In Memoriam: Kenny Handley, April 13, 1960-December 16, 1982

Today is the 30th anniversary of the death of my wonderful brother, Kenny, who tragically took his own life at the young age of 22. The most difficult writing I have ever done was for the chapter in Home Waters that provides an account of his death and its impact on my family. I won’t revisit those details here, but I do wish to pay him special tribute and to reflect for a moment about what his death has meant.

Kenny was a brilliant young man. I don’t say that lightly. He was exceptionally gifted. He read widely and at a young age exposed himself to many of the world’s greatest writers. He listened to classical music with intensity and seemed moved and compelled by its great complexity and mystery. He loved philosophy and debate. He was a peacemaker. He admired great genius in every field of human accomplishment. He excelled in his college courses in math, physics, and chemistry. He was fascinated by human physiology. But Kenny struggled to understand his own intense depression, which hit him at the young age of 18. Little was known in those days about mental illness and many of the medications that are now available were only in development at the time.

He died by his own hand using a gun he had borrowed from a friend. This week we have witnessed a horrible massacre in a town not far from where we lived. I don’t mean to make a grandiose claim, but I have always lamented the ease with which he gained access to a gun. I do not believe he would have taken his life without it. The rates of suicide in young men using guns suggests as much.

We know more but still not enough about mental illness. I am grateful for my belief in continuing revelation. A generation or two ago in the LDS church, it was assumed that any suicide was a terrible sin, so much so it was deemed inappropriate to do temple work for anyone who had taken his own life. We don’t know what leads people to such tragic ends, and in the LDS church we have been taught more recently to not judge, to be compassionate, and to trust in Christ’s atoning powers and in God’s mercy. I have since come to understand that Christ not only atones for our sins but for our illnesses. In Alma 7:12, it reads:

“And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.”

One reason this doctrine matters is because when confronted with our infirmities—whether they be emotional, physical, spiritual, or mental—it is tempting to want to assign blame. That is easier than absorbing the insult of having inherited them. But the hope of Christ is to be able to come to him, heavy laden as we are, and experience a lifting of our burden. President Monson has taught that God will be gentle with those who have fallen into such despair. I don’t pretend to know what kind of clarity of judgment my brother had when he decided to take his life. I think it is best that I don’t try to know. I say this because when we judge, we close the story, we piece together only fragments, and we believe—falsely—that we have come to a complete understanding. In a way, it is our lack of faith in Christ that accounts for our impatient rush to assign blame. We don’t trust that his accounting is more generous and can absorb life’s great trials that appear to have little to do with who sinned against whom.

Thirty years in retrospect, I know that Kenny’s story and his life continue. And his story and his life are related concepts. When we pronounce judgment, we end a life. We say that it cannot continue and evolve into a different meaning. We say we know the meaning of actions and words. And that person can no longer speak to us in our memories or even make any new sense to us in the present. But in a more theological sense it is also true that our judgments of others deny that life continues in the spirit. This is a paradox, of course, because for most believers, the idea of a life after death is deeply connected to a final judgment. We don’t remind ourselves enough, however, that this judgment is God’s, not ours, and, at least in LDS theology, there is still plenty of reason to believe that our story and our life will not end there either, that there will still be chances for learning, for change, and for progress even after we have assessed our own mortal experience.

Shortly after my brother died, I was given what is called in the LDS church a patriarchal blessing. This is a blessing pronounced upon your head that provides you guidance and counsel for your future and reassurances about the Lord’s plan for you. In my blessing, I was told that there were many things I could yet do to be of service to my brother. At the time, I couldn’t imagine what this would mean. But a few years later, as I was preparing to serve a mission, I attended the temple to become endowed. This is an opportunity to receive additional ordinances that, as the word implies, endows us with blessings and strength as we make deeper promises to the Lord. I knew immediately that my brother needed me to do his endowment ordinance for him. I did so.

In LDS belief, this vicarious work for the dead is the sacred linking of the living and the dead, the great bond of universal love that will eventually unite the entire human family. I know it is not always a well understood practice, and not everyone in my own family feels quite the same way as I do about it. I see it as the opportunity to unleash the potential within every human soul to progress eternally, to grow and become more like God. And when I think about the short life that Kenny lived and how little of the person he was or could become the rest of us could see, I like to believe that he continues to experience and learn. And this makes me wonder if I haven’t been paying enough attention to what he has become.

President Joseph F. Smith, a prophet well acquainted with tragic and early death, said:

I believe we move and have our being in the presence of heavenly messengers and of heavenly beings. We are not separate from them. … We are closely related to our kindred, to our ancestors … who have preceded us into the spirit world. We can not forget them; we do not cease to love them; we always hold them in our hearts, in memory, and thus we are associated and united to them by ties that we can not break. … If this is the case with us in our finite condition, surrounded by our mortal weaknesses, … how much more certain it is … to believe that those who have been faithful, who have gone beyond … can see us better than we can see them; that they know us better than we know them. … We live in their presence, they see us, they are solicitous for our welfare, they love us now more than ever. For now they see the dangers that beset us; … their love for us and their desire for our well being must be greater than that which we feel for ourselves.”

I am speaking very personally here but in ways and contexts that are too personal to relate, I believe he has spoken to me, on two occasions. And on more occasions than that I believe I have felt an unmistakable presence holding me, strengthening me, and rejoicing with me that is undeniably my brother’s. I don’t understand why these experiences have happened to me. I know that not long after Kenny died, my mother reported feeling that he was helping her perform the piano more powerfully than she ever had. I like to imagine that he has had a continual influence in my life since he died and in the life of his entire family. I even imagine that he attends to my own children whom he never knew. I continue to believe he watches over us, as he said he would, and that he has magnified us, protected us, and taught us something of what he has learned in the presence of far greater light than we enjoy here. I believe he has helped us to stay unified as a family despite our differences, especially in our deep attachment to great musical performances. I love ideas, I love music, and I love thinking about the cosmos more because of him. I think he helps me understand science. And when I see an individual sorrowing beyond their own comprehension, I think maybe I see his young face again and I want to offer my love.

It should go without saying that I would take him back today and that I would welcome the chance to get to know him all over again, in the context of this mortal life where we struggle so hard to know and understand and love each other. But I am so profoundly grateful for what he has meant to me ever since, for what I have learned from a brother who suffered more than I have ever suffered and who wanted more from life than I have wanted. And I am comforted by the thought that he has found mercy, light, and growth and by the hope that, because of the atonement of Christ, the small frame of time that Kenny and all of us will live in these bodies and on this earth will not suffice to summarize who we are and what we can become.

 

 

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