to normal, and back again

Posted by on March 18, 2007

I took this photo today from our car as we were leaving the town of Normal, Illinois. Normal is three and a half hours away from where we live and we just drove there and back in one day. I had never heard of this town until Friday, when I learned that Eric Iliff’s funeral would be held there, at Holy Apostles Orthodox Church on Saturday, March 17. Eric was a student with Jeff at St Vladimir’s Seminary, during a busy time in our lives. Jeff and I were part of the married student “overflow” who lived in seminary subsidized apartments off campus. I was working full time doing communications/PR for the seminary while Jeff was under pressure to swing the best possible GPA and studying for the GRE so that he would have a shot at continuing his graduate studies elsewhere. There were many students, particularly the ones who lived in the dormitories, who I saw often but never got to know.

At least, that’s how I look back and explain to myself how it is that I never really got to know Eric. In my mind’s eye, I am passing him in motion. Eric coming up the hill on his way to vespers while I am going down the hill at the end of the work day; Eric on his way to a morning class while I am headed off campus on a coffee mission. Eric in his cassock, Eric in his jeans, by turns. We seemed to be forever passing each other briskly, and he was always the first to look me fully in the face, smiling. Eric was handsome and neat in his appearance, polite and gentle, socially sensitive. These were just my impressions, but they do stand out starkly–far more starkly, in fact, than impressions I have of very many of the people I merely passed on the same paths during those years. Some sort of invisible but palpable goodness was plain in him.

When tragedy happens, the news spreads like a brushfire, especially within the small world of the Orthodox Church. Jeff received a call from his friend Fr. Christ, a priest in North Carolina, this week and learned from him that Eric had committed suicide. Jeff and I were stunned. I hate putting down the word suicide in print, just as it is hateful to say out loud. No one said this word at the funeral, and I’m sure that no one, including me, wanted to hear that word spoken. It would have been unseemly among the prayers of hope and resurrection and memory eternal. For that matter, the word seems woefully incongruent with Eric, the person.

But Eric’s personhood shone brightly at his funeral. The church, filled to the brim with attendents, graciously invited everyone to a meal after the funeral service. People who had exited the church with red, puffy, wet faces, began resuming calm expressions and even some smiles in the fellowship hall. At one point in the meal, Eric’s family invited people to share their memories of Eric. Piece by piece, it became obvious who Eric truly was in life.

One of the first to get up was a friend, obviously Eric’s age, I believe from high school, who recollected a time when, after hanging out with friends, he was getting a ride home from Eric and they were talking about God. (Apparently, Eric liked to talk about God a lot.) This friend said that Eric presented him with a concept that was new to him and which he never forgot. Eric said that it seemed that there are people who are close to God by virtue of their position, such as priests, who serve at the altar before God, speak the words of God, read the words of God, and so on, but may not try to truly face God and bring themselves close to God internally. Then there are others, like prostitutes, who in their external circumstances are far away from God but may be trying hard internally to face God and present themselves to God. I am paraphrasing this really poorly, but hopefully communicating the idea. The friend, weeping, said that this idea has stayed with him permanently.

A member of the parish told another interesting story about Eric. She said that she and he had worked together at painting the rooms in the fellowship hall (where we were gathered), and at one point before they began painting a room he took his brush and painted a large cross on the wall. He let it dry a little and then they eventually painted over it in the same color. At first you could still see where it was underneath, but it gradually faded and blended in. She said to him, “Oh, the cross is gone.” And he replied, “That’s the point: you can’t see it, but it’s still there.”

Other stories were just about Eric’s kindness, his beaming smile, and accepting ways. Ann Campbell, another seminarian and close friend of Eric, said that he was a person who made her feel she could be completely herself; she remembers confiding in him and bawling while he just held her hand and let her cry, making her feel it was o.k. to not try to be something that she wasn’t. There were many, many stories, but I don’t trust myself to recount them all accurately.

As a listener, I started to understand Eric as someone who excelled at placing the proper value on inner, hidden things, even while struggling with the brutal world of externals, as we all do. But this brutality must weigh more heavily upon some lives than others, and clearly he struggled under a weight much, much heavier than I can understand.

Fr John Brown, the rector of Holy Apostles, ended the meal by sharing more memories of Eric, particularly his faithfulness to the parish. Eric had served at the altar and also written and donated the very first icon the mission had. (I had no idea Eric did iconography.) I asked Fr Brown later if I could photograph the icon and here it is (above the cross). It is displayed directly behind the altar table at Holy Apostles:

After everything was over, Jeff and I stood in the gravel parking lot and caught up with several people, all connected through the seminary, who had come from New York, Indianapolis, and Greensboro, North Carolina. I also heard that there were more people from the east coast who tried to come but couldn’t because of a snowstorm. I’ll post a picture here of most everyone– students and alumni– who were at the funeral from the seminary (although some people, like Jenny Schrodel and Dn Alex Cadman, are missing because they had already left). I was so very tempted to leave this picture out, because I think I look awful in it–disheveled, lumpy, and, well, post-partum. But then it occured to me that Eric wouldn’t care, so I’m posting it for his sake, albeit small:

But what I wanted to say is that overall the funeral felt like a strong coming together of people who cared very much. Eric’s parents said more than once that the way people had mobilized to show their support made an unbearable time bearable for them. I myself felt that Eric’s death did not happen in sad isolation, but was caught in a wide net of community and belief and prayer. Therefore it was able to have profound meaning for many people, even me, who perhaps knew him the least.

Jeff and I were reflecting on the oddness of the name “Normal” for a town. I’ve been meaning to google it to get to the bottom of why the town carries that name. Eric came from Normal, worshipped in Normal, and was most recently living in Normal. Now he is buried in Normal. But I don’t really believe that Eric or anyone else breathes the air of normalcy or swims in the waters of normalcy. We live in a very fallen, sinful, deadly world, and we all suffer for that just as Christ did, with the difference that Christ maintained normalcy, and now is the only normalcy we can reach for. It is clear, according to the impressions and testimonies of many people, that in life and in death Eric was reaching for Christ, and did not suffer all alone. I wanted to finally add this picture of Eric which I swiped off the seminary website:

  1. Jenny
    March 18, 2007


    I felt that too, the coming together. I felt such closeness with the people from SVS, even those I don’t know well. But today, I am so low. I just don’t know how to make sense of all this–I’m trying my best to pay attention while Anna makes her fruit leather and cool whip sandwich (talk about GREAT lenten recipes) beside me, but my mind keeps going back to Eric, to the funeral, to the one million unmentionables surrounding his situation.


  2. Erin
    March 18, 2007

    Thank you so much for writing this. I only wrote a very small fraction of all of the emotions I’ve had in the last few days, and I have been struggling with my own feelings, and the differences in how Mike and I grieve, and the sadness of not being able to go out there for the funeral. It is wonderful to hear about everyone coming together, and grieving together, and rejoicing in Eric’s life together. I hope he’s able to see how much love everyone had for him.

  3. Julia
    March 18, 2007

    In response to both Jenny and Erin, it occured to me to mention that at the funeral, Eric’s godmother said very confidently, “I’m not worried about Eric.” But then she added that it was his family that she is worried for, because they would have to live with this burden for years to come.

    The flip side of the fact that Eric’s death happened in such a close relationship to community is that the community– his family, friends, church, the seminary, and everyone who knew him– is left with the burden of making sense of his death. I realize that my reflection here, written at one o’ clock in the morning after the funeral, doesn’t even begin to metabolize all of the data and unmentionables connected with Eric’s death. What I’ve written is also, to use Erin’s word, just a fraction. But as so much now is so very public because of the internet, I thought that something should be written about his funeral as soon as possible after the fact, even if it’s inadequate.

  4. Carrie
    March 19, 2007

    Thank you, Julia. Your eye for detail and your mind for articulation have been an immesurable help for those of us (as in, me) that weren’t able to attend to vicariously experience the palpables a funeral gives to the grievers. May God be with us all as we search for him in this dark land where there is no Eric.

  5. Anonymous
    March 19, 2007

    Thank you so very much for this post. I have been walking around in a daze of consternation and grief for days, unable to collect my thoughts about the unthinkable, or articulate any words about the unspeakable. Like you, I can’t quite explain to myself how come I didn’t get to know Eric better: I have close friends who knew him well, and we weren’t exactly strangers. Yet for one reason or another, our paths only crossed sporadically. In spite of this, however, the images of his warm demeanor and his radiant smile are seared in my memory.

    Last night I spoke with a good friend who was able to attend the funeral, which I was unable to do because I currently live in the Caribbean. Not able to sleep, I came across this post, for which again I thank you. That phone call and your words allowed me to be present in some way at the only place where I wanted to be this past Saturday, but could not reach.

    May our merciful God make Eric’s memory eternal before His face.


  6. Gina
    March 21, 2007

    Thank you for sharing Saturday’s memorial with us. My husband and I were able to attend on Friday evening, but not able to go on Saturday. It was on our minds, and now seeing it through your eyes, has given us a sense of peace. Your way with words and description of Eric was profound.

  7. juliana
    March 24, 2007

    Thank you for this post. I have known Eric and His family for years indirectly through my Fathers parish in Wheaton and my Bro as Eric was his classmate at St. Vlads. I wanted to attend his funeral but was unable too. I thank you for sharing your thoughts and memories of his funeral. It has helped me as i have been struggling with his death. Eric was so loved among many and i do not understand how and why he could not find comfort. It is not for me or us to understand but for us to pray for him and all others out there that struggle as he did. There is so much on the Internet about Eric and his complicated life and death and it angers me sometimes that people say and write the things they have about him. I have found comfort in your post and comfort in the fact that so many people attended the funeral. I wish Eric knew how many people loved him and cared about him!
    Love in Christ,

  8. Dove Knits
    March 24, 2007

    Thank you for writing this. I’m sorry for your loss and the loss of everyone who knew him.

  9. Melanie
    March 25, 2007

    Eric’s mom has written:

    < <...I just buried my son on Saturday. I know what pain is. I knew of his pain. NO one knew the torment he went through but I am so proud of him for making his story known. I intend with my husband and two daughters to do what we can to honor him and seek justice and accountability.>>

    For those of you who were at SVS with Eric and perhaps saw something that can further the cause of justice and accountability, **please, please** contact Eric’s attorneys and tell them what you know:

    Jeffrey M. Herman, Esq.
    Stuart S. Mermelstein, Esq.
    18205 Biscayne Boulevard
    Suite 2218
    Miami, Florida 33160
    Telephone: (305) 931-2200
    Facsimile: (305) 931-0877

    Melanie Jula Sakoda

  10. JN1034
    July 21, 2007

    Thank you for this powerful post on a “normal” community trying to heal. We just learned of this tragedy, one that could’ve been avoided had our clergy a safe place for those like Eric. We wish we could’ve helped somehow. But our prayers are with his family, and yours.

    + May Eric’s memory be eternal.