In 2010, Time magazine named the suicide of 18-year old Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi one of its Top 10 crime stories of the year. The Religion Newswriters Association included Clementi’s death in its list of top 10 religion stories. And, although the tragic news about a teenager who killed himself after having been spied upon and outed as gay via webcam and Twitter didn’t crack the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press’s top 10 list, the story did capture my attention — and triggered an onslaught of tangled emotions, in part because my son had died by suicide two short years earlier.
So it was that when I was issued a press pass for a Washington, D.C/Reformation Project conference for advocates of LGBT inclusion in faith communities, I bypassed opportunities to interview recent newsmakers — Frank Schaefer, Allyson Robinson, David Gushee — and set my sights on Jane Clementi, Tyler’s mother.
I hoped to get answers to lingering questions about a suicide that — unlike nearly 40,000 others that year — broke through public apathy about one of the nation’s leading causes of death.
Was Tyler, like at least 90 percent of people who die by suicide, suffering from a mental illness? No, his mother said, but some of his writing has since led her to believe that he may have been experiencing “moments” of depression that weren’t visible in his outward behavior.
Where is she in her grief journey and in her feelings about the young man who aimed his camera on her unsuspecting son?
Clementi only began to emerge from the “fog” of grief earlier this year, she said, in part because of the warm embrace she received at last year’s inaugural Reformation Project conference.
“It was almost like being on a mountaintop again,” she said of the September 2013 event. “I was surrounded by so many kind, loving Christian people that actually saw things the way I did. It was a great encouragement to me.”
At the top of Clementi’s list of people who need to be forgiven for Tyler’s death is not his spying roommate, but like countless other suicide loss survivors it includes God, herself, and her deceased loved one.
There have been questions: How could God let this happen? How could I let this happen? How could my child do this?
“It was a terrible situation that Tyler found himself in, but this was not the answer,” she said.
His suicide led to a deeper level of dependence upon God, even if that dependence wasn’t always obvious to others, she said.
“I had God’s presence, but because I was very depressed and in great despair myself for a good part of [the grief] journey, many people of faith that were around me maybe thought I was not experiencing God’s presence in my life. But I felt it every day and I know I could not have come to this place without his presence.”
As to the young people who violated Tyler’s privacy, she says, “What does forgiveness really look like? Is it something I need to make publicly known, or is that between myself and my God? And does forgiveness mean there are no consequences? I think there are always consequences, and people need to know that there are consequences for wrong actions. . . . There are things we can’t take back and we can’t change. But we want to change for the future, for other people.”
And although journalists “took great liberties” in reporting the circumstances surrounding the suicide, the media avalanche did not initially penetrate Clementi’s fog. She has come to see it as a blessing, noting that it hastened the success of the “It Gets Better” LGBT video testimonial campaign and passage of anti-bullying legislation in New Jersey.
It also relieved her family of the burden of coming out, an act she says is as necessary for families as it is for individuals.
“When Tyler came out to me, I didn’t even know where to go. I obviously didn’t feel comfortable telling most of my friends within the faith community we were attending, because I didn’t tell anyone until after the media outed us, per se. But by them outing us, many people could approach me, and a community that had no gay people, all of a sudden I knew many people who had gay family members.”
Clementi has taken comfort in the knowledge that Tyler accepted Jesus as his savior, but regrets the fact that he was exposed, in church, to the message that it is not okay to be gay.
“We had great support from our church family that Tyler called home for 12 years. It was a loving community and yet there was a subtle message,” she said.
In addition to occasional overt teaching from the pulpit and in youth group, she says a silent message was communicated.
“There were no gay couples at our church. No family members spoke about gay members of their family. There were no children of gay families worshiping with us. There were no gay people in leadership at our church for sure, or participating openly in the music ministry or any other type of ministry at our church. I think that spoke volumes, because I was hearing that too. Otherwise, why wouldn’t I have spoken up when Tyler came out? I got that message. I didn’t want Tyler to be judged. Probably I didn’t want to be judged myself.”
The Clementis launched the Tyler Clementi Foundation to support vulnerable and LGBT youth and to create safe and inclusive spaces for them. “That means all social environments, which are not only in schools, homes, and in the cyber-world, but also within faith communities,” Clementi said.
She sees her activist role as a calling from God, even if some Christians question the veracity of that calling because of their conviction that the Bible condemns homosexuality.
Clementi still has people in her life with those convictions and says she won’t sever her relationships with them.
“They’re in a transforming process also and I think that you have to be open to that.”
Note: Resources for coping with suicide loss and for helping to prevent LGBT suicides are available through The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The Jed Foundation promotes emotional health and works to prevent suicide among college students.