorstep to commemorate that night! One of those pairs of shoes, probably the biggest (I think he wore a size 16) was worn by AJ Walker, a good friend of my youngest son, Wes.  This week I learned the tragic news that AJ took his own life at the age of 27.  AJ was a great and gentle giant of a kid.  His friendly disposition and willing smile were infectious.   As I read his obituary, beautifully written, I marveled at all he had done in the short 27 years of his life. And yet as I read the obituary I struggled with it. The obituary did what I would have done…focused on the positive.   I was once told that when doing funerals, you can always go through a field and pick all the weeds, but funerals are a time to pick the flowers.  “Focus on the flowers, Brook.”  I’ve heeded that advice, and this family had as well. And I think that’s the right thing to do.

But as I read this obituary and noted not one hint or mention of how AJ died, I wondered if “just flowers” is the way to go in times like this.  Wouldn’t it be better to admit there were things about AJ we didn’t know or understand?  Wouldn’t it be better to admit that AJ struggled with a disease many of us struggle with…a disease called depression? I talked to one of the leaders of the Vermillion community just yesterday and he wasn’t convinced yet that it was a suicide.  He thought it might have been a gun accident.  Maybe he was just cleaning the gun?   He knew better.   We all do.  AJ was struggling with depression. The problem is that we have the hardest time admitting that this disease exists.   And when we don’t admit it, when a young man like AJ is going through it he feels like he’s all alone.  Like no one else has ever gone through this before.  And so instead of getting help, he suffers and suffers and then, in an act of desperation, ends up taking his life. 

Why are we so embarrassed by this disease?  Why does everyone think you’re a loser when you have thoughts like this, or when you can’t get out of bed sometimes?   Especially when we know the statistics.  The statistics are staggering!  Almost everyone has thought about taking their life at one time or another in their lifespan.  Almost everyone has suffered from some form of depression in their life.   And yet we can’t talk about it!?!   And yet when we do talk about it, we feel like the whole world is going to think we are weak!?!

Silence…stuffing it…carrying it alone…thinking it will just go away…none of that works.   We must bring the darkness into the light.  We must expose this inner and silent struggle by bringing it out into the open…by saying it and naming it.  I struggle with depression!  Do you?  It’s OK.   Join my hand…join our hands…and let’s get better together.   Because right now I’d do almost anything to see those big size 16 shoes at the foot of my front door.

Your friend and pastor, hurting for my son and his friends, Brook

Tim Schaaf