Death Is Not What it Seems

God knows how difficult is the struggle against depression

It is the Ides of March. I’m at the San Marcos Cemetery. Its flat headstones, aligned between scraggly trees on acres of fresh-cut green grass, can’t compete with cemeteries back east. Richmond, Virginia, has historic statues 20 feet tall and Romanesque tombs inscribed with inspirational poetry and sculpted battle scenes. Maybe Death gets more respect over there. The church resorts to Halloween tradition to scare the hell out of us, so we don’t just “whistle past the graveyard.” Hindu gurus instruct their disciples to regularly visit a cemetery and meditate on the finality of life.

I’m visiting the plot of Adrianna, a young woman whom I met two weeks before she died, 20 years ago. An orange butterfly lands upon the glass bubble in her headstone which holds a color photo of the stunning beauty who with scant makeup had the glamorous look of a movie star.

That butterfly is one of a Pretty Lady swarm that is migrating through this acreage and across San Diego County northward to Oregon. They travel upwards of 25 mph, as far as their fat reserves allow, then pause to breed. They die after one act of reproduction. Then their offspring migrate south in winter as if death never happened. The butterfly flaps its wings awhile as if silently communing with Adrianna, then flies off to follow after its own kind. If I believed in transmigration, I’d bet her soul just flew away in the shape of a Pretty Lady.

I ponder the circumstances of her tragic death at age 32. I had known her father for 15 years but had never met his eldest daughter. One Sunday after Mass, she clung to her father’s arm, seemingly distressed, distracted, and distraught. Later I learned why. My friend had never talked about his oldest daughter because her conduct had become so bizarre after her divorce. She’d wanted children, her spouse hadn’t. Her husband was an alcoholic and kept beating her, so she got the divorce. She grew morbidly depressed during several classroom episodes and lost her teaching job. Things got so bad, her parents ― both devout Catholics ― were convinced she was demon-possessed.

While living with her parents, strange sounds were heard. Lights flipped on and off, chandeliers swung to and fro, and a rocking chair creaked back and forth. Their two-story stucco ranch house shook violently after midnight, almost every night. Adrianna had frightened her seven-year-old niece by asking if she wanted to hear her demons.

Back then her father had repeatedly begged for an exorcist from the Church. That ancient priestly function had lately been deferred to Valium, cyber shrinks, and forensic psychiatrists. One of the few remaining Vatican-trained exorcists came and chanted that tedious ritual four times, with her father standing by as witness, to no avail. After she tried to stab her mother, Adrianna was subdued and rushed to a psychiatric ward.

I first met her after she’d returned from two months in a psych ward, spaced out and zombified by the latest experimental drug. In my youth I had had an acute schizophrenic experience and was given medications that actually worsened my symptoms with limb rigidity, stupor, and deepening despair to the brink of suicide ― so I empathized with her. I hoped to console her as we sat at a backyard table alone. I intuited that she was suicidal, and said, “I was once at the point of killing myself, and after a fierce struggle with my own demons, managed to get well.” She looked away without saying a word. When I was ill back then, I too resorted to silence as a defense tactic. I knew it was her cue for me to leave. I felt the familiar dread that is borne of my unenviable gift for anticipating within days the death of someone I’ve gotten to know and care about.

Two weeks later, her father phoned to tell me she’d committed suicide. She’d left the previous evening in a taxi for Coronado Island with a girl friend she’d met at the psych ward. A distant relative of hers happened to be on police patrol at an early hour and saw the unusual congestion on that infamous bridge. His own relative had jumped to her death.

Her father’s distress was palpable as he gripped my arm. His chief concern was if she’d go to hell. And I worried because what I’d said to her may have prompted her suicide. It used to be that the Church would never allow a Christian burial in the case of “self-murder.” I found a relevant passage in the Catechism (CCC #2282Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide) but it didn’t comfort my friend much.

I attended her wake and gave tearful witness to her grieving family on how difficult the struggle against depression can be. I told them of my own affliction some 35 years ago when I considered slitting my wrists to stop the excruciating pain.

While I’m standing there gazing at Adrianna’s lovely color portrait in that headstone bubble, overwhelmed by all those sorrowful memories, Painted Lady butterflies keep streaming past as if to reveal that death is not what it seems.


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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