November 11, 2017 marks the fifteenth (15th) anniversary of the shooting death of my son, Aaron Dougherty. More essentially, this date also marks the 15th anniversary of my yearning for hope for Aaron in the Resurrection of the Paschal Mystery.
Aaron had been severely depressed for most of his 26-year-old life. He died in a tragic encounter with police officers within the private confines of our home and hearth in Kansas City, Missouri.
Well-meaning people encouraged me in the aftermath of his death that I would soon return to “normal” and be able to “get on with my life”. I did not think this would, or should, happen. I remain to this day deeply influenced by his suffering and death in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ. Recently, at the urging of my pastor, I am finally beginning to experience hope in the mystery of the Resurrection for my son’s death.
Some Things Return to Normal
Certainly, some things did quickly return to normal.
I returned to work after eight days. I remained as driven and determined as ever in my high-stress job as head of a non-profit, tuition-free and private school system for at-risk teenagers.
I persistently insisted that Aaron was shot suddenly and only when he began to put his two knives down. I have always been a persistent, some might say stubborn, person. I never deviated in what I reported to the police, media and countless others after watching the last seconds of Aaron’s life. This seemed like the normal thing to do, though under extraordinary circumstances.
There was intense media coverage immediately and over the next two years reporting that Aaron’s death was the result of his personal irrationality and a desire on his part to die through “suicide-by-cop”. My wife, Karol, and I continuously but patiently disagreed privately and publicly with the police versions of his shooting which attributed his death to his attacking the police. For a while, this was the only thing we could do in light of the extraordinary tragedy of his death. It was something, I believe, normal and ordinary people would rationally do.
My marriage to Karol continues; we just celebrated our 43rd wedding anniversary.
Many Things Did Not Return to Normal
But many things did not remain the same.
Karol and I conducted quiet discussions with the police department in the two years following Aaron’s death. I might characterize these discussions, which seemed to flow from the Holy Spirit, as being based on a restorative justice model imbued with Catholic social teaching.
Inspired by our Christian attitude, an incredible lawyer named John Kurtz offered to help us at little cost towards our noble pursuit of real justice, one infused with an attitude of mercy and forgiveness. With John’s help and wisdom, these meetings with police officials were conducted without rancor or blame and in charity.
Through the incredible courage of individual police board and staff members, the police department agreed to engage in an unusual mediation involving a distinguished federal judge. We then discovered “common ground” in how the heightened confusion and darkened lighting in our dining room that day of his death contributed to misperceptions that Aaron was moving towards the police instead of remaining almost without motion, as I had witnessed. We developed a historic resolution of our differences with the police department over Aaron’s shooting. Our work with the police department, I have been informed by some, has had a lasting and transformative impact on how they now interact with the mentally ill.
I gradually realized I was depressed myself, and had been for most of my life. In actuality, my son had inherited his serious depression from me. This was a startling realization. I would never have believed I was so afflicted until others began to confide their suspicions of my illness to me after Aaron’s death.
I went into therapy and life coaching for 7 years. I started on a daily regime of anti-depressants (which I remain on to this day).
I began serving in a Catholic healing ministry.
Our three remaining children moved as far away from Kansas City as possible.
I left my job well before retirement age.
When I was 58, I applied for, and was accepted into, the permanent diaconate program for the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph. We moved to Hawaii while I commuted back to Kansas City to work at two consulting positions and complete my diaconal studies and formation. Four years later I was ordained to the diaconate and “loaned” to the Diocese of Honolulu where I currently serve on the Big Island at St. Theresa Parish in Mountain View, and part-time at St. Joseph Parish in Hilo.
In the mystery of God’s Paschal Mystery, I suffered a breakdown over Aaron’s death and then a slow self-surrender to the Lord. To some extent, this was enhanced by the culture shock I experienced within Hawaii’s unusual fusion of beautiful world cultures where Caucasians like me are in a minority. This shock of culture supported me in addressing my inadequacies and woundedness.
Surrender Every Day
Today, my life continues to fall apart as I learn each day to surrender more of myself to Jesus Christ and his healing mercy.
It’s like I am in one of those team-building exercises that were so popular twenty years ago, and I get to fall backward every day into the arms of Our Lord. I become very anxious and think I am going to hit the ground and then I feel those strong and everlasting arms.
He catches me every time.
I’ll never be the same as I was fifteen years ago. I did not think so much about death then.
Karol had a healing vision shortly after Aaron died of his being held in the arms of Jesus. God willing, I’ll be reunited with Aaron after my death. I’m already in Jesus arms now when I give myself to Him in my new-found hope.
“It’s the Paschal Mystery”
When I asked my spiritual director at the time of Aaron’s death why my son died so tragically, Father Jim Flanagan SOLT told me: “It’s the Paschal Mystery, Jimmy.” I had a hard time understanding this, let alone accepting this. But it’s the primary thing that comes to mind now when I muse on Aaron’s death.
November is a good month to muse on the Paschal Mystery. We can incorporate within our own suffering and loss the passion, death, Resurrection and Ascension by which Jesus principally accomplished our redemption. Only in the Paschal Mystery can our sufferings and death make any sense, because it is through this central mystery of our faith that we can look forward to the amazing reality of the Resurrection
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The Paschal mystery of Christ’s cross and Resurrection stands at the center of the Good News that the apostles, and the Church following them, are to proclaim to the world. God’s saving plan was accomplished “once for all” by the redemptive death of his Son Jesus Christ (571).
With November’s focus on the Holy Souls in Heaven and in Purgatory, especially through the Solemnity of All Saints and the celebration of All Souls Day, the Church extends to all of us the vision of real life after death, where all of our anxieties and fears will be subsumed into Jesus, Who is All in all.
I believe my Aaron lives; and I hope and believe he is with the Holy Souls.
It is hard for me to learn to hope, being depressed myself.
Fifteen years of yearning for this hope is a very short time compared to a hopeful eternity in the beatific vision.