For my brother Craig following his suicide

Funeral Meditation for Craig L. Hottinger

October 7, 2020, Marion, Ohio

Rev. David Hottinger 

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 13.8-12 (The Message)

Love never dies. Inspired speech will be over some day; praying in tongues will end; understanding will reach its limit. We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled.

 We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears, and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!

1 Corinthians 13.8-12 (The Message)

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As I look around this space, I have images of Craig and me riding around this parking lot – me on a bike and he on his big wheel during the time we lived above this funeral home. I had just hit first grade and he was in pre-school when we moved to Marion from Bowling Green – where we also lived above a big (but far spookier-looking) funeral home. As children, we spent a lot of time “helping” my Dad and his colleagues – setting up chairs, moving flowers, washing the hearse and limo…well, I am not sure how much help we actually were but growing up here instilled in Craig a deep desire to be of service to others. 

This began very early and did not always show up in ways that made my Dad happy. I am told that when Craig was three or four, he went missing from his room one night. To my parents’ shock, they found him in the Prep room, perched on a stool, earnestly attempting to shave off a deceased man’s mustache. He was very proud of himself but after that a latch was placed on the outside of his door! 

Like me, Craig was adopted by my mom and dad at birth in Bowling Green. From what we know, his biological mother was 14 years old and walked into the hospital to give birth to him without ever having seen a doctor. From the get-go, Craig was a spirited human being. One of my parents confessed to me that if Craig had arrived first, they might have stuck to adopting just one child. 

Still, over the years, he was deeply loved by his circle of family and friends – especially my parents (Jack and Marilyn),  grandparents (Albert and Lucille, John and Fran), aunts and uncles (Dan and Norma, Kristi and Steve, and  cousins (Ben and Heidi, Shelly and Nick), and family friends (Jim and Gerry, Jeannie and Mike, George and Mary). I am told that I was a little more ambivalent about Craig’s sudden arrival. When my parents took us to the courthouse to sign the permanent adoption papers, the judge asked me how I liked my new brother. Reportedly, I told the judge that he was great but that he could take him back now! 

School years could be topsy-turvy for Craig. All the energy he demonstrated could be challenging for teachers and my parents. But his warmth, passion, laughter and enthusiasm earned him a lot of friends and the love of many, including those who mentored us at the Mt Vernon Ave Church of Christ and our neighborhood on East Walnut Street. I especially want to acknowledge the care we received from our “second family” in Marion – the Garnes’ – John, Elaine, David, and John Jr – and our neighbors on Walnut Street – Cathy, Tom, Ryan and Travis. I am not sure Craig would have survived elementary school at Indian Mound without the extra outlet of their cool, wood jungle gym in the back yard. 

Eventually, Craig focused some of his tremendous energy into becoming a successful athlete, first as a football player, then as a wrestler at Harding. He enjoyed the intensity and passion it took to be a competitive wrestler at the varsity level. Craig continued to help my Dad, David Haines, Gene Farison, and David Palo with tasks around the funeral home. Craig could be an incredibly hard worker and began to think about following my Dad’s footsteps to go into the funeral business. 

Unfortunately, as Craig’s college years unfolded, so did increasingly severe symptoms of mental illness begin to appear. Following a scary episode after which he was hospitalized, my brother was finally diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. To our family, it was a bit of a relief to have some framework to understand Craig’s mood swings, periods of manic energy, and occasions of erratic behavior. But we had no idea back them how debilitating this illness would be for him. 

Amazingly, after college at the University of Toledo, Craig went on to complete a Master’s Degree in Therapeutic Recreation – also at UT. I think this vocational path emerged out of that deep place in himself where the desire to serve and heal and love was very strong. Recreational Therapists are on the front lines of using a variety of modalities to help maintain or improve patients’ physical, emotional and social well-being. Even as Craig began to suffer more, he was intent on using his professional training and broken places to be – in the words of Henri Nouwen – a wounded healer. 

It took me a lot longer to realize this about my brother than it did many of you. Ours was often a conflicted relationship growing up. I saw him as a muscle-bound jock, and I think he viewed me an arrogant egghead. In my twenties, I did not see Craig that much, and I am sure that my fear of the darker parts of his mental illness was a factor. But my parents, my grandparents, aunts and uncles and some of his friends did not run away. They were able to see in Craig a sensitive, compassionate, loving, light-filled soul who was struggling mightily against descending confusion and darkness. 

The one job Craig was able to work in his field was at the William Sharpe Psychiatric Hospital in Weston, WV. I imagine that my brother excelled in this work. I also know that his upfront and personal exposure to the intense trauma, grief, and suffering of some of his patients eventually prompted a spiral of his own into a hellacious mental health crisis. 

As I have come to understand Craig, this spiral – and his subsequent inability ever again to work in the psychiatric field – was not a sign that he was “weak” (even though he often thought of himself that way) or lacked the “willpower” to recover and become a “functioning” member of society (whatever that means). Craig was afflicted with an illness that caused him decades of anguish, loneliness, suffering, turmoil, and pain – the likes of which most of us could barely comprehend. 

Still, he fought. There were the years he lived in Cleveland working as a personal trainer and his time in Macon, Georgia where he had moved to help a friend with his family business. 

And he loved – especially my parents, grandparents, his friends and his beloved dogs, Sugar, Bandit and Trooper. 

And he served – bringing meals to the elderly in Georgia under the loving guidance of Miss Mary, the matriarch of the church kitchen; volunteering with Mom at Leapin’ Outreach Ministries and the First Church of the Nazarene; parking the cars of patients at Marion General. 

And he cared – about my Dad as was dying, my Mom in her grief; me as I endured my own losses these past few years; my kids as they grew; some of you, his friends, as you reached out to him; his neighbors over in Crescent Heights.

With the pandemic, the last seven months were particularly brutal for Craig. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, his valet job at the hospital was eliminated. He continued to grieve my father’s death. In his state of isolation, he pushed away those who tried to reach out. Our family is unsure whether he was taking his medications as prescribed. The battle became seemingly more desperate and finally insurmountable for Craig. And he lost his decades-long civil war with mental illness a week ago today. 

Yes, Craig died by suicide, but suicidal depression is the disease that killed him. It takes a person out of life against his or her will, the emotional equivalent of a deadly stroke, heart attack, or cancer. Like other diseases, some people with the disease get better over time while others live with its effects every day. Tragically, some people die from it. It is normal for those of us left to struggle with questions about whether we could have done more to help or recognize signs of how seriously the disease was threatening his life. Suicide is an illness and as with any illness we can love someone and still not be able to save their life. 

As Ronald Rolheiser writes, 

There is no pain like the one suicide inflicts. Nobody who is healthy wants to die, and nobody who is healthy seeks to burden his or her loved ones with this kind of pain. And that’s the point: This is only done when someone isn’t healthy. The fact that medication can often prevent suicide should tell us something. Suicide, in most cases, is an illness, not a sin. 

Nobody, who is healthy, willingly decides to die by suicide and burden his or her loved ones with that death any more than anyone willingly chooses to die of cancer and cause pain. The victim of suicide (in most cases) is a trapped person, caught up in a fiery, private chaos that has its roots both in his or her psyche and in his or her biochemistry. Suicide, in most cases, is a desperate attempt to end unendurable pain, akin to one throwing oneself off a high building because one’s clothing is on fire.

Richard Rolheiser

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The spiritual part of this is also hard to comprehend. For a lot of Christian history, suicide was considered a terrible sin because it was thought to violate the Fifth Commandment “Thou Shall Not Kill.” While suicide is certainly a tragedy and inflicts horrible pain, I believe we understand so much more now about how the roller coaster of mental illness can severely compromise a person’s capacity to make decisions.

As people of faith, our conviction is this: In Christ, both in this life and the life of the world to come, we are held in God’s loving arms of mercy. In Christ, nothing – “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any thing else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ in Jesus” (Romans 8). 

Moreover, Craig’s life is neither defined by his illness nor how he died. We should remember him as the kind, gentle, generous, genuine, sensitive, compassionate person that he was. 

In the past days, tributes about Craig have been pouring in, and I have heard wonderful stories about him from his friends, coaches, classmates, and loved ones. Here a few things I saw. 

“I always remember Craig with a smile. May you be comforted knowing he touched so many lives.” “I have great memories of Craig; always enjoyed his energetic personality.” 

“I have many good memories of Craig from high school; he always brought a smile to my face.” 

“I always remember him to be quiet and kind.” “I dearly loved both my Hottinger boys. This is tragic.” 

“I am so incredibly sad. Craig was my first ‘boyfriend’ and he was always on my side and just a great person.” 

“Craig was always so good to me and my family.” “Craig, I thought you would be a General in the Army someday.” 

“Craig was always so kind and helpful whenever I saw him. He never hesitated to offer his assistance or say a kind word. He was a devoted son and I and I saw him frequently during his daily visits with Marilyn. He will be greatly missed.”

 “I remember Craig as we played baseball and football together. You always played with passion, dedication and was great teammate Craig. Rest in Peace and God bless you.” 

“Craig was a very nice young man who I enjoyed being around. He always was a respectful person to Linda and to me. He was really a funny guy who would stop by the office to talk wrestling and other sports with us.” 

“What a special young man. His kindness, friendliness, and helpfulness to others was something I always remember about Craig. His love of sports and dedication to wrestling at Harding will be remembered for a long time. I had not seen Craig for many years until last summer at Jack’s funeral where he sought me out to update each other on what had been happening in each of our lives.” 

“Sweet guy – always helping others.” 

“We are so sorry for your loss. We remember Craig as a tremendous dog lover, caring and playful uncle, and compassionate soul. That he cared so genuinely about others says so much about his character and his personal struggle.

“Craig was a classmate of our daughter and visited our home frequently. It was always a joy to see Craig and talk with him.”  

“I will always have great memories of Craig – in fact, I still have a voicemail from him from last September. In the middle he says ‘How you doing Buddy – haven’t seen you forever! “And he ends with “OK Buddy – love you, bye!’ Like it says in his story – he always asked how I was doing and the rest of the family. A lot of people will ask that – but you could tell that he really cared about the answer.”

“Craig was truly a kind guy with a huge heart and loving soul. I always enjoyed seeing him and Trooper in my office and talking to him. He was always very uplifting and would always be sure to make everyone smile.” 

“I have been thinking about you for days now and finally have the strength to say something. I have distinct and fond memories of your family and my first childhood buddies, David and Craig. I remember your kindness and perpetual positive attitudes. I don’t remember much from those early years of my life, but for some reason your family stands out. I remember when fearless Craig swung from a rope on the jungle gym in the back yard and ended up swinging right into the trunk of a large tree. I think he got a concussion from that little stunt. I really admired Craig as an outstanding wrestler and a really great guy. I remember going to one of his wrestling matches and deciding I wanted to start wrestling too, after seeing him. I have no doubt that Craig will be greatly missed by many people.”

“Craig had such a beautiful and kind heart. I cannot comprehend the struggles he endured all these years. God knows that too. I am sure He welcomes him with wide open arms.” 

Following up on that last statement, let us absorb some more words from Fr. Richard Rolheiser: 

Fortunately, we are not without hope. The redeeming love of God can do what we can’t. God’s love is not stymied in the same way as is ours. Unlike our own, it can go through locked doors and enter closed, frightened, bruised, lonely places and breathe out peace, freedom, and new life there. Our belief in this is expressed in one of the articles of the creed: He descended into hell.

To say that Christ descended into hell is to, first and foremost, say something about God’s love for us and how that love will go to any length, descend to any depth, and go through any barrier in order to embrace a wounded, huddled, frightened, and bruised soul. By dying as he did, Jesus showed that he loves us in such a way that his love can penetrate even our private hells, going right through the barriers of hurt, anger, fear, and hopelessness. 

We see this expressed in an image in John’s Gospel where, twice, Jesus goes right through locked doors, stands in the middle of a huddled circle of fear, and breathes out peace. That image of Jesus going through locked doors is surely the most consoling thought within the entire Christian faith (and is unrivalled in any other world religion). Simply put, it means that God can help us even when we can’t help ourselves. God can empower us even when we are too hurt, frightened, sick, and weak to even, minimally, help ourselves.

Richard Rolheiser

Indeed, as St. Paul tells us in that reading from 1 Corinthians, in this life, we are far from seeing things clearly. We are squinting in a fog. Peering through mist. We know only a portion of the truth and what we say about God is always incomplete. 

The tragedies and traumas of this world (such as the one we are marking today) can catapult us towards despair and paralysis. There is no way we can do other than mourn Craig’s tragic death and rail against the suffering which caused it. His suicide leaves a gaping hole in our family and community and makes many of us angry that it came to this. It causes us to cry out, “Why, God? Why, Craig? Why, all of the others suffering so much that they cannot see beyond today?”

And yet….and yet…faith beckons us to peer beyond death’s dark vale to that blessed transformation in which death is no more and our tears are wiped from our eyes and there is no more crying and no more pain, because the old things are passing away and all things are being made new…. (Revelation 21). 

Craig Hottinger’s battle is over. Those of us who held Craig in love will keep him in our hearts, even as we journey through this desert of sadness.  But in that journey, remember this: we are now held by a Love which will never abandon us or forsake us. Craig is no longer with us but in Christ, the Holy Spirit is always interceding for us in our weakness, with sighs and groans too deep for words (Romans 8). 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian martyr of Nazi Germany, once put it: 

Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love…. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; God doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, God keeps it empty and so helps us keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain…. The dearer and richer our memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy. The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh, but as a precious gift in themselves.”

We love you, Craig – son, brother, uncle, nephew, cousin, friend. We are so grateful for all that you gave us and taught us. You are a sheep of God’s own fold, a lamb of God’s flock, a beloved child of God’s own redeeming. May you rest in peace and dwell in God’s paradise forever.