Excerpts from a eulogy given by Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis
On August 29, 2009, a girl named Stephanie took her own life at the young age of 17. Stephanie was a typical teenager and a life-long member of the Greek Orthodox Church, where she was active at her church and regularly participated in their summer camp. The following article is an excerpt from the eulogy given at Stephanie’s funeral by her parish priest, who also happens to be the co-director of the camp she attended. Fr. Stavros and those who knew and worked with Stephanie have posted these words across the internet in hopes that other people, especially young Orthodox Christians, will learn from this tragedy and seek help if necessary in their own lives. Take the time to read it. If you or someone you know has considered suicide, talk immediately with your parish priest or another qualified individual. We can and must stop this second-leading cause of death among our American teenagers.
Saint Paul tells us in the Epistle to the Thessalonians, that we are to pray without ceasing. In times of joy, we are to thank God. In times of need, we are to ask God for His help and guidance. And in times of sorrow, we are to ask Him for strength and comfort. In every situation of life, the first course of action for the Christian is to pray. And that’s what we’ve come to do this morning – not to judge, not to blame, but to pray, and to remember.
When someone dies, however old or young they are, whatever they did in life, and under whatever circumstance they die, the church reacts first with prayer. Every funeral in the Orthodox Church is the same – regardless if the person is a priest or a king, a peasant or a proprietor, the greatest sinner or the greatest saint. And that’s because the common denominators among all people are two: We are all created in God’s image and likeness, and we have all defiled that image and likeness through sin. And because of that, we need God’s mercies and God’s pity, all of us. To quote from the service we just completed:
“Let us ask for the mercies of God, the kingdom of heaven and the remission of her sins.”
“For there is no one who lives and does not sin. You, Lord, alone are without sin.”
“Look upon me, and have mercy on me, as You do with those who love your name.”
“In return for Your mercies, my heart is set on following Your commandments to the ages of ages. Have mercy on me O Lord.”
The colors worn at Orthodox funeral services are gold or white – these are colors of hope and joy, not sorrow – they represent our everlasting hope in the mercies of our everlasting God. The icon displayed at funeral services is the icon of the Resurrection, which does not show Christ rocketing forth from the tomb like Superman. Rather, it shows Him reaching down into Hades and grasping the hands of Adam and Eve, the first people who defiled themselves through sin. This icon shows not only an act of triumph, but an act of mercy.
In the Orthodox Church, we do not have celebrations of life when a person dies. Rather, we bring the person who has passed away into the church, into the presence of God, Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints, the same way we envision they are when they pass away. Standing in the presence of God and all His saints would not make me feel like celebrating, it would rather make me feel inadequate. It would make me want to plead for mercy and compassion and pity. That’s why the funeral service in the Orthodox Church is done mostly in the first person, “Hear my voice, O Lord, according to Your great mercy, and in Your justice give me life.” “I am Your own, save me.” “Blessed are You, O Lord, teach me Your commandments. I am the sheep that is lost, O Savior, call me back and save me.”
I am not God. Therefore I do not stand in judgment of anyone whose funeral I am asked to do. No one in this church is God – therefore no one should stand in judgment of this young woman, Stephanie, for whatever she did, or didn’t do, in her life. That judgment is reserved for God alone.
There are questions this morning, many of them. I’d like to examine four of them. The first is Why? Why did this happen? We’ll speculate and wonder, replay in our minds events of the last days and weeks of Stephanie’s life, but we might not ever truly know. Psychologists and sociologists have coined a phrase, “The human condition.” I believe “The human condition” is an affliction from which we all suffer – we are equal sharers in an imperfect nature. We live in an imperfect world, no question about that, and we all share it and sometimes suffer in it. Who among us hasn’t been depressed, or angry, or frustrated? Though we do not usually act on it, who hasn’t wished harm on someone else, or done something violent? Who hasn’t thrown a book, or a fist, or a profane word in a fit of anger? We’ve all done that. In my 12 years as a priest, I’ve seen a lot of suffering – in just the past five years alone in my parish in Tampa, I’ve done three funerals for people who died the same way Stephanie did. So it happens, it happens to people of all ages, and it happens more than you think, certainly more than we talk about. The combination of frustration and sadness, combined with our occasional human impulse to behave destructively, under a certain set of circumstances, creates the perfect storm, so to speak, that in my opinion, clouds reason to the point that a person can do the unthinkable. The perfect storm that clouds reason to the point that a person can do the unthinkable.
The second question is what if? One of the scariest days of my life was two days ago – September 1, 2009. It was my two year old son’s first day of pre-school. You might ask, why is that scary? Well, up to this point in his life, we’ve controlled our son’s world – what he eats, what he watches on TV, the tone of voice around him, how much we give in to him and how much we make him be patient. For three hours on Tuesday and for three hours this morning, we’ve turned him over to someone else. In the years to come, pre-school will evolve into all-day school. As the years pass, we’ll add homework, sports, maybe music lessons. We’ll buy cell phones and computers, he’ll hear the filth that is rap music and won’t want to go to church every Sunday. Then high school will kick in and there will be drama, dating, peer pressure, texting, temptation. And life will get confusing, very confusing, very stressful, for him and for us too. What if, instead of sending him out of our house, we never send our son to school? What if we just keep him home, never let him get a phone, or have a friend, or listen to music, or play a sport? What kind of life would that be? Well, it wouldn’t be much of a life at all. And what if we never had children, because of course one day they’ll all go to high school and suffer through the growing pains of adolescence? Well, the easy answer is that the human race would end with us. And the more complex answer is that we wouldn’t experience what it is like to really live, because we’d be paralyzed in fear. I don’t know if my son will live to see high school. I don’t know if I’ll live to see next week – so we make the most out of each day, we enjoy each day, we take chances and live, we have children, we send them to the sometimes dangerous world of high school, because this is what it is to live. The only way to protect your children is to keep them home and never let them go anywhere, which would reduce them to prisoner status, rather than loving and growing people. And the only way to protect yourself is to stay in bed, never have children, and never take a chance, and in so doing, you’ll never really live either. If there was never a Stephanie, we would never have known a beautiful red-headed girl, who was an avid reader, a gifted artist, a photographer, who loved Greek dancing, who loved her dogs, and curling up on the couch watching TV, who made us laugh and sometimes made us cry, the girl who was a good friend, the girl who danced in the rain at summer camp because she wouldn’t let bad weather ruin her good time. We can’t get stuck on what if’s because that will make a difficult situation even more difficult. Rather, we must focus on what is and remember fondly what was. This was a beautiful young woman, whose life took a tragic wrong turn. What if is not a good question. Don’t ask it.
The third question – where is God? God is in everything that is good. If it’s not good, it is not from God. God is present in the hearts of those who came from far and near to pray for Stephanie today. God is present in every gesture of help being offered to everyone who needs it. God is present in this church, in prayers, in hymns, in tears and in smiles today. God gave each of us a gift, which is called free will. It is the ability to choose good, to choose God and to choose evil, to not choose God. Our relationship with God is like sitting in front of a door. On the other side of the door is God, and on our side of the door is the doorknob. There is no doorknob on God’s side. God waits for us to open the door, and, each time we do, God embraces us with His love. When we sin, when we make a bad decision, and we all make them, we are in essence, closing the door on God. We’ll probably never know why Stephanie couldn’t get that door open last Saturday, but we are here today to pray to God to open the door to His heavenly kingdom to her. As I said earlier, our God is a merciful and just God. And God is here with us, as we pray that He bestow peace and mercy upon Stephanie.
Which brings me to the final question – what now? Before I answer this question, let me tell you about a phrase I will always remember from a movie I saw as a child. In the movie, in a small town in Germany in the early 1930s, German kids and Jewish kids played together and were the best of friends. When the Nazi’s came to power, in bigger cities, groups of German children banned together and shunned and eventually persecuted and hurt their former Jewish friends. In the small town, a Jewish wife said to her husband, “we better leave this country before our children’s friends turn on them.” To which he replied, “It couldn’t happen here. We are a small town, we are all friends.” Eventually friends ended up killing friends. My point in sharing this story is not to comment on world history, but to say that the phrase “It couldn’t happen here” has always stuck with me. We who are Greek think that in relation to our children – drugs, alcohol, self-destructive behavior, it couldn’t happen here, it doesn’t happen to our kids. I’m sure most cultural groups think the same thing about their children. Small towns like Pensacola probably think these things are only found in the big cities. Well, one lesson is that it CAN happen here. It HAS happened here. It happens to children who go to summer camp, who belong to the church youth group, it happens to kids who are good looking and who have infectious smiles. So what NOW? First of all, make sure it doesn’t happen again.
There are a lot of teenagers in church this morning – I know a lot about your culture – I run a summer camp and have for the past ten years, and I know hundreds of you. It’s also not so long ago that I was a teenager. I know about the peer pressure: the pressure to be thin, the pressure to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, the pressure to drink or have the latest technological gadget. I know about the gossip and the put downs. When I was your age, plenty of people made fun of my fat lip and ugly nose, so much so I had surgery to correct them and many a night went to bed wondering if the ultimate resolution was the way to make it all stop. No one goes to high school at Melrose Place and 90210 is a TV show, it should not be your typical high school. At camp this summer, someone said to me, “I have to drink in order to survive high school. If I don’t drink I won’t have any friends.” It’s hard to lump drinking and survival in the same sentence – in order to survive, you need to drink water, not alcohol, you need to eat, to sleep and to exercise. To base survival in part on pressure to drink alcohol is pathetic. It’s pathetic for the people who are doing it. It is even more pathetic for those who are pressuring people to do it. Because I know I’ve got everyone’s attention, to the young people in church today – stop pressuring people to do things, say things and be things they don’t want to be. Stop gossiping and putting others down. Stop talking about what people look like on the outside and start talking about how beautiful they are on the inside. Start dressing modestly and stop objectifying the opposite sex. Guys, treat girls with respect – they are people, they have feelings, they aren’t objects put here to satisfy you. Same thing for the girls. God put us higher on the food chain than the animals, so act like young ladies and young gentlemen. When someone does something wrong, forgive them. When you do something wrong, say you are sorry and mean it. When you see someone sitting alone at lunch, say hi to them. When someone is sad, console them but don’t tell the world their secrets. I hope this funeral is a wake-up call for all of you. If there are people here who said bad things about Stephanie, I hope this is a wake-up call to you – I hope you aren’t part of the reason we’re here this morning.
If any of you ever feel depressed, or feel like checking out on life, talk to someone. Reach out to someone – a parent, a friend, a teacher, a priest, anybody. There is no problem that is permanent enough that requires the ultimate permanent solution. Everyone needs to turn their ears up a little also – parents, teachers, priests, friends – there are lots of frustrated people that need a sympathetic ear. And there are lots of lost people who need to be found, and who WANT to be found. I asked a group of teenagers to come up with a theme song for the typical teenager – the answer “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” – “I walk this empty street, down the boulevard of broken dreams, where the city sleeps, and I’m the only one and I walk alone.” It’s time to start singing a new tune. It’s time to write a new song.
To the Greek Orthodox youth who are in attendance, it can happen here. It did happen here. Church is not just the place where we Greek dance, but the place we pray, the place we learn, and the place we learn to help. Our youth groups should not be microcosms of high school, or a re-creation of your favorite reality TV show, but should be microcosms of heaven, safe places where everyone is made to feel welcome.
To the Greek Orthodox Christians of any age who are here, stop being content with being the church of the Greek festival, stop emphasizing the culture and language, stop arguing about building new buildings, and unify behind a common purpose which is helping everyone in the community walk through the minefield which is life in the 21st century. We walk it every day, but it is much easier to walk with a partner. It is much easier to walk it with help. It is much easier to walk it with someone enthusiastically supporting you. It’s much easier for our teenagers to make that journey with good friends and clear moral instructions than for them to find the way alone. It’s great that all our Greek kids know how to dance – we need to spend the same emphasis teaching them how to live. To the parishioners of the Annunciation parish, this is a time to put aside differences and unite – today in grief, tomorrow in recovery, and soon in joy.
And we must be vigilant. Take a good look at your next 100 parishioners, or the next 100 teenagers, and know that at least one of them might be the next person like Stephanie, caught in the throes of the perfect storm. Which one is it? That’s for you to figure out. So take that extra minute to look not only at a person’s outward appearance, but try to get a look at the inner one. Try to find the eyes that are sad, the ones that need compassion or just simply attention.
I remember when I was the Deacon to the Metropolitan of Boston, he used to pray at the Liturgy, at the time of the Great Entrance, “Lord, remember those who suffer because we are indifferent to them.” Make it a goal to find people to whom the world is indifferent. They are not necessarily on the street corners of downtown Pensacola or in the homeless shelters. They might be the person sitting next to you in church, the student with the locker next to yours, the customer who comes into your office, or the new kid in your class. They might be well dressed, own a nice home or have a successful business. They might be the star athlete or the really popular kid. You can have all these things and still feel alone or have low self-esteem. And remember this, when you minister to someone else, you not only are following God’s commandment to love one another, or brightening up someone’s life, you might make a new friend, you might even save a life.
To Rebecca and Christy, you’ve lost a sister and a friend. You are both young, talented, and resilient. Allow your sister’s memory to be something that motivates you for the good, to be the best people you can possibly be. To Mark and Trish, this is a time to hunker down with your daughters, to lean on each other, and to embrace those around you who are here to support you. Life has dealt you a very big blow. But the race is not over yet – there is still time to turn tragedy into a triumph of the human spirit. For today, and tomorrow and many tomorrows you will need to grieve. But at some point, a long time from now, you need to laugh again. You will laugh again. Stay close to your girls. Stay close to each other, and stay close to God.
For many of you in church this morning, the healing is beginning with this funeral. The family won’t heal for a long time. So be patient with them. Keep coming around. Keep listening, keep supporting, even when your tears have dried up. Their tears will continue much longer than yours. Do not be gossipy or judgmental about what has happened here. Obviously a terrible and tragic thing has happened. This is a time to pray for strength to continue on, not a time to judge what it in the past.
Someone sent me some pictures on the internet the other night of Stephanie at camp a few weeks ago. One of them showed Stephanie at the senior campout on the evening of August 4. She was wearing a blue sweatshirt and a beautiful smile. The backdrop was trees in the Appalachian foothills of South Carolina. Another picture showed Stephanie on the afternoon on August 5, crawling through the mud in our Ultimate Camp Warrior Competition, all muddy but still wearing the same beautiful smile. I believe that smile was real. The happiness on her face those days was genuine. Stephanie was a beautiful young woman. She was not the person whose mind became clouded, who acted out of desperation and confusion last Saturday. Stephanie was a beautiful young woman, and I hope that’s how we’ll remember her. I know that’s how I will.
I’m truly sorry that this happened. I’m truly sorry that we are gathered here today. Thanks for coming today to remember Stephanie – the story isn’t all bad – she lived almost 18 years, was a good sister, a good child, was just trying to find her own way. And somewhere along the line, she got a little lost. Thanks for coming today to pray, and please continue to pray, for Stephanie, her parents, her sisters, for her family, and for our world.
May her memory be eternal!